November 12, 2010
This book is too good for me and I think I’m okay with that. I’m going through a phase of admitting, even flaunting personal weakness, such that I can, with any luck, recognize patterns of things in myself that aren’t lame. To that effect, yeah, Tom McCarthy is probably a little bit more smarty pants than I am capable of internalizing, at least in terms of post-modernist literature that reads like a light delirium.
Still, it’s bound to make a person huffy at times, when they feel nose-thumbed at. I can at least use the excuse that I’ve never read Joyce’s Ulysses (many reviewers hold it up as a comparison point), that maybe I’m missing some vital key to the code because of that particular reading list omission. But that’s not going to cut it because I’ve read a lot of Nabokov, in particular Ada (also cited in multiple reviews), and there are striking tonal similarities. Like Nabokov in Ada, McCarthy builds in weird incestual innuendo and obscure technology.
You can spend some time searching for echoes of the book’s eponymous letter, C, to the point of missing the point*. Is the letter C the entire shooting match or a blasted red herring? And how far should we take C, beyond cocaine, caul, Cairo, carbon, Carrefax… What about the sibilant variant that the Latin letter can represent? Sssss… Sister (both Serge’s Sister Sophie and as a slang term for heroin), signal, silk, scarab. Or taking it further, the harder, Germanic sounds—K—while Serge is on the continent fighting/watching/getting turned on by WWI. Kloděbrady**, the eastern European farcical spa town where a teen Serge goes to see a quack doctor about a sort of fecal blockage (the dislodging of which seems to also send Europe off into its nationalistic-frenzy fighting). “Kennscht mi noch?”—”Do you recognize me now?”—taunts American GIs from the bottom of a Luftwaffe plane.
Serge spends his life trying to channel or untangle some of these hidden meanings and signals. Or maybe he’s just a channel himself, emotionally mute, something not alive unless current is running through it on its way somewhere else. He’s hopeless, spineless, oddly disassociated: his slightly disappointment at the Armistice devolves into debauched opiate abuse in rowdy, vapid London. Eventually he decamps to Egypt to help site radio towers, rattling around in the shards of a dying empire (the nation has just gained its independence). He never really finds what he’s looking for. It’s likely he wasn’t looking for anything.
I don’t exactly know what happened.
* Wait, what’s the point?
** O! Exclamation! I was cleaning up the diacriticals on this town name (about ready to post this), when I decided to Google for it (OK, I was actually trying to find an example of the letter ě, which, I’ll tell you now, is not common) . Turns out, in our version of reality, there actually is a town in the Czech Republic called Poděbrady. A spa town. In which they treat Cardiovascular problems with local Carbonic water. Near the town is a 150m high longwave transmitting tower. Yay! I solved one of the eight score hundred secrets of this book.
If you needed more proof that the British are a separate species from Americansus Notfond-of-readingus, here you go. It turns out that McCarthy’s novel was highly favored to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, which awards writers who reside in the Commonwealth. Such a favorite that:
The bookmaker’s spokesperson David Williams said £15,000-worth of bets were placed on C on Wednesday morning, completely outstripping all earlier betting on the prize, which had previously totalled just £10,000 since the announcement of the longlist in July.
– The Guardian, October 7, 2010
They had to shut shit down because so many people were madly betting on a literary prize.
The punchline is: McCarthy didn’t even win. The prize went to The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (which means I’ll have to read it, too, as I always try to read Booker winners).