21.10.10

Is Tom McCarthy a modernist writer?

Jen Craig on reading McCarthy's recent novel, C
Tom McCarthy, C
Jen Craig asks whether critics are right in suggesting that C, the new Booker-nominated novel from Tom McCarthy, can be thought of as a modernist text:
The very accumulation of unsentimental scientific detail, facts, objects, perhaps because it builds to this strong sense of pollution, the source of the shock that Serge sees in nearly everyone around him, almost reads as a parody of the kind of novel that I feared it might be – those novels in which you read about the origins of soap and glass, about obsessive (and thereby quaint) engineers or entomologists, about the history of a particular trade route – where the usual lyrically realist narrative is bolstered with so much exoticised information that the average reader, immune to the sentimentality, or rather secretly desiring it, is also able to say of the novel that it was absolutely fascinating.

And yet, is C modernist as some are claiming it to be? From the point of view of Josipovici’s conception of it in What Ever Happened to Modernism? which I also reread courtesy of the flu, I would say it is not. Quite apart from anything else, it’s the assuredness of the main character, Serge, and what turns out to be the predictability of his irrational moments and predilections – the whole elaborate, meticulously researched boy’s own product that it is – which makes me doubtful. The term ‘modernist’ must, to those writing newspaper copy, simply be a description of the level of a novel’s density (not an easy read) or perhaps the only term, now that post-modernism is out of vogue, for describing a novel that so sets itself against every pat lyrical ending, every supposedly beautifully written best seller that surrounds us by the thousands. McCarthy’s book doesn’t seem to me to be alive. This may, however, be his intention. [Read more]