A bout of the flu having laid me low, I at last got to read Tom McCarthy’s C. Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, has called it ‘cool modernist’ in her Undercover column (Oct 9-10, 2010), but while I would agree with the temperature of it, I wonder about the supposed modernism.
C most put me in mind of early Peter Carey – the plethora of objects and processes – but without (and most definitely without) Carey’s tendency to tie lyrical bows at the end. More than anything else, C posits itself as anti-lyrical. When a fellow WWI operator shows the main character, Serge, his tenderly battered copy of A. E. Housman, which makes him ‘think of Shropshire hedgerows’, Serge quotes, provocatively, from the German poet Hölderlin; when his sister is being buried he is preoccupied with his erection and his bowels. Sexual excitement, perhaps predictably, is associated with deformity, danger and filth. There is a strong sense of pollution in the book – of cluttered air spaces and the rubbish and accumulated poisons of millennia. When his provost in London tries to sympathise with what he believes to be Serge’s difficulty in adjusting to civilian life, Serge replies: ‘But I liked the war.’ Serge doesn’t believe in ‘shell shock'. He sees the symptoms in many people, not just those who have been at the front. ‘No, the shock’s source was there already: deeper, older, more embedded…’
The very accumulation of unsentimental scientific detail, facts, objects, perhaps because it builds to this strong sense of pollution, the source of the shock that Serge sees in nearly everyone around him, almost reads as a parody of the kind of novel that I feared it might be – those novels in which you read about the origins of soap and glass, about obsessive (and thereby quaint) engineers or entomologists, about the history of a particular trade route – where the usual lyrically realist narrative is bolstered with so much exoticised information that the average reader, immune to the sentimentality, or rather secretly desiring it, is also able to say of the novel that it was absolutely fascinating.
And yet, is C modernist as some are claiming it to be? From the point of view of Josipovici’s conception of it in What Ever Happened to Modernism? which I also reread courtesy of the flu, I would say it is not. Quite apart from anything else, it’s the assuredness of the main character, Serge, and what turns out to be the predictability of his irrational moments and predilections – the whole elaborate, meticulously researched boy’s own product that it is – which makes me doubtful. The term ‘modernist’ must, to those writing newspaper copy, simply be a description of the level of a novel’s density (not an easy read) or perhaps the only term, now that post-modernism is out of vogue, for describing a novel that so sets itself against every pat lyrical ending, every supposedly beautifully written best seller that surrounds us by the thousands. McCarthy’s book doesn’t seem to me to be alive. This may, however, be his intention.