It’s All Greek

Here is a short, unpublished review of Tom McCarthy‘s C:

It’s All Greek

How do we recombine the debris of literary history?

Inspired By: Cocteau’s Orphée in which dead poet broadcasts coded messages on living poet’s car radio, hence the author as listener-repeater; Background: Concept of the crypt (site of an encoded primal scene) linking Cocteau, Freud’s Wolf Man, invention of telephone, discovery of Tutankhamun and Nabokov’s Ada; Protagonist Modelled On: Alexander Bell, Maurice Blanchot, Howard Carter, Marinetti, Orpheus, Sergei Pankejeff, Georg Trakl; Obligatory Plot Summary: Born, fails to mourn dead teenage sister, treated for melancholia in central Europe, airborne radio operator during WWI, student in drug-fuelled 20s London, civil servant in spy-ridden Egypt, dies; Representative Sentence: “What he sees is darkness, but he sees it.”

The history of Tom McCarthy’s debut, Remainder, has almost achieved legendary status. It was first released on a tiny Parisian art press, having been spurned by all the major publishing houses in Britain, yet ended up making the cover of the New York Times, receiving the 2008 Believer Book Award and being lauded by Zadie Smith as “one of the great English novels of the past ten years”. Where do you go from there? Backwards, of course, like Dr. Learmont’s face that seems to multiply “down a telescoping corridor of memories” [77] or the archaeologists in Egypt — not to mention Serge with his predilection for coitus a tergo. McCarthy’s second novel, Men in Space, was mostly written before his first. His third — which is being touted as his big breakthrough — stems from Calling All Agents (2003), a fascinating essay that already contained all the keys to his book to come. Imagine a Bible concordance predating The Bible itself. In fact, C is CAA re-encrypted: a space in which the event that is true literature can take place.

With his first period piece, McCarthy goes back to the future (and Futurism) in order to rescue fiction from its current impasse. The timeline of this Bildungsroman is highly significant. It begins in 1898 — when Serge Carrefax is born to the “mechanical buzz” [10] of his father’s wireless radio experiments — and ends in 1922 — the year of The Waste Land and Ulysses — when he dies. The association between modern communications technology and modernism provides the backdrop to a redefinition of literature as transmission rather than self-expression.

Unsurprisingly for a novel revolving around incest — both literal and metaphorical — C contains numerous mises en abyme. There’s the tapestry of a staircase hanging above a staircase, or the school pageant (a nod to The Mousetrap in Hamlet) that dramatizes the Orphic theme underlying the entire work. The most apposite is Sophie’s “strange associative web” [71] that proliferates like a tumor and seems to harbor some dark secret within its intricate ramifications. McCarthy’s text also keeps generating new meanings, sometimes of its own volition, as words and ideas cross-fertilize in incestuous ways. Language, says Heidegger, speaks. Thus Sophie mutters beautiful schizophrenic gibberish as though she had “turned herself into a receiver” [75]. The Morse code clicks sometimes seem to be “speaking on their own” [67]. The deaf children are spoken through, their voices “ventriloquised” as if “piped in from somewhere else;” [4] their utterances resembling “a mispronounced version of something else, other sentences that are trying to worm their way up to the surface, make themselves heard” [79]. The headlong rush into modernity, away from the parodic pastoral setting, is paralleled by a return to the primitive magic of the oral tradition. The idea that something may even be lurking behind mere hearing is often hinted at. “[M]uffled signals” [83] are half-heard through wireless static (itself likened to “the sound of thought” [64]). Serge is haunted by “vague impressions of bodies hovering just beyond the threshold of the visible” [68] when riding “the dial’s far end” [83].

The protagonist teeters on the brink of some revelation that eludes him until he receives the ultimate, hallucinatory “call”. The reader can also break the code: incest is the encrypted primal scene of literature — the scene of our failed mourning for the works of the past. It’s all Greek, in the end.

[Picture: Tom McCarthy and Daniel Defoe, Bunhill Fields, London, August 2010. By Andrew Gallix.]