Experimental work proves the novel is far from dead

Review of Tom McCarthy’s excellent Booker-nominated novel C from the Sunday Business Post.

Literary spats seldom make news headlines, but Gabriel Josipovici’s description of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan , Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie as ‘‘prep-school boys showing off “, pricked ears far beyond the closeted books world.

The former Weidenfeld professor of comparative literature at Oxford accused the modern English novel of lacking ambition and its most acclaimed proponents of harbouring ‘‘limited horizons’’.

If, as Josipovici claims, the modernist novel is mortally wounded, nobody seems to have told Tom McCarthy.

The London-born writer, artist and self-avowed avant-gardist has spent the past 15 years producing works of complexity and contradiction that – from his feted debut novel, Remainder, to his Dadaist-influenced International Necronautical Society art collective – often defy attempts at linear comprehension.

Spanning 24 years and over 300 pages, in many ways the Man Booker long listed C is McCarthy’s most ambitious project yet.

There are characters and a plot, but in other respects this is less a novel and more an experiment in fiction as a form that harks back to those high priests of modernism, Joyce and Beckett.

Serge Carrefax, C’s protagonist, is born in 1898 in Versoie, an estate and school for mute children in southern England. His father is the school’s principal and also a keen experimenter; Serge literally emerges into the static whirr of his father’s experimental wireless apparatus, tuned in to the electric hum of the new, invisible network.

Serge’s precocious older sister, Sophie, is the darling of the vibrant Versoie household.

Her aptitude for natural sciences lands her a place at Imperial College, but her early flowering passions soon give way to deeper, darker intrusions, leading to her death by cyanide after just two terms at university.

Framed against a backdrop of Marconi and Amundsen, the motorcar and the gramophone, our young (anti) hero begins a picaresque journey that owes as much to John Berger’s G, as it does to Thomas Pynchon, McCarthy’s closet stylistic reference point.

But where Berger’s titular G progresses from alienation to class consciousness, Serge is shiftless and impotent; wandering from London to Egypt, via the Great War, but finding fulfilment only with sex, drugs and death.

C is less a celebration of modernism than a forensic dissection of its failings, both as a literary movement and a great civilising project.

Shamans and quacks abound, while Carrefax senior’s faith in radio waves leads him to believe that they can exist across space and time: ‘‘We could pick up the words, the very vowels and syllables, spoken on the cross . . .”

Before our eyes, the early optimism of the 20th century gives way to dark, visceral forces.

McCarthy has said that C grew out of earlier research on Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, the discoverers of Tutankhamun, and Serge spends the final quarter of the book working undercover in a fevered Egypt on the brink of independence.

‘‘You’re our attaché for detachment – our deattaché ,” he is told on arrival in Alexandria, and by the end of the tour of duty his detachment is final.

A devotee of Jacques Derrida and Paul Virilo, McCarthy’s is an unabashedly literary oeuvre, but while post-modern flourishes abound, the writer nevertheless succeeds in weaving elements of disparate sub-genres – youthful sexual awakening; war drama; spy romp – into a compelling, if not easily comprehendible, whole.

By turns dazzling and disarming, Tom McCarthy has shown reports of the English novel’s demise to be premature.

C has scope, vision and execution; surely not even Gabriel Josipovici could complain if such a bold statement were to walk away with the Man Booker come October.