Nick Cunard

Tom McCarthy at the London Review Bookshop, 2010

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.

Each one of these sections is written with the glittering brilliance afforded by a prose style from which all empathy has been vacuumed out. Trauma, having turned its victim into a powerful automaton, creates scene after scene of compulsive reenactments; as in the work of David Foster Wallace, addiction takes the place of choice, a category to which the hero has no access anyway. In these instances, an addict can solve the entire problem of being human by negating freedom and rendering it meaningless through his habit. The body, housing random sensations, transports the dazed mind from place to place as dictated by need. From its stomach comes “a child’s or woman’s scream,” but it cannot understand its own eruptions until it comes to the point of death, which is also a moment of final decoding and of a marriage. In the words of the critic Irving Massey, “Trauma, like art, develops at the point where imitation replaces action.”7

Thus, in the World War I scenes, we witness Serge Carrefax rather enjoying the spectacle of carnage, getting off on it and growing dependent upon it. The breakdown of the body into its corpse condition, guts and goo, serves a notable purpose for him: rot aptly removes the human memory and the “self,” along with the individual’s otherness with which Serge has no ability to interact and, in any case, no wish to intervene. He cannot bear to look at the faces of the many women with whom he has sex, for example. What he prefers to look at are the faces of the dead “frozen in a grotesque laughter bordering on the insane.” One character, mourning a fellow soldier’s death, notes that the disintegrating body has turned into carbon battery chemicals. “Why not?” Serge asks. “It’s what we are.”

As a consequence, while his sad-eyed fellow soldiers quote Housman mournfully, Serge finds himself elatedly memorizing Hölderlin’s “Patmos” instead. He himself, he thinks, is der Himmlische, the heavenly one described in the poem, calling down light from the skies in the form of death. Advancing incrementally from this state, Serge comes to his moments of climactic revelation while strafing German trenches. His excitement, psychic and sexual, provokes a kind of bleak comedy:

As they dip low to strafe the trenches on the way back, he feels the blood rush to his groin. He whips his belt off, leaps bolt upright and has barely got his trousers down before the seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine’s tail and falls in a fine thread towards the slit earth down below.

One thinks of Pynchon again—the death-seeded missile of Gravity’s Rainbow. All of Serge’s killings are for him “a quickening, a bringing to life.” At this juncture of C, the traditional reader cannot go on treating the book as the coming-of-age saga it initially appeared to be, because Serge, a living and breathing blankness, resists any identification, empathy, or even understanding invested in him. He has become successfully indecipherable. How does one study the trajectory of a robotic man brought intermittently to life only when killing others or injecting himself with morphine? The book’s gestures toward historical documentation are only that: gestures. We are not inside a historical novel but another kind: the novel of intellectual preoccupations.

The desire to engage in judgmental psychologizing is very strong when a naive reader is confronted by an opaque character like this one. When no psychological symptom has any stable antecedent or interpretation inherent in it, every subsequent interpretation bounces back off rather than penetrates the traumatized character. Serge’s disability is the housing around his secret; and his secret, as we saw when McCarthy quoted Derrida, is the art of the book in which he appears.8

The problem for readers who habitually practice empathy is that in a novel like C, there is no character onto whom one can safely direct it. This absence is what makes McCarthy’s work seem avant-garde to many readers. Empathy becomes contaminated by the heartlessness of the entire enterprise, a heartlessness that reflects the protagonist’s emptiness back on the reader and makes him an accessory to a series of crimes. To treat the novel as a satire would free the reader from this bind and is quite possible with McCarthy’s Remainder; but such a strategy seems misplaced given C’s tone of hip earnestness. All the novel’s solid surfaces deflect the reader’s efforts to identify with anybody. As a consequence, one’s attention moves away from the unreadable characters toward their preoccupations, which are entirely welcoming to the reader. In place of character, we have natural history, visual art and aesthetics, the history of radio, and many other topics. Detachment succeeds when empathy fails. Empathy within the novel, rigorously reflected back into the self’s narcissistic hall of mirrors, can then only go into the business of producing doubles, as Serge very quickly learns:

It’s as though…he duplicates himself and leaves a double behind as a marker. Or perhaps the other way round: he’s the double, his sensations and encounters as he wanders round the village and the fields no more than dummy ones, hallucinations given the air of veracity by contractual and linguistic strings.

Near the end of C’s second part, Carrefax’s fighter plane crashes and he is taken prisoner in Germany. In the prison camp, he listens to lectures on free will and Rudolf Steiner and manages to get his narcotic fix from Americans stationed in the same camp. Finally, after having escaped, Serge and another officer make their way through the countryside until they are discovered by a German infantry battalion and accused of espionage. Happy at the prospect of being shot, Serge feels “a familiar buzzing in his groin” and the descent of the transcendent peace that contemplating death brings to him, when “all times have fused into a now.” His ecstasy cannot last, however—at that very moment the news that the war has ended is brought to the German battalion, and the firing squad is halted. Denied the very thing he has craved, he is, of course, incensed: “Hey!” he calls after the Germans as they are walking away. “You can’t do that. Wait!”

Cheated of his own death, Carrefax travels to London after the war. This section is the weakest one of the novel and feels a bit perfunctory in design and incident. The author does not miss a chance, however, to pinpoint a correspondence in the smallest details: postwar dances, for example, have a style in which the dancers’ “upper bodies shak[e] like the pilots’ used to after flights.” Even the performing musicians remind him of machine parts. As on the battlefield, so in London: everything on the city’s surfaces seems encrypted and mechanical. Encountering those who wish to relieve him of shell shock, Carrefax resists their sympathy. “But I liked the war,” he says brightly. He grows fascinated with the city’s landscape, which seems another version of a battlefield and where even a kiss is a manifestation of “a slow desperation.”

With its scenes of phony séances and its almost-predictable disquisitions on the smell of death, this section of the novel is the only one in which McCarthy’s invention flags. Ensnared in this urban milieu, Carrefax’s behavior becomes more overtly suicidal, but after he wrecks a car he’s been driving, he’s robbed of his demise once again. The car has turned over on top of him, and he says hopefully, “My own crypt.” But no: he lives; he has been saved, rather to his dismay.

Which leaves him free to go to Alexandria in the novel’s last section, whose scenes are the equal in energetic erudition and sheer imaginative weirdness to the war scenes in the novel’s second part. Once again, Carrefax feels that he himself has become a decoy, his own double, “a dummy chamber, and a moving one at that, being slowly dragged across the surface of events.” He observes wearily that the movements of humans have “take[n] on a mechanical aspect.” And once again, he senses that the landscape through which he travels is synthetic. This time, however, as he gets closer to the secret he has been doing his best to discover, he finds himself in Egyptian burial chambers where one scientist tells him “the C is everywhere.” What is this particular C? Carbon: the basic element of life, the scientist tells him, although one is also free to think of the C by now as corpse. In one tomb, jazzed by his proximity to the crypt that unites death with the decoder, he has sex with a willing collaborator. Taking off his sock, he is “aware of a small tickling sensation on his ankle.”

This tickling, probably a bite of some kind, leads to infection, infection to fever, fever to hallucination. From here on, in staging Serge’s dying, the novel finally arrives at the moment it has been seeking all along: a wedding with a bride whose face, of course, is blank, in a kingdom decorated opulently with dead flowers. This death-kingdom is the only original one and embodies a negative, “in the strict photographic sense: a reversed template from which endless correct, right-way-round copies can be printed….”

Only in this section is the word “love” finally allowed to appear, negatively, as a blackness “in the texture of the air, which has a crinkled feel, like crêpe.” In its final pages, McCarthy’s prose really lets loose with an eloquence that does justice to the novel’s indebtedness to German Romanticism’s fervent hymns to death and to the night.

Death: McCarthy, in his role as polemicist and provocateur, serves as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, which he founded in 1999. Among the principles of the society are the following:

1. That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty—that is, beauty.

3. That we shall take it upon us, as our task, to bring death out into the world.9

This program of action sounds like George Bataille’s Death and Sensuality with an assist from The Boy’s Own Paper. And here we arrive at something slightly adolescent about McCarthy’s enthusiasm for the subject and for the way in which it is elaborated. His protagonists have the furious adolescent’s yearning for an early glam send-off. They also have the adolescent’s fixation on secret codes. This fix- ation plays into McCarthy’s strengths—for amassing large geeky quantities of data and for staging scenes of violence.

But then there are the absences that erudition cannot fill up. No one ever grows old in his books, no one is ever generous or kind, and the portrayal of women, to put the matter in the most tactful possible way, is not his strong suit. Other people being empty shells, love, as a subject, must be removed from the field of action. Physical bodies serve mostly as terrible embarrassments. Indeed, in his second novel, Men in Space (not published in the US10), there is a scene between a man and a woman who have eaten mushrooms and then have virtual sex with each other without touching. The resulting feeling is the best of the protagonist’s whole life.

McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, can be quite entertaining as long as the reader accepts that he is not meant to sympathize with the victims of the narrator’s obsession. To do so, or so McCarthy implies, would be like sympathizing with the workers on Henry Ford’s assembly line, stupidly doomed to repeat the same actions day after day because they need a paycheck. After all, there are losers and winners, and to the winners belong the stories. The narrator of Remainder has won a grand settlement after being hit in the head and suffering trauma, and with his great fortune in hand, he is free to do as he likes. The celebration of power and imperiousness is everywhere in McCarthy’s fiction, and its attention span cannot somehow include those who are disadvantaged by poverty or low social position.

The obsession with data and coding, furthermore, begins to feel like a stealth campaign to deflect the reader’s attention from matters about which the author cannot feign an interest. The piling-on of facts serves as a substitute for déclassé experiences such as love whose very presence would contaminate the text. Besides, the world is a great secret. The reader, thus sensitized to codes, arrives at the many misprints in the American edition of C (“oppinions,” “pronunications,” “whirring and clanking of a machine in the next room, laced which [sic] the higher, shriller sound of birdsong”) feeling as if the typos present a code themselves or that the author—bored, perhaps indifferent—hasn’t bothered to proofread his own book.

We often say of a novel that it gives off the breath of life. Tom McCarthy’s novels, particularly C, have another breath altogether. What he writes is literature, all right, and it’s brilliant, but it gives off the smell of the grave.

This Issue

November 25, 2010