Serge Carrefax, the protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s new novel C, has a problem with perspective. A Mr. Clair comes to his parents’ country estate to tutor him and his sister in painting, among a number of other subjects, but no matter what he does, he can’t get little Serge to draw in three dimensions: “His perceptual apparatuses refuse point-blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration. He sees things flat; he paints things flat.” Now this might mean that the boy is a budding modernist, painting little Léger figures and De Stijl landscapes. Or, it might mean that Serge, by talent and inclination, is more of a cartoonist than a painter.
Tom McCarthy’s novels, with their rigorous denial of psychological interiority and surfeit of learned quotation, themselves resemble exceptionally erudite cartoons. And, since McCarthy has devoted an entire, brilliant work of criticism to the argument that we should treat the Tintin books as classics of world literature (Tintin and the Secret of Literature), it’s tempting to imagine C as recast by Hergé:
We’re on a boat in the middle of the Nile, bound upstream for one of the Necropolises on the west bank. Time has not been kind to the boy adventurer or his friends. Tintin is pacing the decks, declaiming from Hölderin in German. He has augmented his usual plus fours and argyle socks with a leather jacket and aviator goggles, and he has track marks up and down his arms. Thomson and Thompson are flying about all over the place, positively buzzing from cocaine. Professor Calculus is standing in the prow, staring morosely at a glass jar of his own stool. Snowy is dead. His taxidermied corpse is with the baggage. Captain Haddock is at the wheel, as red-faced and world-weary as ever. He was an alcoholic before all this began, and he is an alcoholic still (Tintin and the Secret of the Death Drive, 250 ₣, Hardcover).
Tintin and Serge Carrefax share a certain basic blankness, but at some point the comparison collapses: it’s hard to imagine any amount of drugs or German poetry replacing Tintin’s ageless optimism with Serge’s relentless pursuit of death. Outwardly, C resembles a bildungsroman, beginning with its protagonist’s youth and continuing on through his education and young manhood, but it is not about growth, or education. The span of Serge’s life is bracketed by the transformations that gave rise to the verbal texture of the modern world: his birth in 1898 is accompanied by the sound of some of the first tests of wireless telegraphy (though Serge’s father, a radio enthusiast, gets beaten to the punch by Marconi), and his death in 1922 coincides with the publication of Ulysses and the high-water mark of literary modernism. In between, Serge has a number of adventures, a great many of which have recognizable analogues in history or literature. C is not a book which wears its inspirations lightly. Serge’s father is based on Alexander Graham Bell, and his sexual neuroses come from Freud’s classic case study of the Wolf Man. At various points, Serge reenacts the car crash from the “Futurist Manifesto,” gets taken around Alexandria by Cavafy, exults at the same lines of poetry as Heidegger, takes a cure at a sanatorium out of Magic Mountain and attends a séance with Madame Sosostris from The Waste Land.
An easy smidge of plot holds these episodes together. Serge grows up with his sister Sophie on their mother’s country estate. His sister commits suicide; Serge develops a powerful case of constipation and receives treatment at an Austro-Hungarian spa. During World War I he becomes an observer with the Royal Flying Corps and enhances his vision with cocaine and heroin. Back in London, he studies architecture and spends time with dancehall Amazons. Finally, Serge’s mentor sends him to Egypt. Once there, he buys some scarabs, visits some tombs, and dies.
The plot is sketchy by design, since its purpose is to serve as a vehicle for the novel’s driving obsessions with crypts, codes, and transmission. The whole book is crisscrossed with wires. On the first page, a coil of copper cable accompanies the doctor in the carriage on his way to Serge’s delivery. Serge and Sophie grow up next to their mother’s silk factory, surrounded by cocoons, threads, and looms. Serge takes up his father’s hobby from a young age, learning Morse code and listening for broadcasts of naval disasters from the attic. In the war, he uses the same skills to call in artillery attacks from the air. His sister Sophie is more partial to codes; Widsun, an enigmatic family friend, trains her in cryptography and code-breaking, to her great delight. She is also a prodigy in botany and zoology, and eventually she seems to become a receiver for encrypted messages from the natural world, messages like “…when the bodies…and more bodies come, the parts…a bug massacre in Badsack, Juno Archipelago,” which seem to predict the coming war even as they foretell her own death.
The connection between codes, broadcasts, and death is made explicit when, at Sophie’s funeral, Serge’s father installs a transmitter in her coffin and Serge imagines that he can detect signals from the beyond at the furthest end of the dial. Later, when he is setting up radio towers in Egypt, the pylons are made to rhyme with the pylons of Egyptian myth, the gateways to the underworld. And the underworld is never far off: Serge’s childhood home features a ‘Crypt Park’ (it’s next to the estate labyrinth), and after Sophie’s suicide, death becomes an obsession. Taken prisoner by the Germans, Serge is disappointed when the armistice prevents his execution. Contemplating a roll and slab of butter at the architecture students’ cafeteria, he sees “a burial mound, with gravestone on the side.”
C’s intellectual preoccupations can be fascinating, but they don’t always sit well together. The links it draws between radio, codes, and secrets suggest a new theory of literary modernism, calling to mind a literature that is party autonomic and partly scavenged, carried along subterranean avenues and fugitive broadcasts. His insistence on the omnipresence of hidden patterns enables McCarthy’s best prose, a kind of concentrated physical description which combines amoral detachment with the ecstatic possibilities of pure geometry. Here he is describing the mining of a trench as seen from the air:
Then, as though summoned upwards by this incantation, the earth rises towards him. At first it looks like a set of welts bubbling up across its surface; the welts grow into large domes with smooth convex roofs; the roofs, still rising upwards and expanding, start to crack, then break open completely; and through their ruptured crusts shoot long, straight jets of earth: huge, rushing geysers that look as though they’re being propelled upwards by nothing but their own force and volume, the dull brown matter defying both height and gravity through sheer self-will.
McCarthy steps on woozier ground when the question turns to sex and death. C assumes that the connection between the two is innate and absolute. Serge has sex for the first time with a crippled spa attendant who smells of sulfur and mold; in the act, she buries herself in the wet earth while Serge hears “a scream, or the echo of a scream, erupts from neither him nor Tania but, it seems, the night itself.” Later in Egypt, after many intervening sessions of coitus a tergo (the only kind the Wolf Man could bear), he hooks up with a lovely archaeologist in an underground tomb. During the act, which takes place in a chamber filled with bones, bitumen, mummy wrappings, and the discarded excreta of “a thousand couplings, a thousand deaths,” something bites Serge and a few days later, kills him.
All of this – the idea of a woman’s body as a tomb or instrument of anti-transcendence, the sex in tombs and on top of bones – struck me as dated and kitsch. The same goes for the death-lust that drives so much of the novel – Serge ejaculating into the sky after strafing Germans or contemplating the aesthetic delights of men being burnt alive. These moments read as avant-garde cliché, mannered quotations from the long history of literary bourgeois-baiting. For all his research, McCarthy writes as if the past century simply hadn’t happened, dropping the scandalous tropes of ninety years ago directly into his prim blocks of Neo-Victorian prose where they can no longer offend or surprise.
At its best, C feels like the continuation of an ongoing conversation with the literary past, in which the murmur of the previous fin-de-siècle comes through like static on the radio. But too often, McCarthy gets bogged down in the paradoxes of writing a historicist avant-garde novel. McCarthy has long been fascinated by repetition. This, with C’s themes of death and transmission, might be read as a way of dealing with an inability to overcome his artistic predecessors. If you can’t outdo, restage. C is at once an ingenious commentary on the work of his masters and a grim attempt to turn their innovations into a comfortably reproducible genre.
In the end, C is a strangely conservative book. Its vision of the early 20th Century is of a dark Arcadia, where all the boys are feckless and depressed, sex is a terrifying mystery, and even the menus come with coded messages. It may not be great literature, but it’d make a great comic book.