C is for Avant-Garde

(A Review, of sorts, of the first 64 pages of C, by Tom McCarthy)

I had an idea a while ago to re-enact Zadie Smith’s classic essay, Two Paths for the Novel, in which she compares and contrasts Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – the very modern antitheses of the conventional and the avant-garde. There turned out, however, to be an insuperable obstacle to my plan: I couldn’t get beyond 50 pages in either book.

The O’Neill was a rather dull tale about an everyman who liked to play cricket in New York City and became involved in a murder, told in an uninteresting style like every piece of contemporary literary fiction I’ve ever read. While the McCarthy was a rather dull tale about an everyman who’d been involved in an accident, told in an uninteresting style like every piece of contemporary literary fiction I’ve ever read. (Apparently there’s some cricket in it later too, but I didn’t get that far).

So I was confused: – what were these two paths for the novel, neither of which I felt inclined to go down?

Well, it seems the truth is that Tom McCarthy represents the avant-garde. This must be the case, since people are inclined to say this kind of thing about him, “the future of the avant-garde lies in the hands of artist and writer Tom McCarthy”. McCarthy himself however seems a little wary of being tagged with this label of avant-garde; – asked if he considered himself such, he replied in one interview, “One has to be careful how one uses these terms. “The avant-garde” describes a specific historical moment that belongs to the early part of the 20th century. [ed. No, it doesn’t]. Certainly in C there is a huge amount of that moment behind the writing; the avant-garde is definitely embedded in it. But at the same time I think it gets used as catch-all term now for something that isn’t retrograde, anything that’s not a kind of nostalgic, kitsch version of the 19th-century novel, which is what much of middlebrow fiction right now is.” – So yes, he’ll admit to being a bit avant-garde, but he wants to qualify it. Similarly, in the following quote: “The avant garde can’t be ignored, so to ignore it – as most humanist British novelists do – is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin. Then you’re just a creationist. It’s ostrich-like. It needs to be worked through – which is not the same thing as imitation;” – or similarly, “I think Britain turned its back on modernism and isn’t dealing with its legacy. You can’t ignore it. You can no more ignore Joyce than you can Darwin. If you ignore Darwin, you’re a creationist, and this is where I think the bulk of “commercial”, “middlebrow” or whatever you want to call the mainstream, British novel is now: back in the 19th century,” – or also, “The task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I’m not trying to be modernist, but to navigate the wreckage of that project.”

You have to “work through” the avant-garde, but not “imitate” it. – This may remind us of an idea we mentioned previously about Houllebecq and the nouveau roman: – Houllebecq despised the nouveau roman and claimed never to have managed to finish one in his life; somehow this is equated with him being “influenced” by it, and this very influence making him a good writer.

So perhaps it is with McCarthy: he has worked through modernism, to the extent that his own writing bears not the slightest trace of it. For reading the first 50 pages of Remainder and reading the first 64 pages of C, I would have to say there is little I’ve ever read that is more conventional, that is closer to an epitome of precisely that middlebrow literary fiction he claims to be “ostrich-like”. If McCarthy’s C reminds me of any three novelists in particular (and you’ll have to bear in mind that, through contempt, my knowledge of this middlebrow literary fiction is scant), it’s: Zadie Smith, for the wordplay and that general light comedy feel; Sebastian Faulks, for a very dull story set back in history sometime; and Ian McEwan, for all that contrived symbolism which is ever so artfully put together.

For not merely is C dull, which is enough of a literary crime; but it partakes of that kind of overwrought symbolism which seeks to bludgeon the reader over the head until he’s lying on the ground, his skull fractured and his brains seeping out. The learned Stuart Evers observes dryly in his review: “As one of many of the Cs that litter the book’s aims and concerns, “communication” – its limitations, problems and potential – is the most obvious.” – Yes, it would be hard not to notice it since every single line in the novel seems to refer to it – communication or (as is the way with these things), the failure of communication. Already, just as one instance of this bludgeoning, in the 64 pages I’ve read, there’s quite a few characters who mishear words other characters have said (not in a humorous way, you understand; not even particularly in the manner of Freudian slip, but just enough to make the point that communication isn’t also perfect even at the most simplistic level): – and I’d like to wager, without reading any further, that this happens at least once more in the course of the narrative.

Evers seems confused over the amount of research McCarthy has done. Research is, of course, a bad thing; the kind of thing only a conventional novelist would undertake: “It does not take McCarthy long, however, to upset the reader’s expectations [of conventional historical fiction]; there is to be no painstakingly researched birthing scene, no parental anguish.” – Yes, far be it from an avant-garde writer like McCarthy to research how people gave birth in the c19th [ed. through the anus, wasn’t it?]; though curiously Evers doesn’t discuss pages 25 to 34, in which McCarthy describes in detail current (or, as it happens, outdated) methods of silk production, all the way from moth to tapestry (it was around here I first began to imagine I’d lose the will to go on; – perhaps if I could have guessed the symbolism, eh, it would have seemed more interesting?). It even seems to be getting to Evers by the end who after all’s only set out to praise; – “ There are occasional longueurs,” he admits, “and the opening of the last section suffers from a rather formal lecture on Egyptian history and archaeology.” (What a pity I didn’t get that far!).

So why is McCarthy considered avant-garde? – Well, I have a theory about that too. I think he’s considered avant-garde, because he says he is (even though, as above, he doesn’t – at least, not necessarily); and I’d hazard this goes back to the kind of people he’s spend his time hanging around – i.e. artists, the type who inhabit the ICA: – conceptual artists, if you want a modifier. Here’s a good quote from McCarthy, which I think pretty much sums him up as a novelist: “[Ballard was a genius … [h]e doesn’t care about prose and texture of narrative. He’s almost a conceptual artist.” – So does the writer find his own quality in the master he admires. And that’s everything to me about McCarthy as a writer: he has all these ideas; he has all this philosophy (shallow or profound, as you take it); and yet he has no skill or understanding whatsoever how to render it into a decent novel.

Because he says he is: – and so the quote in the inside jacket is “reminiscent of Bolaño, Beckett and Pynchon”. – I’ll leave aside Pynchon, who I’ve not read enough of (though I recall he was entertaining, which McCarthy isn’t). Bolaño – well, I guess he’s just referenced because everyone likes to reference Bolaño in these times: – in what way his work is similar to those dislocated, excitable first-person narratives obsessed with the discovery of world poetry and the “scene” in Mexico City, I don’t know. – But, Beckett? – Please, can someone explain to me exactly in what way McCarthy is “reminiscent of Beckett”? You can tell me, for instance, John Banville is reminiscent of Beckett and I’d say, Ok, fair enough, I can see the similarities; but McCarthy? – there doesn’t seem to be one thing he has in common with him. – It is just a claim, with no empirical backing whatsoever; a reference, such as the references McCarthy litters his interviews with (check out the links below).

As a comparison, here’s the opening of C:

Dr Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Elirt, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap as it descends the lightly sloping path of Versoie House. He has sore buttocks: the seat’s hard and uncushioned. His companion, Mr Dean of Hudson and Dean Deliveries (Lydium and Environs Since 1868), doesn’t seem to feel any discomfort. His glazed eyes stare vaguely ahead; his leathery hands, reins woven through their fingers, hover just about the knees. The rattle of glass bottles and the fricative rasp of copper wire against more copper wire rise from the trap’s back and, mixing with the click and shuffle of the horse’s hooves on gravel, hang undisturbed about the still September air. Above the vehicle tall conifers rise straight and inert as columns. Higher, much further out, black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky.

And here’s the opening to Mercier and Camier (to be honest, one of my favourite pieces of writing):

The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time.

Physically it was fairly easy going, without seas or frontiers to be crossed, through regions untormented on the whole, if desolate in parts. Mercier and Camier did not remove from home, they had that great good fortune. They did not have to face, with greater or lesser success, outlandish ways, tongues, laws, skies, foods, in surroundings little resembling those to which first childhood, then boyhood, then manhood had inured them. The weather, though often inclement (but they knew no better), never exceeded the limits of the temperate, that is to say of what could still be borne, without danger if not without discomfort, by the average native fittingly clad and shod. With regard to money, if it did not run to first class transport or the palatial hotel, still there was enough to keep them going, to and fro, without recourse to alms. It may be said therefore that in this respect too they were fortunate, up to a point. They had to struggle, but less than many must, less perhaps than most of those who venture forth, driven by a need now clear and now obscure.

No, C isn’t for avant garde; – C is for Contrived, Convoluted – C is for Conventional.

(p.s. It was the long scene describing a “school-play” which did it for me: “Off to the side, Maureen and Frieda set up tea and coffee urns on trestle tables while their girls carry out plates laden with pyramids of cucumber and chopped-egg sandwiches” and so on for the 13 pages – yeah, this is your avant-garde!)

Just so you know where I’m coming from with this:

Some writers I’ve read this year whom I’d consider avant-garde: Wilson Harris, Mario de Andrade, Juan Carlos Onetti, Claude Simon, Andrei Bely, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Anna Kavan, Juan Benet, William Goyen

Some writers I’ve read this year who might be considered to share in some way in the avant-garde: Vladimir Nabokov, Antonio Tabucchi, Henri Lopes, Stendhal, Robert Musil, Alejo Carpentier (though not this book), Jose Donoso (though not this book), Boris Pilynak, Jerzy Pilch, Nikolai Gogol, Dorothy Richardson, George Moore, Mia Couto, Max Frisch, Vladmir Odoevsky, August Strindberg, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Walser, Lidia Jorge, Paolo Volponi, Bohumil Hrabal, Gyula Krudy

Quotes and references:

Zadie Smith, Two Paths for the Novel

Some interview

Another interview

The learned Evers reviews

More interviewing


42 thoughts on “C is for Avant-Garde

  1. Ubiqitous Reference

    The post you’re now reading is similar to – so: must have been ineradicably influenced by – the writing of that great Hispano-American writer Jorge Garcia Bolano.

  2. Funnily enough, before I delete it off my computer, there’s another part of one of those interview that goes:

    McCarthy: Yeah but it’s always a bit disingenuous isn’t it? Joyce said he never read any of Freud, which is nonsense – Nabokov too. They’re covering it up when clearly they’ve both read “The Wolfman” [Freud’s famous long-running case file]: they’re very indebted to that.

    The opposite argument: claims he wasn’t influenced by, but is similar to therefore was influenced by. (Although, to be honest, I think for Nabokov it was more a case of, despised everything about Freud – which at least implies a familiarity). Nabokov also claimed he’d never read Kafka, wrt Inviting to a Beheading; Freud himself claimed he’d never read any Schopenhauer and was amazed when he discovered the similarities; and Knut Hamsun claims he’d never read any Dostoevsky and it was only when he published his first novel Hunger and people started pointing out to him how similar he was to Dostoevsky that he became a fan.

  3. I found another interesting piece of what I take to be self-insight in this review by McCarthy of Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism? (a book whose ideas seem quite interesting perhaps). McCarthy says of Josipovici, as a criticism:

    Adopting the vocabulary of the middlebrow in order to legitimise the vanguard merely robs it of what animates it most.

  4. Hi,

    This is the best thing I’ve read about McCarthy. The guy’s obviously a fraud. But, clearly, not obviously enough for Zadie Smith and many others.

    C has had a number of not entirely rapturous reviews over recent months, but the above is the only one that looks closely, sceptically at McCarthy’s avant garde credentials. High time, I think, because McCarthy has been getting away with something pretty abominable for years. As is said above, he’s considered avant garde simply because he never shuts up about how he’s definitely, definitely not middlebrow, definitely not bourgeois, definitely not Victorian, definitely not part of a dismal English literary tradition. He’s emphatically European, emphatically a Modernist, emphatically, we understand (though he pretends to resist the term), avant garde.

    And some people (growing in number) believe him. People who aren’t exactly difficult to con, it has to be said. McCarthy talks often about how “the art world” is more open than the literary world to the sort of dangerous continental ideas he’s so fond of. He talks of openness; I prefer the word gullibility. Everyone knows that “the art world” (or those parts of it with which McCarthy identifies) has for a long time had difficulty seeing the difference between what is profound and what is bullshit. It doesn’t take much to persuade “the art world” that you’re a person of insight and intelligence – littering your speech with lofty abstractions culled from translations of forty year old works of French aesthetic theory generally does the trick. In the Jospovici review McCarthy writes – without explaining what he means – of Don Quixote “orchestrat(ing) a sense of disenchantment or erosion of the sacred”. This is classic McCarthy bombast. Also known as bullshit. Second-hand, gassy, incoherent. Is he really thinking here, or is he merely giving off the appearance of doing so?

    If McCarthy becomes successful enough, essays may be written about the extent to which his “learning” gets in the way of his “thinking”. I should like to read these essays; McCarthy’s failure as an artist is of an interesting sort. The only interesting thing about his books, you could argue, is how they fail. Thinking about how they fail is much more fun than reading them. Personally I think they fail because he, McCarthy, is more interested in hitching himself to a certain artistic/intellectual tradition than in thinking rigorously, sceptically, with all of his experience, about that tradition. The lack of rigour, of thought, of experience is what makes his prose so hollow in comparison to Beckett’s. McCarthy wants (no doubt for deep personal reasons about which I can’t possibly speculate further…) to be seen to be related to certain figures, big figures, avant garde giants; no more than this. He’s not interested, in his work, in arguing with, let alone abusing, let alone slaughtering his forebears (in this he differs from those forbears); he’s interested above all in being accepted into the family which they, together, comprise. He wants to be known to belong to the noblest possible (as far as the best-educated people are concerned) aesthetic bloodline. And you can’t get more bourgeois and middlebrow than that.

  5. Hi Degrus,

    [sorry, I employ extreme moderation on first comments here – since I get so few genuine ones – to filter out spam. You should have no problem with future comments].

    I seem to remember, when Remainder “came out”, having an exchange with those people on GU who like the avant-garde and continental philosophy and who were always going to like McCarthy whether he was good or not, in which I said roughly: “I’m not so sure about this McCarthy character: – I’m just a little suspicious of the pronouncements he’s so far come out with and the fact that he hangs around the ICA so much “; – but they told me I shouldn’t have such prejudices and should read his books instead and then make up my mind: – how could you, after all, judge a man simply by the things he says and the way he acts? – So I read his books, and it turned out they couldn’t have been better written to prove me right.

    McCarthy is a godsend, because he’s such a convenient litmus taste for literary judgement. All these people who’ve forever been going on about how bad “middlebrow” “literary” fiction is and how we should return to modernism / the avant-garde / the nouveau roman etc – it’s been all very well listening to them attacking what they dislike, but you were always waiting for that moment when a book came along (by an outsider) whose bandwagon they decided to leap upon. I’d like to thank Tom McCarthy for constructing that bandwagon.

    By an outsider – again, another thing that intrigues me about McCarthy – about his wish to “be accepted into the family …. [in]to the noblest possible .. aesthetic bloodline”. – We are all well aware by now that Remainder was rejected by many publishers and had to be published in the end by an art publisher Metronome Press before McCarthy’s genius was universally recognised. – It’s a nice story, but (as our sceptical post-modernists friends would say) merely a story for all that. Modernism has, I feel, encouraged this myth of the outsider, of the artist / thinker whose genius goes unnoticed in his own time – it exists for instance for Nietzsche, for Kafka, for Joyce. Geniuses seem always to have been recognised and duly acknowledged before. And so, if we examine these myths, they usually fall apart.

    Besides, who these days doesn’t have their manuscripts rejected? – It hardly marks him out. – Perhaps publishers genuinely thought his writings were no good; and perhaps they had some discernment there.

    Robbe-Grillet and characterisation: – perhaps, I was thinking, reading a few more interviews with McCarthy, he is more Robbe-Grillet than Beckett after all. (You see how easy it is to be taken in). He wants to eschew characterisation, he says, like Robbe-Grillet (whom he admires). – But does he eschew characterisation? – The reviews say that Serge is not a character, merely a cipher. Perhaps, perhaps: – he was still only about 5-10 when I gave up on the novel, so it’s hard to tell. But there was certainly characterisation in the novel, conventional techniques for eliciting it: Serge’s father is the archetypal scientist, with no feeling for human affairs (when his wife’s giving birth, he’s more interested in his experiment than anything the doctor has to say – in what way isn’t this – pretty cheap – characterisation); – his sister too is a character (older sister who teases him; precocious intellectual); his uncle (the bachelor, subversive to the culture of the household). He doesn’t eschew character at all. – And then what is there of Robbe-Grillet: – this book certainly doesn’t read like Robbe-Grillet; I don’t find myself puzzled, as with Grillet, about what’s going on and trying to get my mind round all these long abstract descriptions of things. It’s like these writers who influence him don’t influence him at all.

    The reviews – as for Remainder too – I find disconcerting. I read them and think: – maybe I should have pressed on a bit further; it really does sound like it gets better: – the stuff about the war, that sounds quite good and perhaps, you never know, perhaps there’ll be something avant-garde later on that I’m missing because I’ve stopped. Perhaps even he’s deliberately writing badly at the beginning, it’s deliberately been written this way (as a “kitsch version of c19th prose although c19th prose was never like that anyway”) to evoke a time before modernism, and gradually – as we slip towards 1922 – the style will become increasingly avant-garde. (This seemed to me actually quite a clever idea suddenly). – But then I got a grip on myself and realised it would probably just be the same all the way through.

    What is the characteristic of modernism – is it substance or style? – Because I guess when I think of modernism, I think of style more than substance – and I find myself wondering (an open question this) whether perhaps the reason I can’t see any modernism in this work – or any recognisable hint of modernist influence – is because it is only the substance – only what he is saying, what he is meaning by all this – that is modernist; – and not the form in any way. He “fails to express the inexpressible”, or at least “expresses his failure to express the inexpressible”, which apparently is the great achievement of the modernist writer – as if it wasn’t already the most cliched line in love poetry.

    And lastly, I read somewhere McCarthy saying the reviews of C had so far been either “ecstatic or excoriating”. Well, I’ve come across the former; but not really the latter. Scarlett Thomas in the FT is probably the worst I’ve read so far. Can anyone point me in the direction of any “excoriating” ones?

  6. “Perhaps they had some discernment there” – absolutely!

    Tom McCarthy loves to suggest that he divides the literary world – that its smartest members (who are in the minority) get him, but the vast majority of people there simply don’t have the intellectual training to understand what he’s up to and are in fact upset by his books. They’re offended and disturbed by what he stands for – so McCarthy claims.

    There’s an implication here that he’s somehow above criticism – that of course the people who don’t love and champion his novels don’t love and champion them, because these people’s aesthetic values (which are, we’re repeatedly told, “bourgeois”, “19th century”, “middlebrow”) are precisely those that his books deliberately do not embody. Yet, as I think you’re suggesting, McCarthy in the end fails to ensure that his books do not embody these particular values. His books end up embodying certain of the values that he himself professes to despise. HIs books are a bit of a mess, in short.

    Leo Robson’s review in the New Statesman is possibly among the “excoriating” ones that McCarthy’s so proud of:


    Robson is usually a pretty superficial reviewer, has an offputting lordly tone, doesn’t as a rule get down and dirty with the book under consideration – but he makes a decent point here about the absurdity of McCarthy’s public pronouncements. The rest is about how dull C is; sadly it doesn’t really go deeper into this observation and get to grips with what you might call the middlebrow underpinnings of McCarthy’s dullness. Makes the mistake of taking McCarthy at his word that he’s an avant gardist.

    Ben Jeffrey in the TLS makes a similar case – about McC’s dullness – better, I think:


    Some good bits here: “While there is much to pique the curiosity in McCarthy’s new novel, it remains a disappointingly miscellaneous whole, not quite in balance, or completely outwitting cliché.”

    The point about failing to outwit cliche is an important one. Tom McCarthy may well be full of new (up to a point) and exciting and challenging ideas – about the role of technology in human affairs, about death and the novel, about “materiality”, about whatever – but, for some reason, he can’t make his fiction as new and exciting as these ideas. Form and content are at odds. To put it crudely, at the moment he’s engaged in pouring new potions into time-honoured, more or less well-wrought receptacles. He hasn’t taken enough trouble to find or invent new receptacles, ones more suited to his potions, ones that can contain them better, perhaps ones that are a little less well wrought. To carry the metaphor a little further (probably to breaking point!), it’s enough that the potion itself gives off a whiff of the avant garde; don’t give too much thought to the receptacle.

    In this, McCarthy arguably resembles one of his great heroes, Ballard (maybe the only one of his heroes he does substantially resemble; or maybe for substantially resemble read “thoroughly rip off”). Ballard injected wacky continental-style ideas into not particularly modernistic literary forms. But Ballard somehow made this work, at least on occasion, and McCarthy doesn’t. Why? McCarthy maybe doesn’t “feel” his ideas as deeply as Ballard felt his; maybe McCarthy simply isn’t enough of a storyteller – witty enough, crafty enough – to make us want to read on.

    Apologies for the length of this post! Who knows, maybe the faithful readers (and writers) of the Guardian’s books pages may before long start thinking a little more critically about McCarthy…

  7. Sorry, not sure why it blocked you again – probably the multiple links. (Possibly I don’t need both previously moderated comment and multiple links as criteria for moderation?!).

  8. must be that people are actually reading mccarthy and thinking about him for themselves, rather than letting him, zadie smith and his personal friends (lee rourke, stuart evers, andrew gallix) do their thinking for them. great comment by the way!

  9. Hello

    An interesting review & discussion which crystallises a lot of the nebulous irk I’ve been feeling about McCarthy and this book. I don’t like when the writer’s pseudo-agenda features so prominently (see also David Shields), and, as you’ve amply demonstrated, when the agenda is essentially a hollow or meaningless one. It’s a very interesting point degrus makes about wanting to belong, not destroy. In that sense of course winning the Booker would be wonderful for McCarthy: he could parlay such an outcome into both acceptance *and* subversion, depending on the audience or the needs of the moment.

    I’ll give him credit, he *seems* to be trying something…it’s just that he’s obviously failing, and talking such drivel about it while he’s at it. Here’s another pretty critical review (thought I may as well pack all those moderation criteria in at once): http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/0904/1224278158113.html

    Battersby is a funny one, it’s hard to know what she’ll like or not, I was actually surprised to see her slate this.

    As a final point, I get why you include Rourke in that “list of shame”, and his contributions on the GU Books threads used to pain me mightily for many of the reasons already mentioned. However I’ve decided to give his book a go, if only because I can get it for 7 quid in paperback (rather then the 20+ Cape want for McCarthy’s opus). Plus a couple of decent blog reviews by punters with good track records have convinced me. I may live to regret it.

  10. hi leroyhunter – yeah, maybe the most annoying thing for me about mccarthy is that i would really love to see a subversive, philosophically literate, crazy-idea-generating novelist come along and shake up english letters. i’d really like to see someone shake things up in the way mccarthy tells us, incessantly, that he’s shaking things up. but mccarthy is not that novelist. he promises us a revolution but, as you say, he gives us… drivel.

    and something else: on a personal level, it’s hard not to take issue with the man. a couple of the reviewers of c – i think battersby may be one – have i reckon been rubbed up the wrong way by mccarthy’s daft pronouncements in recent interviews and articles. he’s not without more than a fair share of self-confidence. he seems not to open his mouth these days without comparing himself to shakespeare, to joyce. there’s a funny bit in his guardian review of the josipovici modernism book in which he makes the point that ulysses was first published by a small parisian press and sold only a handful of copies on its initial print run. just like that interesting little book of a few years ago called remainder, then! i can’t imagine anyone else on the current booker shortlist being so audaciously self-glorifying in print. he’s asking for trouble, basically.

    i’ve read bits of the canal, which i tried to do with an open mind. very difficult! from what i read of it, i didn’t see much evidence of craft; i felt in fact that rourke wasn’t always in control of his language – a few too many cliches, and not cliches given a knowing, ironic, beckettian kind of flip. just cliches. the dialogue wasn’t altogether bad, though. and i understand the story has a cumulative power.

  11. hi leroyhunter

    rather then the 20+ Cape want for McCarthy’s opus

    I must admit, I didn’t pay £20. I came across an uncorrected proof copy in a local charity shop and paid £1 for it. I still feel faintly ripped-off. (Ironically, considering the comparison drawn, I also picked up at the same time an uncorrected proof of Bolaño’s Amulet, which I’ve almost finished and enjoyed a lot more – and a lot more than The Savage Detectives, which I’m still stuck in the middle of).

    I like Rourke as Rourke, more so than those who may or may not be associated with him – he has a pleasant manner, is a gentleman etc. I do, like Degrus, have my reservations however about whether his book is likely to be any good. I’ve read a fair bit of his prose floating about the internet. (My local library has a copy, so maybe – although it says it’s “in transit”, which tends in my experience to be a euphemism for “stolen”).

    Ooo, that Irish Times review is quite harsh:

    unoriginal historical yarn … appears determined to be anti-conventional while being just that … never lives up to its many pretentions … unlikely to simmer with the crazed fire of a Bolaño … closer to John Irving or William Boyd than to anything penned by Beckett … McCarthy may well be cutting edge – so cutting edge he has deliberately written a dated book that may well have been left in a drawer somewhere for the past 50 years … mildly amusing dialogue, often based on misunderstandings from comments being misheard – rather too obvious a device in a narrative featuring deafness and emerging communication … never adds up to the sum of its many musings.

    I had to check the date of my own review, to make sure I hadn’t just copied it!!!

    I also wonder how it will be played if he wins the Booker. By all accounts, he is favourite. In what better way can a work be canonised “middlebrow”? Can he really continue to spin the “avant-garde experiment mysteriously wins Booker” line? – Right, I’m going to read some Robbe-Grillet now, to make myself feel better. This is what I am driven to.

  12. The best bit of that review was the comparisons to Irving and Boyd, which have to sting a man capable of the self-comparisons degrus quotes. I’d love to know: who made that reference to “Pynchon, Bolano, Beckett” you mentioned? Not – it couldn’t be – the author himself, surely?

    The fact that he’s favourite essentially means he’s the new David Mitchell, I suppose. Although I’d love to some day get an inside track on how exactly bookies (clever people, one assumes) determine the odds for book prizes.

    By the way your reference to The Savage Detectives doesn’t help the gloom I feel every time I see it on the shelf: I think it may well be destined to go unread. I’m much more keen to tackle 2666, if only it wasn’t so bloody big.

    degrus – if someone did come along who had the impact you describe – how would we know? And if by some odd chance they were swept up in the Booker net – would that even be desirable? Seems to me you’re trapped by the choice of judges as much as anything else. and their oft-quoted trembling in the face of “the perceived Booker book” which they must deliver year on year as a winner.

  13. I’m not sure about the P-B-B comparison: – Bolaño would suggest to me marketing input; but then the Beckett suggests T McC himself. (Beckett could also be marketing dept, since it’s true enough, I’ll buy most books which reference Beckett).

    Oddly enough, the first part of The Savage Detectives you can take as a satire upon just the kind of people degrus identifies “(lee rourke, stuart evers, andrew gallix)”, people who think they’re poets and involved in something profound. But I found it got a bit tedious after a bit. His shorter novels have so far proved better, particularly By Night in Chile.

  14. McCarthy seems to inhabit the same role that Peter Greenaway did for those of us who make performances from the starting point of visual art rather than a script.

    You’re glad someone’s doing it but on reflection what they are doing is rather irritating and , in Greenaway’s case rather pompous and over-cooked ( early stuff pre-Draughtsman’s Contract of his was good but bigger budgets have only encouraged his excesses ). For the Late Review crowd he fulfills the need for a visual weirdo much as Brian eno fills the muso doing strange noises niche.

  15. Sorry, Ed, another man caught up in the spam filter.

    I don’t know though: the thing is, film does contain a fair amount of visual art in a way that a novel really doesn’t. I’m quite happy to stare for two hours at a Greenaway film, because it is a pleasing thing just to gaze at. Film as pictorial art is fine by me.

    McCarthy, on the other hand, doesn’t possess the technical skill, in my opinion. – This is why I seem him leaning on conceptual art: – that it is more about the idea (or ideas) rather than the execution.

  16. Never having read McCarthy I’m at an obvious disadvantage here but was just wondering whether he’s one of those artists you sort of defend on principle without actually liking what he did. Obviously not.

  17. Some people do. – I find it difficult to envisage myself ever defending a writer’s work even though I didn’t personally like it. Me liking it is, in my opinion, the main criterion an artistic work should strive for.

  18. With Greenaway it was more that I like the area he works in, the references, the balance between the visual elements and the story but when push comes to shove I just don’t like the slide into chic opera production values or the abandonment of a sense of humour replaced with extraordinary sense of self-importance. .

  19. Hmm, looking through his filmography, it seems I haven’t actually seen a Peter Greenaway film since The Baby of Mâcon in 1993, which I remember rather enjoying. (I was wondering whether I’d seen 8 1/2 Women but it seems I was mixing it up in my mind with François Ozon’s 8 Women. – To be honest, I couldn’t imagine Greenaway had directed it: – it would have been something of a change of direction).

    I really must getting round to watching some more.

  20. I know: they get in quite a few references there between them, don’t they!! – I was thinking of commenting, but I didn’t know where to start. I liked the following:

    LR: But is this refusal to respect that order a cultural refusal or a political refusal?

    TMcC: It’s a politics of culture.

    OK, that’s pretty clear then.

    Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading takes much the same line re avant-gardeness as me, though he is more positive about the book overall.

  21. Poor old Rourke – he’s getting a bit of a battering on that Not the Booker blog!

    It’s out on loan at my local library, but as soon as it’s back I shall go down there and read it for myself. Perhaps I’ll read Tony O’Neill’s Digging the Vein too, which I’ve got somewhere, and call it – along with McCarthy – a series on this exciting new generation of writers who are taking the … etc. etc.

  22. True. There are 2 issues: the quality of the book (not great, having read it) and the allegedly soft review from Jordison. I think a number of commenters are getting the 2 entangled when they don’t necessairly have to be. Then of course you add in the simmering problem (same as last year) of Twitter / Facebook driven “campaigning” by authors and the whole thing has turned into one of the biggest messes imaginable.

    Poor Rourke: I like him less now that I know him more. His book is a valiant effort, has some nice writing in it, but a lot of clunk and imitation as well. It’s not what you’d expect from someone throwing the comments & references around that he has done. “The new Joyce”, indeed (although that says more about the fool who came out with the blurb then Rourke).

  23. It’s not what you’d expect from someone throwing the comments & references around that he has done.

    No, but then neither would you of McCarthy.

    I started and then skimmed the linked article: I found it difficult to read. McCarthy has some moves doesn’t he: invites the interviewer onto his bed and then regales her with an interpretation of Story of an Eye.

    It does surprise me a little how many “recommends” mastershake has been getting. It seems to imply a large loitering readership who agree entirely with his stance but don’t themselves want to become involved.

    Now Ladbrokes suspend bets on the 2010 Booker prize after a massive gamble on Tom McCarthy.

    Hmm, probably one of his friends I guess, trying to drum up sales. (Or possibly he thought it was Cormac McCarthy).

    More in the Independent.

  24. The NTBooker thing has become a complete mess; the twin poles of Ben Meyers and mastershake leave little room for those who just want to say that the book is nothing special and that the process is flawed.

  25. It was always flawed in its construction. They should take a leaf from the Obooki Prize’s rules:

    a) I decide who is considered
    b) I read all the books
    c) I decide who the winner is

    So far this year, there has been relatively little disagreement or controversy.

  26. Those are sterling rules.

    That aside, I popped by just to note that my irritation for McCarthy is now shading into hatred. “People have said it[C]’s an anti-novel. Well then Ulysses is TEN TIMES an anti-novel, and Don Quixote…”

    Please, someone make it stop!

  27. Was this on The Review Show, by any chance (about 37 minutes in)? – It amused me when the by now completely batty Germaine Greer savaged it:

    John Mullan (on, is it an experimental novel): “Um, no. I don’t think so … He’s a terrific PR person … I rather disliked all his pronouncements and manifesto statements at the cost of everyone else’s novels, about how wonderful and interesting and modernist his novel … actually it has some quite conventional things about it … Ulysses, as he said, my goodness – I mean, Ulysses is way-out compared to this”

    Rosie Boycott: “I thought it was the most lacking in emotion and feeling of a book I think I’ve ever read, and in that sense I think it failed completely as a novel … this could have just been reading a catalogue”

    GG: “We have a very laborious theme of networks … he knows nothing about leeches etc etc”

  28. I liked Remainder. I thought it was sagging maybe 3/4 of the way through – the cats falling off the roof just right, him running down the stairs into the maid just right, the actors slowly burning out – , but the sentences weren’t intolerably mundane, and I “sentimentally” wanted to know where the perpetrator ended up telling us the story from. I did not think the thing was that “experimental” – if McCarthy thinks his ideas about sentences, narrative, representation, and so on are especially daring or even unusual then he might consider getting out of the house more often. Or googling “tao lin’.


    I’d missed that conversation between Rourke and McCarthy. At its end, they’re talking about the Blanchot Orpheus interpretation, and McCarthy is talking about how relevant to all of “literature” he thinks Blanchot’s perspective on the myth is:

    “[W]hat literature is[:] It’s not about representing the world, it’s not about criticising the world even. It’s about surrendering to a vertigo that can never be mastered, to an abyss that can never be commanded, or excavated or filled in.”

    Here’s what gets me about this thrilled talk about the “abyss”. Why should readers have – why does McCarthy have – , as a priority, a sense of this unmasterable abyss? What’s gained by not being a “sentimental humanist”? McCarthy might answer, ‘reality, a sense of or intimacy with what defies personal desire or need or even skepticism.’

    But why privilege the “abyss”?? There’s no difference, from the abyssal point of view – if the “abyss” is really an abyss – , between being right and being wrong about reality.

    You see what I mean? – if one is really committed to the reality of the “abyss”, one would shrug at it – it wouldn’t be a motive for or target of one’s aesthetic effects. The fact that McCarthy is thrilled by having a notion of the “abyss”, by being able to choose this sensitivity as an artistic norm, is “sentimental”. He wants to be some brave, lonely opponent of “sentimental humanism” – but that interest makes him – a “sentimental humanist”. – and his devoted readers, who also congratulate themselves for getting his cool detachment from “sentimentality”: also credulously “sentimental humanists”.

    I like Ulysses partly for the crossword-puzzle game of it – why not have that kind of fun? But I love the parts of it I love because it’s successfully “sentimentally human”. And human feeling and intellect are nothing in relation to indifferent reality, are themselves abyssal? Maybe (I think: not; “human” is unacceptably small, not nothing), but really being committed to that view of “humanity” would compel one to be indifferent to whether or not oneself or anyone else were committed to the “abyss” or not.

    McCarthy wants credit for being a lotus-eater. You see why he doesn’t ‘deserve’ it?

  29. Yes, it’s a pity McCarthy didn’t concentrate more on the part of the myth where Orpheus manages to delight and emotionally affect Pluto so much by the beauty of his music that he gives him the opportunity to lead Eurydice out of the Underworld.

    I interpret this as: the artist first must work long and hard at cultivating his craft until it reaches such a pitch that by its very genius it can sentimentally affect people into putting aside the laws of life and death, before he is ever given the chance to bring back (or fail to bring back) to the light, from the dark, that which he most desires.

    Ah, so much interpretation in what is basically a fertility rite!

  30. That was the one. Thankfully (having been excluded from most of the discussions by the useless anchor) Mullan got to dish it out on C, as you note, and Greer’s disdain was amusing. She is totally bats, though.

  31. I finished C, though I did skip quite a few passages. The first 80-odd pages were pretty awful, so heavily loaded with self-conscious symbolism the narrative was crippled. Once Serge becomes an adult and is treated as an individual (and not in relation to his family) the book picks up a bit. I thought the RFC stuff was close to Faulksesque, with a (horribly banal) paragraph about tunnelling which brought back some bad memories (or is it a Faulks piss-take? With this kind of book the author covers his arse in all directions – any crap bits he can claim are ironic, or parodic). Thereafter it became a bit directionless (perhaps that was the point). Upper-class drugtaking, a Houdini-style exposure of spiritualism, Egyptology – a ragbag of 1920s themes which to me seemed thrown together quite randomly. Some of the more technologically focused writing is sort of impressive (I suppose), but McCarthy’s lack of interest (or lack of skill?) in the bread and butter narrative work is clear. Those mishearings and the frequent repetitions of the C motif grated very quickly, though I’m sure they will be a useful 2 marks for future A level students. ‘Cutting-edge’, ‘need-to-know basis’, ‘track-marks’, ‘Are you okay?’ – aren’t these anachronisms? I don’t know.

    The section I enjoyed most was set in the sanitarium, which (apart from the absurd ending) could have been a WS Maugham pastiche. Perhaps that just reflects my middlebrow tastes.

    I agree with you that C isn’t avant-garde, or ground-breaking in any way. Straightforwardly chronological, episodic, full of stock characters (eccentric parent, well-connected family friend, dizzy chorus girl), it’s as conventional a novel as I’ve read. The superstructure erected on the story is so gross, so evidently worked-up that it’s positively alienating. Perhaps that’s the point.

  32. What? – you skipped passages? – I didn’t know you could do that. – Glad you enjoyed it anyway, after my glowing recommendation.

    I wonder if they’d be prepared to change the publicity quote from, “Beckett, Bolano and Pynchon” to “Faulks, Maugham and Byatt”. Probably sell more copies.

  33. The only other book I’ve failed to complete recently is Anatole France’s Thais. – Normally he’s a highly readable writer (if nothing else), but this one became too didactic – seeming to develop into a sort of Plato’s Symposium-type affair (not good if you’re not Plato). – As I may have mentioned before, in general I feel novelists should keep away from philosophy in their books – they rarely have that much that’s important to say, and merely become tedious. (Though I’ll admit, a lot of other – more professional booksbloggers – seem to think a novelist’s philosophy is somewhat the point).

  34. Ah, it’s just the subject that is interesting.

    Someone at work was describing a weird film he’d seen whose title he couldn’t remember and was explaining to me about this man looking after cats on a roof and the cats kept falling off (“but cats wouldn’t fall off a roof”, I said), and then after a bit I suddenly realised and asked him, “It isn’t called Remainder is it?”. Really, I must see it; it will save me having to read the book.

    I guess I should read his most recent book too. People seemed really convinced it is avant-garde this time.

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