When Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder was published in the US, it became like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, something of a cult classic, making us aware of a new and original voice. Like Mitchell, McCarthy's new novel C is published in hardcover and can be regarded as a historical, set in the years immediately before and after the first World War.
In Remainder the protagonist came into a vast amount of money in settlement of a personal injury lawsuit and started building reality in accordance with his fantasies — a wonderful apartment dwelling with a particular view in a particular neighborhood — but then kept expanding because he realized that he also needed particular neighbors and particular sounds and smells (milk being delivered, certain dishes being cooked), all of whom were hired and put into place. More and more of these fantasies were brought into being, but such charm as the idea had at the beginning acquires a harder edge as things like bank robberies came to be included, things which bumped up against other people outside the employ of the hero. There was something deeply subversive about Remainder, which I suspect was the reason for its appeal.
In my imagination, McCarthy's invention of the late Nineteenth Century world in which C begins so charmingly paralleled the world put together by the protagonist of Remainder. In the new book it is a large estate in the English countryside in which the main character, Serge — there is some uncertainty as to how the name should be pronounced; his father says it as "surge" — grows up with his sister (really the love of his life) and his parents, the father being an amateur inventor who runs a school for the deaf, the mother herself deaf but active in the raising of silkworms.
Serge receives instruction in art — among many other subjects — from his tutor, but says that all he sees is "flat", i.e., he cannot manage perspective. He picks up his father's interest in radio waves and in the use of amateur radio equipment, and is fascinated by the wealth of signals, some near, some distant, apparently floating in the air. With his tutor he visits a spa in central Europe to deal with digestive problems, just before the outbreak of World War I. The guests come from all the countries of Europe; the parallel with The Magic Mountain is, I assume, wholly intentional. He becomes a bomber pilot in the war, feeling only pleasure in the ghastly things he is made to do, and later, after the war, goes to Egypt at the behest of the British government on a job vaguely connected to what we would call intelligence.
Like the earlier book, the main character of C is not particularly sympathetic, but he is also very real and the author has the courage to avoid sentimentalizing his hero. There is also a real feeling of nostalgia for the past, something like what Ian McEwan brought to Atonement and also some very beautiful writing about nature and, especially, about those wonderful radio signals in the air. McCarthy is a very unusual writer, one well worth watching and, of course, reading.
— Jeremy Nussbaum
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