Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tom McCarthy

This first novelist is unique among the writers I found for not having published during the 20th century. Tom McCarthy is a good introduction to fiction of the 21st century. There are three novels of his, and I've read C and Remainder. C, I thought, was the better book, and it led me on to Remainder, which I enjoyed less. He was also co-writer, along with director Johan Grimonprez, of the intriguing film Double Take. Check it out if reading's not your thing but still have some curiosity about McCarthy.

In Remainder, a young man has been involved in some sort of accident for which he is compensated with a very large cash settlement. We never learn the nature of the accident; his silence on the subject is part of the settlement. The trauma from the accident causes the hero to feel he has lost his sense of authenticity. He discovers that this authenticity can be recaptured and his sense of reality regained for a few moments in elaborately staged re-creations of otherwise trivial events and sensations from his memories. As the story progresses, he turns to increasingly violent re-creations from the stories in the news

C is the story of another young man, born to a land owner and radio wave tinkerer at the close of the 19th century. We follow the boy as he's educated and sent off to war in France to serve as an observer in the air corps. He develops a taste for cocaine and heroin and these determine his subsequent wanderings through the theatrical floating world of London in the 1920s. He kicks his habits finally and is recruited as spy to keep an eye on the installation of radio transmitting towers in Egypt.

I have to confess I've only given each of these books a single read, but they were strange and enthralling and I will get around to, sooner or later, giving at least C a second read. I've made a mental note to pick up his other novel, Men in Space, if I can my hands on it. Some of the first books I remember loving were those of Kurt Vonnegut. Tom McCarthy reminded me of those times, updated to a new century with a more acutely philosophical focus.

His work is rather challenging and is often puzzling. Here's a short excerpt from near the beginning of C.

Inside the garden are chrysanthemums, irises, tulips and anemones, all stacked and tumbling over one another on both sides of a path of uneven mosaic paving stones. Learmont follows the path towards a passageway formed by hedges and a roof of trellis strung with poisonberries and some kind of wiry, light-brown vine whose strands lead off to what look like stables. As he nears the passageway, he can hear a buzzing sound. He stops and listens. It seems to be coming from the stables: an intermittent, mechanical buzz. Learmont thinks of going in and asking the people operating the machinery for more directions, but, reasoning that it might be running on its own, decides instead to continue following the path. This 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 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. The large, lightly sloping gravel path he descended with Mr. Dean is now on the orchard's far side, half-hidden by the conifers; a smaller footpath, on which he's now standing, lies perpendicular to this, between the garden's outer wall and the orchard's lower edge. The children are still there, wrapped up in their mute pantomime. Learmont runs his eye beyond them: the rows of small, white-fruited trees give over to an unkempt lawn that, after sixty yards or so, turns into a field on which the odd sheep grazes. The field rises to a ridge; a telegraph line runs across this, then falls down the far side, away from view.

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