C and The Canal

By Tom McCarthy
By Lee Rourke

It’s natural for writers of a literary bent to see themselves as revolutionaries, tilting against convention, cliché, and the mindlessness of the reading public. British comrades (and good friends) Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke have, in recent years, taken to railing at some length from the barricades against the bourgeois, realist, “humanist” novel in interviews and manifestoes that attempt to define “a new generation in experimental fiction.” Critics before they were novelists, their revolution is talky, retro, intellectual, and amusingly Gallic in its belief that a more academic approach to literature is what we really need to shake the status quo. The new BritLit is the nouvelle vague reborn.

Their platform is stridently anti-establishment, but hard to pin down after that. The general program calls for a wedding of high modernism and post-structuralist theory. They want novels for people who are bored of novels.

Talk, however, is cheap. How well do these two new books – McCarthy’s Booker-nominated C and Rourke’s Not-the-Booker-nominated The Canal – walk the walk?

The Canal announces itself as being a book about boredom. It tells the story of a man who leaves his job to sit on a bench looking out over a canal all day. The man is joined by a mysterious woman. They have opaque, Pinteresque conversations. A gang of local toughs drop in to provide occasional violent relief. Things come to a tragic end but the narrator finally isn’t sure how real the experience was.

The boredom the man cultivates is a response to repetition, which is something that defines modern life. This is a point driven home by the form a lot of the dialogue takes as well as the way the same events keep happening “over and over.” It is also related thematically to the fusing of the human and the mechanical world. “We are technology,” the narrator’s benchmate explains. Our lives are defined by routine in or out of the workplace, as we cruise along like pre-programmed machines on autopilot. And the future is unimaginable as anything but more of the same.

This has implications for literature as well. Since all art is repetition, a writer shouldn’t bother trying to be original or authentic. And so literary influences are worn proudly on the sleeve, with Rourke clearly owing a big debt to J. G. Ballard, and McCarthy beholden to Thomas Pynchon for everything from his minimalist title to the introduction of silly music-hall numbers and undigested clumps of historical research on silk manufacturing, wireless telegraphy, and Egyptology.

The hero of C is Serge Carrefax, a young man weirdly in tune with new communications technology in the early twentieth century, and someone who has given up the “farcical pretense” that there is anything “new and exciting” in life. In episodes that take him from England to a Eastern European health spa, the skies over First World War battlefields and finally an Egyptian tomb, he experiences how, in solid high modernist fashion, everything mystically “connects.” Taking drugs helps.

Repetition, in the form of recurring images and motifs, helps make the point. A strange, hard-to-interpret background buzz – voices, insects, mechanical devices – runs throughout the book. As in Rourke, people are seen turning into their machines. For Serge this means becoming a passive receiver of ethereal signals from the beyond.

Beyond the grave, that is. As General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (he made it up), McCarthy has always been fascinated with death. The surprise here is just how romantically he imagines the undiscovered country. In fact, reading the lyrical death scenes in C and The Canal, one detects an essential softness and sentiment that the revolutionary rhetoric and theorizing may be trying to conceal.

Theory serves as a defense mechanism in other ways as well. McCarthy’s aesthetic of “flatness,” for example, can be taken as justifying the dryness of his writing. And the emphasis on repetition and rejection of novelty checks any criticism of these avant-garde and experimental books for their lack of originality and inability to “make it new.” Still, it needs to be said: especially when compared to McCarthy’s breakthrough debut novel Remainder, C is a disappointment. While it has fine moments, it is too often dull, pointless, and even conventional-minded. The Canal is a more interesting book, and a good read, but Rourke’s theory of boredom is made to do too much work and in the end doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Perhaps these are books more to be talked about than read. And it’s likely the revolution will not be written anyway. But looking past all the posturing there is at least the spirit of an important movement afoot in both these works, even if it sometimes seems like two steps forward and one step back.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 8, 2010.

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