The action of the Tom McCarthy's new novel, C, is realistic; causality is treated respectfully. I can imagine everything that happens in the book happening in real life—unlike, say, Kafka's A Country Doctor or Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. That does not mean there aren't fantastical elements. Near the end, for example, Serge declares that, indeed, mirages are real. Similarly, the Egyptian Book of the Dead comes to hallucinatory life.
McCarthy's language has the precision, the clarity, the rigor of a philosopher such as, say, the early Wittgentstein. The writer relies on an abundance of detail to adorn his canvas (unlike his previous effort, Remainder), steering away from the lyrical realism (aka psychological realism) that presents the inner states (the emotions and thoughts and attitudes) of the characters as as real as their actions and as significant as the world they inhabit. That is to say, character—especially that of Serge Carrefax, the protagonist—is pursued in depth and across a lifetime, while personality tends to get short shrift. This is not to say that Serge is a Romantic hero, the traditional form of novelistic character. He is a Modernist hero, one for whom "the world is too much with us."
The form of the novel is the picaresque, but it is epic in scope. It is less derivative than it is a conscious election of its forebears, its chosen tradition.
Its themes often overrun the narrative, but in the end unify it in a dense web of connections both overt and covert which trap the reader in mazes of signification.
The imagery is thick, the symbolism at times oppressive. But I was particularly by struck how, toward the end, McCarthy brings things together around the leitmotif of the beetle. Few modern novelists have mastered the art of the ending. Endings are harder, I believe, than beginnings—and every writer worth his salt I know of writes his openings time and time and time again; and, once he's finished, writes them yet over and over again and still never feels he's gotten them just right. One thinks, of course, of Thomas Pynchon and especially his inability to draw his masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, to a satisfactory close around Tyrone Slothrop. On this score, it seems no coincidence Pynchon penned such a heartfelt review in The New York Times of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, a novel whose symphonically magisterial closure is so beautiful it brings tears to one's eyes. McCarthy, in my opinion, nails the dismount.
On that score, I'll leave off with a couple of telling quotes from the near the end of McCarthy's novel:
"'Look at all these scarabs!' Serge exclaims excitedly. There must be twenty or more of them. Their shapes, sizes and patterns are as varied as those of the ones he came across in the museum or the market—on top of which there's a detail that he hasn't seen before: two or three have, carved into their underside, not images or patterns, but whole sequences of words.
'Secrets of the heart,' Laura, noticing him peering in bemusement at the hieroglyphic phrases. 'In New Kingdom burials, the deceased's unreported deeds, clandestine history and guilty conscience were confided to these things.'
'And that's what's written on them, to be printed out after his death?' he asks.
'It's more complex than that,' she answers. 'What's engraved on them are spells to censor these secrets, so they won't come out at judgement and weight down the heart. It had to weigh less than a feather, or the soul was doomed.'
'So the scarab withholds the vital information even as it records it? Even as it prints?'
'Exactly. They were often placed in the heart-cavity…'" (290-91)
"He kisses her neck; she wraps her hand around his head, and pulls it down across her shoulders. He starts taking off her clothes, then his. Peeling away his sock, he's aware of a small tickling sensation on his ankle. Then he's in her…" (297)[It's not clear here whether this is a beetle or a spider, but let's assume for coherence's sake (for Isis's sake, that is) that it's a blister beetle which some have argued caused several of the biblical Egyptian plagues.]
Serge develops a cyst (sister, again) where he's bitten. He's taken to a ship to return home and falls ill.
"When he falls properly asleep, he dreams of insects moving around a chessboard that may or may not be the sea. At times it seems more like a gridded carpet than a chessboard. The insects stagger about ponderously, stupidly, reacting with aggression towards other insects when these cross their paths: rearing up, waving their tentacles threateningly as antennae quire and contract, and so on. Despite the unintelligent, blind nature of the creatures' movement, there's a will at work behind them, calculating and announcing moves, dictating their trajectories across the board. The presence of this will gives the whole scene an air of ritual. …he falls straight back into a lucid dream, once more of insects—only this time, all the insects have combined into a single, giant one from whose perspective, and from within whose body, he surveys this new dream's landscape. In effect, he is the insect [emphasis in the original; Metamorphosis anyone?]. His gangly, mutinous limbs have grown into long feelers that jab and scrape at the air. What's more, the air presents back to these feelers surfaces with which contact is to be made, ones that solicit contact: plates, sockets, holes. As parts of him alight on and plug into these, space itself starts to jolt and crackle into action, and Serge finds himself connected to everywhere, to all imaginable places. Signals hurtle through the sky, through time, like particles or flecks of matter, visible and solid. Each of his feelers has now found its corresponding touch-point, and the overall shape formed by this coupling, its architecture, has become apparent: it's a giant, tentacular wireless set, an insect-radio mounted on a plinth or altar. Serge is the votary kneeling down before it, arms stretched out to touch it; he's also the set itself—he's both." (300-01)
UPDATE: One technical issue—the sort of issue some writers (namely me, natch) obsess over when deciding how to shape their work: C employs the present tense. Action happens now. Serge flies... Laura digs..., etc. The narrative follows the protagonist, Serge, from the moment of his birth to the moment of his proposed death in a close third person point of view. The problem for the writer is that Serge can not narrate his own birth from a present-tense point of view. Nor can he participate in detailing the circumstances of his death. It's the same problem faced by Biblical literalists who claim inter alia that Moses is the author of the first five books of the Old Testament. The Torah, or Pentateuch, narrates the details of Moses's death, thus rendering their claims of literalism facially absurd. In other words, the writer must leave the limits of close perspective he has chosen for himself in order to tell his story. It's a small detail, but one of those insider-baseball issues we writers worry over. It should not and does not detract from the essential power of the McCarthy's remarkable Ur-story novel, C.