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, the title suggests its indebtedness to Pynchon’s V. and, quite possibly, John Berger’s G., two other novels with purloined letters in their titles and compulsive quests at the peripheries.
McCarthy’s novel opens with a birth and closes with a death, and the narrative thread appears at first to weave itself into a Bildungsroman detailing the growth and coming-to-maturity of its aristocratic protagonist, Serge Carrefax, during the early decades of the twentieth century. This appearance is misleading, because Serge has no self in the usual sense. Rather, he is that familiar figure in twentieth-century literature, the living statue, a void in human form like Musil’s man without qualities. “Their faces are neutral and impassive,” the narrator tells us about a group of women at a funeral, “like statues’ faces.” A particular blank look is characteristic of McCarthy’s dramatis personae, as if they were preoccupied with a problem they cannot articulate and mystified by their own need to solve it.
In C‘s opening pages, a doctor journeys to Versoie House, the Carrefax family estate, to deliver a baby who will be the novel’s central character. Upon arriving there, the doctor first notices a trellis strung with poisonberries and an exterior garden that is both maze and prison. A path
forks to the right and, after passing through a doorway in another wall, splits into a maze-pattern that unfolds across a lawn on whose far side stands another wall containing yet another doorway. Learmont [the doctor] strides across the lawn and steps through this third doorway, which deposits him onto the edge of the orchard he saw as he first arrived.
This maze abuts the ominously named Crypt Park. Any novelist who presents his reader with a maze and a crypt three pages from the beginning of his book has certainly laid his cards on the table. That maze and that crypt, like traveling metaphors, will accompany us all the way to the end. Serge’s parents are a couple of dotty aristocrats: a deaf, drug-addled mother and a Colonel Blimpish father incapable of finishing a sentence. Both have their obsessions, the mother with silks and opiates, the father with radio signals, deaf children, and masques. Serge’s older sister, Sophie, becomes a gifted teen biologist. Every character in C is preoccupied by something, and the novel, like a numbers opera, periodically stops for arias on arcane subjects.
These subjects, as it happens, nearly always have to do with structures, decoding, or systems of communication that will lead out of codes toward the unspeakable and thus the sacred. In McCarthy’s fictional universe, the what (of the statement) is typically deflected onto the how (the means of its transmission). We follow Serge through a near-death experience at age two to his later apprenticeship to his sister Sophie, with whom he shares a semi-erotic bond. She immerses herself in the sciences, for which she has a gift, while Serge dabbles in the arts, particularly painting. But everything he paints lacks depth: “He’s a steady brushman, and has a good feel for line and movement, but he can’t do perspective: everything he paints is flat.” Already Serge is proving to be a good would-be modernist: here, at an early stage, he has discarded the illusion of depth for the sake of two-dimensionality, a process that turns landscapes into maps overlaid with grids, and human beings into their surfaces.
The book’s (or Serge’s) insistence on flatness is, however, another one of its many red herrings, since it insists in its plot development on getting beneath the exterior of things to what lies dead or half-alive underneath. Still in their teens, both Serge and Sophie learn about cryptograms from their sinister mentor Widsun, who begins sleeping with Sophie and apparently (a key word) makes her pregnant. Driven to distraction, she is not the novel’s first instance of madness, or its last:
Right now, she’s looking straight ahead of her, but her eyes have emptied—or, rather, seem in the process of being filled from somewhere else…. She looks as though she were tuning into something—as though she had somehow turned herself into a receiver.
Three pages after saying about Widsun that “he’s secret; it’s all secret,” Sophie takes cyanide and dies. Her brother’s reaction to this trauma is instructive: he has no reaction, or at least not the standard acceptable humanist one; he does not grieve. Instead, he tries to get a transmission from her from out in the ether, falling into a referential mania of his own as he studies the estate whose “layout, too, seems to be withholding something—some figure or associative line inscribed beneath its flattened geometry….” Devoted fans of Thomas Pynchon will note the similarity here between McCarthy’s protagonist and The Crying of Lot 49‘s Oedipa Maas staring down at San Narciso, which, from above, gives off “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meanings, of an intent to communicate.”4
But in C, Serge experiences a massive bodily displacement at his sister’s funeral. Feeling no grief (“he knows he’s meant to—but it’s not there, and that’s that”), he dourly notes instead his own sexual arousal at the sight of the coffin and at the thought of “galactic emanations” that are “issuing from somewhere.”
From here on, C is as much a case study as a novel. And the template for the next one hundred pages is not an original one but that of Freud’s Wolf Man. Serge, the object of our attention, begins to experience constipation, a sensation of fur in front of his eyes, and a libido that is excited not by the usual stimuli but by death. A walking embodiment of Liebestod, he has become what he will remain for much of the novel, a ghoul, and is sent for therapy to a semicomic Eastern European spa in “Klodeˇbrady” where he takes the baths and drinks the waters, which (in one of McCarthy’s wittier formulations) don’t feel particularly wet. His therapist is the aptly named “Dr. Filip,” a clownish figure who makes pseudoscientific diagnostic pronouncements like “You have cachectic condition: encumbrances in bowel causing autointoxication.”
We know from McCarthy’s earlier nonfiction book, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, that he has long been absorbed by Freud’s From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (the Wolf Man) and by at least one psychoanalytic commentary on it, Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy. Like Serge Carrefax, Freud’s Wolf Man, Sergei Pankajev, grew up in a privileged family on an estate and was surrounded by servants. His sister, like Sophie Carrefax, was a gifted naturalist who later poisoned herself. Like Serge, Sergei felt no sorrow at her death and subsequently found himself “accompanied by a compulsive predilection for copulating with women from behind and having enemas administered to himself.”5
McCarthy’s commentary on Freud’s case study and the subsequent psychoanalytic literature on it suggests the novelist’s fascination with what he calls an elaborate set of con- nections “reactivated and perpetuated through…compulsive behavior.” Speaking of the Wolf Man, and paraphrasing Freud, McCarthy notes that the Wolf Man’s “whole life is like [a] desert…a field of almost abject repetition.” For Abraham and Torok, McCarthy says,
The trauma in Sergei’s past coupled with his failure to mourn his sister has opened up a space within him which is not his own, a chink through which “the stranger enters the ego, lodged there like a cyst.” Throughout their book they use a barrage of architectural metaphors to describe Sergei’s mind: enclaves, partition walls, barriers. At the heart of all this architecture…is a space of burial—but one whose inhabitant, not having been accorded proper burial rites, is neither properly dead nor properly alive.6
You can see in this particular formulation the entire blueprint for C. For the remainder of his novel, McCarthy will present us with the sentimental education of a zombie. Serge Carrefax, like the protagonist of McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, has suffered a trauma, engages in repetitive acts (or hires others to engage in them for him), and goes in search of the correct mortal ashen landscape in which he can properly die. In the second part of the novel (“Chute”), Carrefax becomes a World War I aviator; in the third part (“Crash”) a hedonistic drug-addicted postwar partygoer; and in the last part (“Call”) an archaeologist in Egypt. Death refuses him until he enters the appropriate underworld constructed as a bridal chamber.
1 Tom McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Counterpoint, 2008), p. 146. ↩
2 See his interview with Mark Alizart in The Believer (June 2008). ↩
3 Vladimir Nabokov, "Signs and Symbols," in Nabokov's Dozen (Avon Bard, 1973), p. 54. ↩
4 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Buccaneer Books, 1965), p. 24. ↩
5 McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, p. 77. ↩
6 McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, p. 79. ↩
Tom McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Counterpoint, 2008), p. 146. ↩
See his interview with Mark Alizart in The Believer (June 2008). ↩
Vladimir Nabokov, “Signs and Symbols,” in Nabokov’s Dozen (Avon Bard, 1973), p. 54. ↩
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (Buccaneer Books, 1965), p. 24. ↩
McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, p. 77. ↩
McCarthy, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, p. 79. ↩