If, like Tom McCarthy, your debut novel (Remainder) was hailed as one of the decade’s best, and praised in The New York Times Book Review by both Zadie Smith and Joyce Carol Oates, the prospect of striking literary gold twice might seem daunting. Yet somehow, McCarthy has managed to do just that with C, a heart-stomping work that tempers a Henry James creepiness with a Lawrence of Arabia moodiness.
Fortunately, the plot is fairly light, in order to accommodate McCarthy’s heavy atmosphere: Serge Carrefax is born to a deaf mother and a father who tinkers with wireless communications in turn-of-the-century England. While he lives in the shadow of his older and more precocious sister for most of his childhood, he comes into his own when she downs cyanide. From there, our antihero spends time regaining his health in Bohemia, developing a drug addiction while serving in World War I and further exploring substance abuse in post-War London before he’s sent to Egypt as a civil servant. Like James Joyce, however, McCarthy doesn’t place the focus on Serge’s sundry endpoints, but rather the journey he takes to get to them.
Fans of Remainder may be struck by the comparatively slower pace of C, but at its close the novel reaches a fever-pitch whose precision and allegory resonate long after you put the book down. Don’t be surprised if, an hour after finishing, the varied parts come together and you have to run to the bathroom for a good cry.
The Man Booker Prize 2010 winner will be announced on October 12. See www.themanbookerprize.com