"Mirages Are Real": Tom McCarthy's C
[Click HERE to skip the below ramblings and musings and just read my review of C for The L Magazine.]
As anyone who's spoken to me in the past few months surely already knows, C is a book that's catalyzed a bit of an obsession in me. It's a startling triumph of a novel, a punch in the gut. It was nearly impossible to condense my thoughts into the 500 words that made it to print, or even into the longer version that appears online.
I think it was the Time Out New York review that aptly compared the book to a Swiss lock, and the pieces keep falling into place well after the last page. The book and all its transmissions linger and haunt beyond the reading, frequencies bouncing around and triggering streams of association. It's funny: I'm finishing that Lost City of Z book now, and all over I catch traces of C (in the mentions of early Marconi-grams, Percy Fawcett's forays into spiritualism, and elsewhere), McCarthy's tropes and philosophies embroidering themselves onto my reading and observation of news articles and internet ephemera and radio broadcasts. In other words, this one stays with you.
There is so much I couldn't touch on in my allotted space, and I'll ramble on here since no one's stopping me. Lately, I've been thinking more about the twin themes of channeling and tunneling in the novel. Clearly, there's a whole lot of interesting convergent meaning between these words...
A medium is said to channel the spirit of a dead relative. In C, characters channel literary and historical ghosts constantly (Sophie channels Cleopatra; Serge channels Alexander Bell, Freud's Wolf Man, and others). There are radio channels as in distinct (but often overlapping, interfering) frequencies. There are channels that are the beds of rivers, ones that are essentially bridges of water between two seas. The word can mean conduit, trench, groove... You can make a request through "appropriate channels." As a verb, aside from the spiritualist use, it can mean "to cut" or "to guide." If you read the book (and, if it isn't abundantly clear already, I think you should!), you'll see why all these parallel resonances ring significantly.
And tunnels are everywhere in C. The crypts dug at the Versoie estate where Serge grows up, the trenches he observes from a plane in WWI (where soldiers essentially carve out their own graves), the "escape" burrows (used by Serge for onanistic purposes) at the P.O.W. camps, the catacombs he explores in Cairo, the "dummy chambers"...
Freud, as I point out in my review, is all over this book, and it's easy to see how the channeling and tunneling are attempts at overcoming the dual taboos of death and incest, respectively. The medium promises to channel a lost loved one in order to bridge this world with the next, to undo death. The radio frequencies carry signals beyond the limits of time and space, virtually eradicating death. Meanwhile, of course, digging manifests the futile longing to return to the womb, the Oedipal taboo. These twin taboos are even conflated in one pivotal scene, in which Serge has a hard-on during his sister's funeral.
Channeling and tunneling are both attempts to bridge divides, to seek refuge while retaining a view of the unknown, trying to peer past death. The Egyptians built entire complexes in the pharaonic tombs, with washing rooms and supplies, with the expectation that the dead rulers would be reborn as gods in the underworld afterlife. The tunnel was the bridge. Egyptology serves as a leitmotif and a metaphor for literature itself. The book is taken up with excavating meaning, and shows that we can't make the naïve mistake of thinking that meanings haven't already been dug up before—manipulated, altered, and contaminated. Art is never created in a vacuum, but C is something like a super-magnet or black hole, pulling in and absorbing influences, references, and associations (data? memory? codes?) from the breadth of human experience and technological history.
All this channeling and tunneling is assumed and overtaken by technology in the novel. The grooves (channels) in early shellac recordings transmit the voices of the dead (the original RCA ad with the dog—Nipper—had the phonograph attached to a coffin; it was playing the dead master's voice!). The tunneling is replaced by wireless networks threading invisible connections through the ether overhead instead of underground.
All this dot-connecting might sound like a stretch, but symbols are more than tools to McCarthy. The desperate search for meaning is as important (or, perhaps, even more important) than meaning itself. Towards the conclusion, someone tells Serge that "mirages are real." The light is truly perceived, just interpreted differently. This is getting far into Continental Philosophy territory, but I find this notion fascinating. If mirages are real, then so are metaphors, so are mirages as metaphors for fiction, so is fiction. If you've read any interviews with McCarthy, or one of his manifestos with the International Necronautical Society, he's not a huge proponent of realism, especially of the humanist, sentimental bent. And in a way, the idea is that art—collages, anti-narratives, daring deconstructions of the world and of life as we (mis)understand it—is more "real" than reality. Refractions are "truer" (if there is such a thing) than reflections, because we are, after all, material receivers. Stimuli get filtered through us—our experiences, our cultures, our various lenses. This argument against realism, or for the paradoxical realism of the unrealistic, brings to mind Burroughs's cut-up method or Bolaño's "infrarealism."
As I mentioned, the signals keep cutting channels into your consciousness well beyond the pages. Throughout the novel, Serge often murmurs cryptic asides, almost Shakespeareanly, to no one in particular—sometimes echoing plot points, sometimes foreshadowing. It's like a concatenation of codes, hinting at hidden meanings beneath the surface (again, tunneling). And just as Serge tunes in and is a coherer of stray signals, McCarthy channels layers of references, transmissions, and echoes from the entire span of literary history, from the Rosetta Stone and Greek mythology past Thomas Mann and up through the pylons of modernism—Joyce and Pynchon, Burroughs and Beckett.
Ultimately, I think C is about trauma. It could be (but thankfully isn't) called L for longing, loss, and love. It tackles the byzantine, riddled journey away from—but always returning back toward—traumatic loss. I talk about this in the review, but I excised (wisely, I think) a line that veered into the too-personal. I wrote that readers that can't relate to Serge and see him as a detached cipher "must have never felt true depression." He hasn't tuned out; he's in fact too acutely tuned in to the overwhelming waves of memory and mourning. C is about our desire to retrieve what we've lost and reach the ones we love.
Finally, a question for anyone who's read the book: What do you make of the trio of doctors that pop up at key moments in the novel (Learmont, Filip, and Martinov)?
Anyhow, if any of this piques your fancy (or if you've made it this far), perhaps you'll want to check out my review of C in the latest issue of The L Magazine.
[Having read this over, before reluctantly hitting "Publish", I am now shamefully aware of my inability to be clear and/or concise, and I want to extend my sincerest gratitude to Mark Asch, Nate Brown, and Nicole Bogatitus for helping me to rein in my fragmented and too-freely-flowing thoughts into comparatively digestible reviews. Thank you editors and friends.]