London, England’s Tom McCarthy is not the kind of writer who’s willing to leave any logistical detail to the reader’s imagination. Serge Carrefax, the hero of his sluggish new novel, C, is never just sitting at a desk—he has to be “seated four desks from the front of the row nearest the window,” even if neither the window nor the room will be mentioned again. One gets the sense that the main reason Serge grows up on a lavish English estate is so McCarthy can imagine—and then describe, ad nauseam—the precise location of its every lime tree and maze wall.
McCarthy’s debut, 2005’s Remainder, was hailed as a postmodern uppercut to the realist fiction tradition, but C, which was recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is itself a mild-mannered historical novel. Opening at the turn of the 20th century, we see the major events of young Serge’s life, from his sister’s suicide to his enrollment as a radio operator in World War I, to his brief stints as both cocaine addict and Egyptologist (these last two, sadly, not at the same time).
It’s a book full of ideas, or at least gestures toward ideas, but McCarthy’s storytelling toolkit is more empty than full. His sentences are unwieldy and haphazardly built—several sections are so choppy that reading them feels like getting elbowed repeatedly in the nose. He deeply understands symbolism (which makes sense, given his deep roots in the conceptual art world), but has no interest in more critical elements, like plot, say, or character. A scene where Serge uses a homemade remote control to expose a woman claiming to speak with the dead is the one time McCarthy is able to sustain narrative pleasure for more than a paragraph or two.
The rest of the time, we watch Serge as if from across a football field, learning zero in the way of his preferences, feelings, or motivations. He’s a bore. Whenever some pesky emotional confrontation rears its head, McCarthy cuts clean away—and usually to a few months into the future. About the only thing we know for sure about Serge is that he likes having sex with women from behind. (Extrapolating from this one detail is, suffice to say, not easy.)
It’s perhaps an unhappy coincidence that Serge’s other recurring interest is flatness, or a lack of perspective, in art, since this is exactly the kind of personality with which his author has imbued him. Flatness may work fine when it comes to paintings on Egyptian sarcophagi; it’s a much harder sell in the world of novels.
C is a testament to McCarthy’s skill as a researcher, but not much else.
Knopf Canada, 320 pp, $29.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 7, 2010)