C, at the ONE TRUE HOPE of avant-garde fiction." />

The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com
  • OopsOops

    But, fortunately, probably not as good as Kafka. Take the example of Casimir Adamowitz-Kostrowicki, born in Paris in... »
  • The Other MitteleuropeanThe Other Mitteleuropean

    The New York Review covers the latest book from the one many prefer to Stefan Zweig. Hitler was named Reich chancellor... »
  • The Wallcreeper by Nell ZinkThe Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

    You really have to hand it to indie press people: leave it to us to collectively hyperventilate and continually apologize for a... »
  • Back to the FutureBack to the Future

    I'm not exactly sure why we need Jennifer Weiner to rehash the whole "blogs versus critics" thing. Here's an idea: if some... »
  • Sacred TearsSacred Tears

    My contribution to Music & Literature Issue 5 is a long essay on Stig Saeterbakker that began in my reading of his essays. For... »
  • Translating ModianoTranslating Modiano

    Mark Polizzotti on translating Patrick Modiano. His translation of Suspended Sentences comes out next month from Yale... »
  • Beckett’s Letters, Part IIIBeckett’s Letters, Part III

    Another review for Volume 3 of Samuel Beckett's Letters. The Independent. The success of Waiting for Godot is still warm and... »
  • If You Don’t Know About Publishing . . .If You Don’t Know About Publishing . . .

    Busy day today, so I don't have the time to catalog all the absurdities here, but needless to say Matthew Yglesias should stick... »
  • There Is Only One Way to ReadThere Is Only One Way to Read

    I know that people like Farhad Manjoo get paid to be techno-utopians, but I still don't quite understand why they seem to think... »
  • Two New CavinosTwo New Cavinos

    Collection of Sand has just been published in English in the U.S., as has the Complete Cosmicomics. More Calvino in the world... »

You Say

  • Gilly: Just finished it, it is an astonishing book.
  • Arielle: The title of the article has a typo!
  • Patrick O'Donnell: Irony abounds: when I clicked to take a quick look at this
  • Richard: That article is ridiculous. I can't even reply, except to sa
  • Andrija F.: And don't forget to add Elfriede Jelinek, my favorite among
  • Richard: If you search for this Chris Roberts, God being on Amazon (y
  • Seamus Duggan: READ MARILYNNE ROBINSON!!!!! No encouragement needed, althou

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

The Great Avant-Garde Hope

Nothing brings home the current impoverishment of mainstream fiction coverage the way reviewers right and left are hopping on Tom McCarthy’s new novel, C, as the ONE TRUE HOPE of avant-garde fiction.

Witness, for instance, Adam Kirsch in Slate:

Thus Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, is being appraised not just as a novel, but as a test case for the survival of the realistic novel, of the ability of the socially aware novelist to capture the imagination of the society he writes about. In the eyes of a smaller but probably even more enthusiastic readership, Tom McCarthy is a writer of destiny in this sense, but the destiny he represents is the opposite of Franzen’s. He is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel, of fiction consumed by its own status as fiction, and of the avant-garde writer as an unassailable provocateur.

Kirsch does indeed judge that McCarthy’s novel is the ONE TRUE FLAME to keep the torch of avant-garde fiction lit, though other than some lackluster references to Thomas Pynchon–who did his most interesting writing about four decades ago–he doesn’t offer any explanation for why C is the novel the literati have awaited.

I’m not trying to dis McCarthy by any means. Remainder was a fine book, and he certainly deserves the reputation that book garnered him as a writer to watch. Likewise, C is a very good novel, certainly one of the more interesting, legitimately Pynchonesque books I’ve read this year. The last 30 or so pages are among the more compelling stretched of literature I’ve read this year.

But as to being the ONE REALEST AVANT-GARDE–please. These guys need to read a little more widely. There are plenty of other books that have been or will be released this year that are more innovative than C. Again, this isn’t a critique of C–I never expected it to be the ONE TRUE BEARER OF THE FLAME–it’s a critique of critics that should know better than to anoint this book.

Covering C in Harper’s, Jonathan Dee is a tad too enthusiastic for my tastes, but he does offer far more substance than Kirsch does to back up his claims of McCarthy’s avant-garde leaderhip:

C, though, is remarkable not for its austerity but for its unlikely, panoramic ambition. We associate the avant-garde with a paring back of authorial presumption, a subjectivity at odds with the vain omniscience of a Balzac or a Tolstoy. But C is a bird so rare as to seem oxymoronic: an avant-garde epic, the first I can think of since Ulysses, though Joyce’s boundless interiority could scarcely have less in common with McCarthy’s confrontation of what he has elsewhere termed the “brute materiality of the external world.” Equally unlikely is C’s expansive, almost insanely detailed period setting, which ends around the time we think of as the beginning of the modern era; the avant-garde, after all, is supposed to be concerned with the future, or at any rate to insist upon full engagement with the present. In a style concerned much more with precision than with received standards of literary beauty, McCarthy stretches a canvas broad enough to incorporate sex, drugs, war, incest, espionage, suicide, and Egyptology. However openly he may fly the flags of his key influences, one has the distinct sensation while reading C that one has never read anything like it before; and it is pretty late in the game to be able to say that about anybody.

Again, Dee is exaggerating a little here, but not as badly as Kirsch. And if you read the balance of his essay, Dee offers a lot more explanation to distinguish C as a genuinely interesting work.

Christopher Tayler in The Guardian offers by far the most level-headed review I’ve read, characterizing the book as “a 1960s-style anti-novel that’s fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity.” That sounds about right.

Tayler goes on to conclude:

The near-Joycean scale and density of all this is truly impressive, as is McCarthy’s ability to fold it into a cleanly constructed narrative, which has its boring stretches but also moments of humour and weird beauty. Yet its mind-blowingness as a reading experience depends on the reader’s appetite for certain types of analysis. Armed with various concepts from Heidegger, Freud or Paul Virilio, say, it would be possible to unpick its implications more or less indefinitely, but there’s a dispiriting feeling that the book has been reverse-engineered with an eye to achieving just that. On the other hand, Sophie’s death, which is partly an allegory for lost philosophical certainties, can also be read as taking on an emotional weight that goes against the grain of the novel’s ostensible scorn for squishy psychologising. “Will he turn out,” McCarthy asked recently of the French writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint, “to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalising literary deconstruction?” It’s a sign of his writerly horse sense that this skilfully realised, ambitious, over-literary book finds the time to leave a similar question hanging.

Links mentioned in this post

Adam Kirsch on C

Jonathan Dee on C

Christopher Tayler on C

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Avant-Garde In this analysis of the contemporary avant-garde, Josh from Cahiers de Corey is talking about poetry, but I think his sentiments are transferrable to novels....
  2. Avant-Garde Film Blog-a-thon Cool stuff. Start here. List of participants at the bottom of the post. ...
  3. Bloggers Sell Books Here ya go. Tangible evidence that bloggers are having an impact on sales. Published April 12, Freakonomics has found a larger-than-expected audience, due partly to...
  4. In Which We Pat Our Own Backs Because We Are So Great I don’t really know how to read Liesl Schillinger’s article in the NYTBR as anything but facile self-congratulations. Apparently, Schillinger’s argument amounts to: “we don’t...
  5. Reviewing Vollmann and David Mitchell's Ugly Cover It's been an interesting week over at The Constant Conversation. We've got an interesting discussion of Vollmann's writing going on after John Lingan critiqued Pico...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

11 comments to The Great Avant-Garde Hope

  • brandon

    Just curious, what are the books you mention that have been or will be published this year that are more innovative?

    I’m not trying to say there aren’t any, I have not read “C” yet, but liked “Remainder” well enough. This is a genuine question, I try to keep abreast of new avant garde fiction.

  • Michael

    Perhaps “C,” which I also have not read, is the new avant-garde hope in English. Hispanic and eastern block writers have done more to advance the art of the novel than British or American writers in the last forty years, the latter having fallen in to realist works, for the most part.

  • jake

    “These guys need to read a little more widely. There are plenty of other books that have been or will be released this year that are more innovative than C.”

    What are these?

  • Neil Griffin

    It sounds worth checking out, torch bearer for the experimental novel or not. Should I read The Remainder first as an entry point? Or does the order not really matter?

  • Shino

    Remainder was terrific. It was not however easy to find–even at very good literary bookstores. It just seemed to get little attention. Too bad. So I’m encouraged to see C getting any attention, good, bad, or indifferent. Check out McCarthy’s essays and musings also on the Italian futurists for insight.

  • Drew

    I just wanted to say I love these types of posts you do Scott where you take a look at several reviews of the same novel and add commentary of your own. Reminds me of the peer review at Open Letter, and it is of GREAT value to the online community, so, thanks.

    Sadly, I haven’t read a novel in the last five years which I wanted to throw across the room with more velocity than Remainder. It remains on my bookshelf as a reminder of the power of perseverance.

  • [...] McCarthy: C I share Scott Esposito's hesitation and mistrust, as expressed in this recent post The Great Avant-Garde Hope | Conversational Reading I could observe the same in other, non-blogging/reviewing fans of McCarthy's new book. Also adding [...]

  • Of course there are others writing avant-garde books, but I believe McCarthy’s become the poster boy because he sells better than the rest. I can’t back that assertion up other than anecdotally, but it seems to me that Remainder was the most financially successful such novel (experimental English-language original with philosophical underpinnings by a new author) in recent years.

    It’s not the avant-gardest or the best-sellingest or the hippest, but it was the one that charted the highest in all those respects.

    As for others like it, how about Jeremy Davies’s Rose Alley, Josh Cohen’s Witz, Thalia Fields’s Bird Lovers, Backyard, or Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia? Not to mention all the other international titles that might qualify.

  • If you’re looking for avant-garde, the Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, which was released two weeks ago, is an accomplished and very aggressively experimental novel. I was on the point of thinking it was just reheated surrealism towards the middle, when it started losing plot and scene coherence, but as I’ve gotten deeper into it I’ve been more and more impressed by the patterning of images and the sheer quality of the sentences — I’m still forming my judgment, but I have been floored by how well it holds together overall and how engrossing it is, despite the line-to-line incoherence.

  • And I second James about why McCarthy is getting a lot of attention — a certain piece by Zadie Smith might have had something to do with helping his sales.

  • [...] writer as an unassailable provocateur.” Aside from eagle-eyed Scott Esposito, who posted a sharp take on these reviews at Conversational Reading, no one seemed to question the idea of McCarthy as the [...]

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>