Into Thin Air

C BY Tom McCarthy. Knopf. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.

Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, published in 2007, is a work of clean and seamless guile. There’s no messy and cumbersome interiority, no ruminating, no sociopolitical context, nor much context at all. Just a contemporary city (London), rendered soberly by an unnamed narrator with a metaphysical problem: He’s had a terrible accident of some kind, feels inauthentic as a result, and proceeds to reenact events of escalating complexity in order to recapture a kind of “rightness,” of time coinciding with itself in an idealized manner. He tries to describe his own post-traumatic condition but has little insight, nothing but a feeling that everything is now “completely second-hand.” The joke here, perfectly orchestrated, is that Remainder’s story line points like a dagger toward the blot or lie at the heart of narrative. The narrator’s mysterious trauma, and all trauma, is both the origin of narrative—calling for it, giving rise to it—and also its obstacle, the secret core around which narrative stumbles and lurches, driven by some . . . thing it cannot actually confront. This clever little hermeneutic compelled various critics (famously Zadie Smith) to declare Remainder an attack on so-called lyrical realism and its reliance on myths of subjectivity. But McCarthy hadn’t dispensed with subjectivity—only the humanist trope that truth lies deep therein, waiting to be mined through limpid prose work and earnest reflection. Remainder’s narrator, after all, is a subject defined by the absent trauma that befell him, even if this trauma can’t be named or seen.

It’s to trauma that McCarthy returns in his latest novel, C, which begins with the birth of its protagonist, Serge Carrefax, in rural England in 1898 and ends with his death in 1922. Structured as a bildungsroman, C utilizes many fictional qualities that Remainder was all too glad to be rid of—authorial omniscience, fancy talk, history. If trauma, in Remainder, was present only as absent cause, in C it’s explicit: Serge’s early life hews in crucial ways to that of Freud’s Wolf Man, Sergei Pankejeff, who had an incestuous link with an older sister who died young. Serge’s depression and neurotic symptoms, like that of Freud’s famous case study, arise from primal scenes and their failed repressions. But in C, trauma is also historical, a byproduct of war and of progress, far larger in scope than one psyche, and played out across time and space that its protagonist merely occupies.

Young Serge, whose inventor father is racing Marconi to develop wireless technology, becomes a radio hobbyist, spending his time on Versoie, his rural family estate, decoding wireless signals. One night he picks up a distress signal, and after losing it to atmospheric disturbances, he thinks he hears, in the static, “the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into waves that had come to bury them.” This beautifully rendered moment is the reader’s cue—the first of many, possibly too many—that death and encryption and telegraphy will be not just the central themes of Serge’s short life but the invisible agents that flow through this novel and through the long twentieth century.

Of C’s discordances with Remainder, the historical subject matter may be most baffling, at least to those who find history a retrograde topic for the novel, suggesting realms of the mediocre and the hopelessly bourgeois (unless tackled by, say, Pynchon). But is not a fundamental predicament of the present the illusion that it engulfs past and future both? I’ve never been able to figure out why certain vanguards should buy into the pervasive fantasy that history is a dead spectacle to be aestheticized or made relevant only as a mirror on our own times, or better yet ignored tout court. History is the crucial (indeed, the only) antecedent to the present, and if you believe in anything like a political unconscious, as Fredric Jameson would have it, history infects everything. It’s “what hurts,” as Jameson says, and literature must deal with it, must bring it before our eyes strangely, in its pure, discordant relation to the present, or we have no hope of any framework of real meaning.

History, in C, shapes even the most intimate details of the characters’ lives and outlooks. Take the invention of radio: When Serge’s sister dies, so immersed is he in the new realm of detached and invisible voices that he regards her as simply “elsewhere: like a signal, dispersed.” He enlists in an air regiment and is off to fight in World War I, an experience for which the cold response to his sister’s death is a clever prelude that allows McCarthy to get around the cliché of war’s dehumanizing effect. He sends an already dehumanized person into war, and they are a perfect fit. Serge is happy as a clam, a Marinetti Jr. for whom a fiery explosion is a “dense, black chrysanthemum,” the sounds of war a “lullaby.” Ironically, the brutalities of combat are rendered with a balance of precision and relaxed playfulness somewhat lacking in the childhood section of C, which feels overly bent on staging its “significant” events. McCarthy describes flight wonderfully as “falling upwards,” and dead German soldiers who stare with a “burnt out, hungry look.” There is also great humor. Near Hythe, Serge and his copilot see a girls’ lacrosse team practicing and land, and their playful scheming is like a scene out of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country. Later, Serge winds up in a series of POW camps where French prisoners conduct Genet-like fashion shows while others dig tunnels to nowhere in a massive and pointless “collective daydream,” which, for Serge, offers not freedom but something even more useful: privacy to masturbate.

While Remainder keeps McCarthy’s agility with high-academic references almost totally behind the scenes, in C the author goes full-tilt. Despite coming from such disparate lines and tendencies, some of the literary and philosophical references work wonderfully, as when Serge feels the same elation Blanchot once did as he faces a firing squad, only to become indignant—a moment of true hilarity—when the soldiers lower their rifles, having just heard that the war is over. Elsewhere, they’re more distracting. Some of the POW scenes are too reminiscent of Zizek’s Siberian-prison gags. The name of the family estate, Versoie, similar to Versailles, is more importantly a Derridean word, from his essay “Un Ver à soie” (A Silkworm of One’s Own). Serge’s rotten sun, seen in flight, is of course Bataille’s. And McCarthy’s transposing of insect/incest is the accidental anagram discussed in Derrida’s essay “Typewriter Ribbon.” These that I list are merely a glimpse: This book is loaded like an Alexandrian library, with a curious eagerness to leave its magnificent stack of sources showing. And while McCarthy is plenty gifted, with an energetic and original intellect, his energy sometimes pre-directs how we’re meant to receive signals, as if we tread in territory already mapped as a totality. What could and should be a strange, dense, irreducible work is strange and dense, but occasionally lacks irreducibility.

After the war, Serge winds up in London’s demimonde, where the codes of war are exchanged for those of drugs and their encryption work on thought. And yet one wonders if perhaps the drugs are not themselves a kind of code or allegory, intended to say something about a certain urban zombification that is taking hold. Serge crashes a car, an event that initiates a life change. He travels to Alexandria, Egypt (the birthplace, coincidentally, of Marinetti), then he accompanies a Howard Carter–like archaeologist to a dig site, where he screws an assistant on a pile of bones and receives, like an inoculation against life, a fatal insect bite. Sent to Port Said (the real place, but also the terrain to come: empires dashed, Orientalism explained), Serge gets on a boat and succumbs to delirium. He imagines the ocean, oily and black, as “shellac,” the ship’s prow “a gramophone needle.” Telegraphy, gramophone, and the spectral relation of technology to death, to the other side, manifest as roiling word debris. The incest theme returns as a brother-sister wedding pageant set to the cadence of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65. Serge seems to be encountering reality unveiled, das Ding, or maybe just the custom-made fantasy that swells to occupy an otherwise-empty slot: the nothingness that secretly constitutes us. It’s a bang of an ending, rendered in prose that rises to a sudden, shimmering height and remains there for ten long pages, closing with a Mallarméan image of the ship’s wake, disappearing without trace.

If Remainder, as a title, suggests the mathematical, the psychoanalytic, the messianic, the word’s meaning in that novel is both more abstract and narrower—an excess of some kind that can’t be symbolically managed by narrative. In C, the theme surreptitiously returns, vastly broadened to the less controlled terrain of collective history. Remainders, here, are specters of technology, war, and empire, and if they come to Serge as a final, violent vision, his one life is ultimately unimportant to the book. He does not change. He merely dies, by stupid chance. What matters in C is history, for which there is no precise reenactment. It’s forever out of sync with itself, never to arrive at any kind of “rightness.”

Rachel Kushner is the author of the novel Telex from Cuba (Scribner), a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.