The English writer Tom McCarthy, short-listed for this year’s Man-Booker Prize for his third novel C, dropped into the bookstore yesterday to sign our copies of his books. Booksellers orbited him like bashful satellites. His cleverness, his reputation, and his involvement with semi-fictitious organizations like the Necro-Nautical Society make him an intimidating person to shake hands with. (I satellited for a few minutes and then fled.)
I did, however, see him read at Elliot Bay Book Company Tuesday evening, and the experience completely merited any parking fees I paid.
McCarthy read emphatically and metrically, with sharp spaces between the words. This is a sign of a well-educated man, a man accustomed to poetry read aloud. (I found out later he was educated at New College, Oxford.) He stood with his right leg bent up against his left, like a halfway flamingo, hunched slightly and casually over the podium. I wondered if he is surprised by his comprehensive imagination every time he reads in public, as I was.
The first passage McCarthy read was about his protagonist, Serge Carrefax, as a young “bug tapper” in 1911, who listens compulsively to the crackles and snaps which correspond to Morse code sent out by ships and harbors and newspapers around the world. He describes early wireless transmissions precisely, but uses this technology as a point of connection to unseen individuals and groups and images – comparing the vastness of radio waves to the comprehensive silence that is thought itself.
McCarthy has always been interested in radios, but, unlike Serge, did not experiment as a boy. The novel springs from an art project he did in 2002 influenced by Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, a film where Orpheus is seduced by poetry on the radio, a perfect line for every hundred lines of nonsense and numbers. The poetry is transmitted a beautiful princess, who is also death, trying to seduce him.
C, McCarthy says, is not a historical novel. There is no need to link it to the internet, he tells an audience member, because it’s too blatant. It’s a novel about encryption and crypts: technology and death. And the novel is a tribute to many (“Bad writers imitate; good writers steal” – Ezra Pound): Alexander Graham Bell and his invention which was meant to contact the dead, Freud’s Wolf Man, Copperfield born with a caul, Ovid, Marconi, Ulysses (where Bloom attends a funeral and envisions a gramophone in every coffin), Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and the Wasteland, which McCarthy calls radio poetry, with voices dropping in and out.
Robert, my boss, liked C but found it incoherent. I wonder if he heard McCarthy talk about his influences and intentions he would change his mind. Though I doubted once whether I’d find the time to read anything by McCarthy, I’ve made up my mind now and hope to make time to inhale C.