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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

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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 [...]

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