What is the secret of literature? Is there one? According to Tom McCarthy, whose new novel C hoards one secret after another, “the text creates the secret, and the secret underpins the text, making it readable through its own unreadability.”1 What does this mean? Just this: every work of literature should drop clues that will lead the reader to a central mystery that must remain—and this is the tricky part—mysterious. Imagine a detective novel with no crime and no solution but with the symptoms of criminality somehow appearing everywhere. Quoting Jacques Derrida approvingly, McCarthy holds up the possibility of a text that is “absolutely indecipherable.”
This idea is old news in French deconstructive theory, but many novelists on either side of the Atlantic have never gotten wind of it, much less put it into practice. As a consequence, McCarthy’s novels have provoked excitement among commentators who believe that his procedures are original with him and that his polemics constitute an avant-garde platform for the twenty-first century. His first novel, the widely reviewed and praised Remainder, is the first-person account of a trauma victim who hires people to act out the fragments of his own memories, repeatedly, day after day, to the point of mania. C, the novel under review, published five years later, was a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
As it happens, McCarthy’s novels practice a form of modernist revival and are mostly traditional, as he himself has acknowledged.2 His sentences present no syntactical difficulties whatever; he employs information-laden exposition, scenes, and dialogue; his plots move forward in time; and his characters have names, attributes, and identities of a sort. Nothing about his books is particularly challenging except for their hatred of liberal humanism and the way in which his characters prove to be absolutely unintelligible, particularly to themselves.
His novels contain quest narratives in which the moneyed protagonists do not exactly know what they are looking for but somehow manage to find it anyway. But to describe what this “it” is requires some digging. All his characters suffer from a variety of referential mania, to use a phrase from Nabokov’s 1948 story “Signs and Symbols,” whose demented suicidal character believes that “everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.”3 McCarthy’s latter-day heroes are lost inside clouds of seemingly encrypted information whose code they seek to crack. But if the world has turned into a system of secret codes, what has happened to the physical life of the body? This enigma lies at the heart of C, or, if not its heart, its crypt.
C‘s title points in the direction of a meaning that is not specific. The letter may refer to Serge Carrefax, its protagonist; cocaine, one of his addictions; the caul under which he is born, as was David Copperfield; communication, his central preoccupation; or “see” as an imperative. Other possibilities present themselves almost to infinity. Outside of the story proper …