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