Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: Remainder and C, by Tom McCarthy

It’s so good to see that some people still believe that the novel can and should be taken in weird and original new directions. This has been Tom McCarthy’s reputation ever since he burst onto the scene with his 2005 book Remainder, which took seven years to find a mainstream publisher but has since been heralded as a masterpiece by the likes of Zadie Smith. His follow-up novel, C, was shortlisted for this past year’s Booker Prize but lost out to the far inferior tome The Finkler Question. (Read my review here.) Reading McCarthy’s books back to back helps one to see the overarching vision that this talented young writer brings to the page. While hardly original in its concept, it is the execution of that vision that makes McCarthy and his work worthy of notice.

If there’s one unifying force that brings both books together, it would have to be the idea of “static residue”. This term is mentioned only once in C but it encapsulates what these novels believe about consciousness and its relation to the human experience. McCarthy has gone on record to say that he has little interest in the Flaubertian notion of a fixed narrator ensconced in humanism’s “sentimental” view of the self and its relation to action. Indeed, both the unnamed narrator of Remainder and C’s protagonist Serge Carrefax have trouble processing at an emotional level what happens to them. They are interested only in the “residue” that experience leaves behind, and how it can be read differently, manipulated or, in some instances, outright hijacked.

This is Remainder’s M.O. right out of the gate. It tells the story of a 30-year-old man who, walking down the street one day, is nearly crushed to death by a mysterious object that falls out of the sky. Even the reader is kept in the dark about the details of this bizarre accident: as part of the narrator’s settlement with the giant corporation that nearly killed him, he’s not allowed to talk about what happened to him in any way – including in the form of the novel we are now reading. It’s a wonderful conceit that gets us around a seemingly ludicrous premise and launches us into the novel’s postmodern twists and turns. The narrator goes through a lengthy convalescence and comes out the other side to find a massive financial pay-out waiting for him, to the tune of 8.5 million pounds. The question then becomes: what on earth does he do with all this money?

One friend, named Catherine, suggests that he uses it to build schools in Africa. Another friend, named Greg, tells him that he should blow it all in a hedonistic romp of cocaine and hookers. But the narrator doesn’t buy in to this simple binary of altruism versus selfishness. He realizes that the accident has done something dreadful to his memories, to his sense of action and its authenticity (or lack thereof). He stews in a kind of Holden Caufield-esque contemplation of phoniness and how it permeates all of human experience. These nebulous thoughts come to a head when he attends a house party one night and, while in the bathroom, grows fixated on a crack he sees in the wall. To his eyes, this crack resembles exactly another crack, one in the wall of an apartment he once lived in. Only, he cannot fully remember living in that other apartment, living in it in a fixed time and place. He can remember other details of the apartment building – the old lady frying liver in an adjacent unit, the young people moving in and out of its hallways. But he is at a loss to situate himself in those experiences in a genuine way.

And thus, what he should do with his money comes on like a revelation: he is going to spend it to reenact that apartment building and everyone and everything in it, right down to the most minute detail. He hires a man named Naz, who is a kind of uber project manager, and together they find a location for the reenactment, hire contractors to build the apartment building, get actors to play the tenants, and coordinate their movements exact to the narrator’s memory of the space. The reenactment is (eventually) a raging success, and so becomes a kind of drug for our narrator. Soon he is interested in devising other, even more complicated reenactments. At first he sticks with another of his own experiences (a mishap while visiting a car repair shop) but then moves on to events that he didn’t even witness (a drive-by shooting in a local gang war) and then to events that are only hypothetical in nature (the robbing of a bank). By the time we get to this point, the reenactments have gotten so elaborate that they’ve lost their sense of the simulated. The bank robbery unfolds without the bank or its customers knowing that it’s a simulation, and thus the line between reenactment and reality becomes blurred to tragic results.

It’s tempting to see this degeneration of a comical simulacrum as a symbol for something else. In one sense, the narrator becomes a kind of perverted artist, growing more and more obsessed with the execution of his visions until he gets lost in the undulating folds of their complexity. But this could also be read as a commentary on the power of money and how it trumps all things in the end, including reason itself. But McCarthy is interested more in the gaps between what his characters experience, the vagueness of their sense of selves as they get lost in a lunatic’s labyrinth plans, than he is in making some overarching statement about life. Some of the book’s devices and themes come off as obvious, but what we’re left with in the end is something wholly entertaining and truly contained within the ludicrousness of its own vision. There is an unmistakable order and system to McCarthy’s madness in this novel, ones that go well beyond spotting the connective tissue of theme.

I can’t really say as much for C. If Remainder is build on an air-tight structure of repetition, then C is the opposite – looser, more expansive, its narrative purposes hidden beneath a flurry of seemingly disjointed epochs. The novel’s protagonist Serge is born in England in 1898 to a father who runs a school for the deaf and dabbles as an amateur inventor in the field of wireless communication. His mother is deaf and possibly a drug addict. His older sister, Sophie, is a brilliant scientist in her own right but gets embroiled in an affair with a friend of their father’s, and this leads to her committing suicide at age 17 in what looks like an accident involving cyanide. Serge is deeply traumatized but strangely unmoved by the death of his beloved sister, and the rest of the novel unfolds in a kind of emotional numbness. Serge serves as a pilot in the nascent RAF during World War I, returns to England after the war and takes up the study of architecture. He falls in with a crowd of cocaine-snorting hedonists during the Roaring `20s, and eventually takes up a position working in wireless communication in Egypt, though he may also be a spy for the British. C is like the inverse of a Dickensian bildungsroman: like David Copperfield, Serge is born with a caul, a literal vale over his eyes; but unlike David Copperfield, he is unable to find a richer meaning, a deeper emotional resonance to the experiences of his life as they unfold.

All that seems to matter in C is the residue that experience itself leaves behind. It acts as a kind of mysterious code embedded into seemingly random events – code that, because of his emotional lethargy, Serge cannot even bring himself to crack. Think of the trystero in Pyncheon’s The Crying of Lot 49, only without the intrigue that the systems and symbols could be eventually deciphered. There is no consistent thread of pure narrative that laces the first page of this book to the last, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: a lot of novels don’t have a unifying sense of story to hold it all together. Yet it seems, at least to this reader, that there aren’t enough clues or entryways build into the text to allow a reader into its deeper meanings. C is at times very engaging and extremely funny. But there are also lengthy stretches of turgid, unfocused prose to wade through. These moments of longueur could be forgiven, but only if there were a story to propel us forward or a character that is truly invested in what happens to him. C has neither, and so it’s easy to get lost in this novel’s many chambers and not really care that you’re lost. And in the end, I wanted to care.

Ultimately, what unites these two books is less than what separates them, and that’s probably a good thing. McCarthy is talented enough to hold multiple complex visions for his fiction in his head at once – and though it is at times hard to see how C is a natural extension on the accomplishments of Remainder, it doesn’t mean that the connections are not there. I look, for example, at other “postmodern” writers from Britain – David Mitchell or Will Self, for example – and can see the long tail of their vision over several books. And so I’ll watch Tom McCarthy as well, to see what pattern, if any, emerges in his future work.

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