Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tom McCarthy, _C_

MUCH ANNOYED BY the dismissive review of this in n+1, right on the heels of an issue which contained no fewer than four (!) gushily flattering pieces on Franzen's Freedom. When the reviewer, Amanda Claybaugh, was identified in the contributor notes as "professor of English at Harvard and the author of The Novel of Purpose," I suspected a necronautical prank in the vein of Nabokov's John Ray, Jr., but no--turns out Amanda Claybaugh and her book are quite real. Someone whose day job is explaining the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin seems like a peculiar choice to review McCarthy, it seems to me, but a writer can't get the kind of praise McCarthy has without a bit of backlash.

McCarthy seems to me one of the very best American fiction writers of his generation.  True, I recommended Remainder to about half a dozen people and only one of them liked it, and I assigned it to a class and none of them liked it, so I know most readers are immune to his charms.  But I think he will eventually do for American fiction what Ashbery did for American poetry, liberating it from what seemed obligatory assumptions.

The obligatory assumption I have in mind--I respectfully follow Zadie Smith here--is that of the psychological-realist novel, that we can take what a person says and does and with the right map, or the right code, discover or decipher the coherent interiority that produced that behavior. For the realist novel, as for psychoanalysis, the surface indicates the depths, if you have the map to the treasure room, if you have deciphered the message.  As Claybaugh notes, in signaling his interest in maps and codes to the secrets of his characters by his references to crypts (e. g., the treasure room of a pyramid) and encryption, McCarthy seems to allude to Abraham & Torok's famous reading of Freud's "Wolf Man" case history.

What irritated my students and all but one of my friends about the unnamed narrator in Remainder is that we never do arrive at what would pass as a "coherent interiority" for him. My students' highest praise for a novel is that one "cared about the characters," and to attempt to care about the narrator of Remainder is to smack against a blank wall.

So too with Serge Carrefax, the protagonist of C, whose circumstances are closely modeled on those of Freud's Wolf Man. He is covered in code, in signs and indications and allusions: the Wolf Man, Hans Castorp, the "Burial of the Dead" section of The Waste Land, British Great War memoirs, the London of the early novels of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, the North Africa of Paul Bowles. (I wonder if McCarthy had a list of elements [incest, insects, crypts, flight, narcotics, codes] and hit on some way of randomly creating new combinations, as Harry Mathews might have done in Cigarettes.) The patterns accumulate, thicken, entwine, always asymptotically approaching resolution, but never, ever reaching it. For many, this would mean McCarthy has reneged on the fiction writer's contract with his reader. I think he is renegotiating it, and in an extremely fruitful, exciting way.

Ashbery continuously brings the reader of his poetry to the challenge, "You may think that poetry depends on the coherent interiority of a presumed speaking subject, but it doesn't, really.  The poetry is every bit as much in this... and this... and this." McCarthy brings the challenge, "You may think the novel depends on the construction of believable coherent interiorities whose destinies you participate in vicariously, but it doesn't, really." Take away that illusion, and you nonetheless still can have the eerie verisimilitude, the vivid evocation of imagined experience, the sumptuous prose. The "novel" is as much in that everything else as it is in those coherent interiorities. At least when McCarthy is writing it, it is.

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