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Etched in Carbon

C

Tom McCarthy
Knopf, 2010

Robert Walser’s Microscripts, recently published in a handsome edition by New Directions, suggests a model for fiction writing in which the size of the compositional space determines fictional representation. Susan Bernofsky explains in her introduction to the “microscripts” that Walser composed entire fictions on business cards, covers of penny dreadfuls, and calendar pages, the material page, as it were, providing an operating principle for writing fiction. While the arc of narrative might determine the substance of flash or sudden fiction, Walser’s fictional worlds are compressed by actual physical space, small worlds on small pages. He textualized the micrographia of existence, the act of literary production coinciding with the shapes and sizes of human debris, the dross of cultural production as a reflecting box of fictionality. First published in the magazine Du, the “microscripts” were described by Walser’s literary executor Carl Seelig as an “undecipherable secret code of the writer’s own invention” and, further, a product of debilitating mental illness. Not only are the “microscripts” written on tiny pages, they are composed in diminutive Kurrent script, a medieval handwriting that requires translating even for the native reader of German. For the contemporary reader, the “microscripts” would indeed work like a secret code, requiring multiple translations before you realize you are reading fiction. Walser’s fictional world is strangely akin to what happens in Tom McCarthy’s C, itself a series of microscripts bound together as a representational life. It wouldn’t be fair to call C a simple pastiche, for it shapes up nicely as a total novel, but it is endlessly allusive, atomizing a personal history while still maintaining a traditional novelistic experience. While reading C, it’s hard not to think of Pynchon’s V. or Perec’s A Void, worlds shaped around mysteries of alphabetical signification, but it’s also hard to avoid Copperfield’s caul, David Mitchell’s matryoshka Cloud Atlas, George Saunders’ diorama fictions, or any of DeLillo’s code-cracking novels. I’m thinking of Tristram Shandy too, but C isn’t so much self-abnegation as accretion, a novel about accumulated effect. All of these fictions are what I’d like to call palimpsest literature, fiction-making as stratification where the reader strips away layers of representation, even while something significant as a human life is built, trace element by trace element.

That isn’t to say McCarthy avoids plot or character in C, for it follows the orderly structure of the Bildungsroman. Like David Copperfield, the novel takes us from birth to death, but it’s the labyrinthine diorama of his father’s estate that forms the disorienting logic of Serge’s future life. The novel is orderly; the represented world is not. Unlike the museological diorama, we don’t come at Serge’s life head on, or even from above, like looking at a map of a hedge maze. We are with characters in the maze. The story begins with a literalizing model for how to read the rest of the novel, following the birth doctor who wends his way to the birthing room through hedge and hidden door, past the mummery of deaf children at play imagined as silhouette puppets. Dr. Learmont arrives “beneath a concave vault of sky,” surrounded by a “curtain” of conifers “ris[ing] straight and inert as columns.” Through the conifers he catches glimpses of other, smaller trees, then the silhouetted puppets of “small limbs reaching, touching and separating in a semi-regular pattern, as though practicing a butterfly or breaststroke.” This is the compressed space of the microworlds Serge will navigate throughout the novel, a space whose figurations, like his father’s estate, “seem to be withholding something—some figure or associative line inscribed beneath its flattened geometry, camouflaged by lawns and walls and gardens.”

Visit the Museum of London or the American Museum of Natural History and you’ll see how a novel like C works. It declares its allegiance to hidden worlds early in the story:

The human body . . . is a mechanism. When its engine-room, the thorax, a bone-girt vault for heart and lungs whose very floor and walls are constantly in motion—when this chamber exerts pressure sufficient to force open the trap-door set into its ceiling and send air rushing outwards through the windpipe, sound ensues.

This is the shape of things to come in C, for there is no imagined world that goes unexplored as a model for writing fiction. We encounter detailed structures of silk-woven tapestries, mythological pageantry, moth-keeping, Egyptology, burial practices, Hellenism, train schedules, myths of tourism. McCarthy is so sensitive to the shapes and organizing principles of his fictional worlds that even his narrator is habituated to obsessively “slotting” details into their rightful places, moths “slotted into other moths,” a body slotted “into its designated space between the bodies of two ancestors,” waiters “slotted into grooves laid in the floor,” objects “rotating to their designated slots.” It’s a minor obsession to be sure, but McCarthy seems to see the novel as a laboratory for invented worlds, with C a vast elaboration on the manic living dioramas of his protagonist in Remainder. It’s a peculiar mania, putting things into things, but McCarthy is both acquisitive and not averse to the dirty joke, asking us to think, at least, about our hero’s obsession with sex from behind and two moths who “frot around, vibrating, as though trying to unhook themselves again, or to travel somewhere in this new formation.” Seven-year-old Serge tosses the coupled moths into the air and says, “You can do it, Orville and Wilbur!” Funny stuff, but there’s no joke in C that isn’t also informed by a consideration of death:

He jerks his palm upwards, propelling them towards the ceiling, but they arc leadenly, fall straight down to the floor and separate again. He picks the male, or perhaps female, moth up, and pinching its thorax in the fingers of one hand, plucks first one and then the other of its wings off. He sets the denuded torso back inside the pit to stagger around as it did before while he holds the wings up for inspection. Their markings, seen from close up, look like anaemic reproductions of the ones on the mulberry leaves.

Serge never connects his adult obsessions with this malicious childhood episode; these associations are for us to make. The withheld—hidden in the atmosphere like wireless signals, secreted in his sister’s research, woven in cocoons and tapestries, or buried in Egyptian tombs—is what drives Serge through his episodic life even if he never makes the same connections we might. The novel is organized by distinct episodes, all of which are bound together by loose associative threads: Serge’s childhood in the pastoral snow globe of Versoie; a period in a Felliniesque spa seeking a cure for a mysterious intestinal blockage; a horrifying stint in WWI combat aviation; drug-addled years of postwar London, and on to pre-war Egypt where Serge accompanies an archaeologist into layered Alexandrian catacombs, recalling the tomb his father built for Serge’s sister. This particular detail—a buried history that recalls for Serge the already buried history of his own life—is effectively how the plot of C is organized. All the lines of meaning are buried, etched, then buried over by other lines of meaning:

As ancient and obscure words waft over the devoted, cowered crowd, it strikes him that Herr Landmesser was probably right—and strikes him too that all the water that’s gushed through the Mir since its inception would never purify him, wash his dark bile away, because the water’s dark as well. It’s bubbled up from earth so black that no blessing could ever lighten it, been filtered through the charcoaled wrecks of boats and tumour-ridden bones of murdered ancestors, through stool-archives and other sedimental layers of morbid matter.

Serge even imagines flecks of sheep-dung deposited by a fly on a man’s mouth, “the even tinier bacteria inside them turning inwards from his lips, swimming against his phlegm through crashing rocks of teeth, past lashing tongue and gurgling epiglottis.”

It is easy to imagine the common enough criticisms of contemporary fiction that the plot of C goes nowhere, that the characters aren’t fully realized or, that most useless of complaints, unsympathetic. That hardly matters in this novel, for it’s the complexity of Serge’s noticing that demands our attention. McCarthy asks us to be sympathetic to characters because they are a part of Serge’s life, a life in that respect, at least, that’s no different than any other. Serge’s father maintains a school for deaf children, his deaf mother keeps moths and weaves tapestries, his scientifically gifted sister disappears to college in London and then reappears at home to commit suicide under mysterious circumstances. Essential characters die, disappear, slip into the margins, fail to be noticed. But Serge isn’t daft or callow. Significant people in his life don’t go unnoticed; like any person, what those significant people mean doesn’t emerge until much later in life, sometimes never. The world we experience through Serge is too complex to sympathize with everyone, all the time. What matters is how particular episodes of Serge’s life develop and how those details shape later episodes.

Serge is a great noticer, so I suppose in the manner McCarthy builds fictional worlds, that makes Serge something of a search engine. The webbed and associative nature of modern technology is another fiction-making apparatus McCarthy uses to map a direction for the modern novel. Early on, as Serge is obsessed with the new technology of wireless transmission and its ability to transmit meaning through the air, emergent online chatters “exchange signal quality reports, compare equipment, enquire about variations in the weather and degrees of atmospheric interference,” and speak in code the question that serves as meta-critique for all the message making systems Serge encounters: “Have you anything to transmit?” Like early web users, Serge (and his father) is spellbound by connectivity and association, the implication that technology will expose a meaningful universe. But McCarthy isn’t a Neil Postman and C isn’t a jeremiad. For McCarthy, the notion that we’ll some day have “a web around the world for them to send their signals down” is no mere wink or nod. He wants us to think of associative webbing as a meaning-making project and not a new one:

He wanted it to be the great hub of the world, connecting everywhere to everywhere else. More than that: it would be Greece’s grand self-realisation, its ascent, beyond itself, into a universal condition. Über-Greece: a kind of simulation better than the real thing ever was. His version would assimilate all other cultures, all their gods and figureheads and what have you else, and conjoin these beneath the canopy of a transcendent, modern Hellenism in which reason, science and knowledge would flourish. Alexander was a co-coordinator too.

It doesn’t matter that we know very little about Serge by novel’s end. He’s less a human than what it means to be one, less character than template. Like the German spy-balloons he’s tasked to spot or the Egyptologists he accompanies through Alexandria, McCarthy has Serge take a broad and high view of the modern landscape and then dig deep, through palimpsestic experiments in human culture. Or, he’s taking a view of the body itself as palimpsestic host, the entire history of human meaning etched in carbon.

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Bryan Emory-Johnson teaches at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. His poems have appeared previously in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, American Letters & Commentary, and The Denver Quarterly, among others.