c + spooner 14-09-2010

this is wonderful, intelligent, hugely readable and containing some long bravura passages (the protagonist serge carrefax's time as an aerial observer in the first world was unputdownable). but mccarthy has always professed himself to be, and always professed his work to be, deliberately avant-garde and (post)modernist, against lyrical realism, against liberal humanism, against mcewan/amis/barnes and against depth-psychology (... [the illusion] that there is a self prior to anything that exists prior to anything who goes around emoting, experiencing and developing. this is what i hate...)

... except that this novel isn't really any of those thing. it contains all the furniture of classic pynchon: spies, secret codes, conspiracy theories, eccentric scientific theories. but it doesn't mess with that queasy boundary between what might or might not be real as pynchon does. the events in c feel as if they could well have happened (wireless stations in Egypt between the wars, private clubs in Soho where one can take heroin in the company of other upmarket users...), reality tweaked but not undermined. true, it has a recurring theme of flatness but it is hugely lyrical. true, serge carefax is weirdly affectless, but weirdly affectless people are as interesting psychologically as the most florid of schizophrenics. true, the language is sophisticated and seductive but it pushes no boundaries and is fundamentally no different from the language used in many other contemporary english novels.

none of which, i think, detracts from how good a novel it is. not least because whilst i found pynchon, robbe-grillet, foster wallace et al rather thrilling when i first read them, when i pick them up nowadays i'm often a little disappointed to find an emotional thinness below the baroque playfulness. and not necessarily because i'm turning into an old fart. i'm still hungry for good experimental fiction, just harder to satisfy.

apropos of which, after coming across his recent obituary, i belatedly read david markson's wittgentstein's daughter, a self-consciously experimental novel which is formally daring, anti-sentimental and anti-psychological. and whilst a part of me cheered at markson's daring i simply wasn't very gripped.

if any fiction is to last it has to possess some human warmth (tristram shandy is funny, the trial is heart-breaking). like it or not, the novel is a liberal humanist form. it's a conversation and like any conversation depends upon the reader's good will. and whilst having an avant-garde conversation is not impossible but it's a bloody hard trick to pull off.

joyce and woolf are still the (unsurpassed) benchmarks. a radical vision of the world that demands a profound restructuring of the novel and its language, the whole being underpinned and sustained by... this sounds way too greetings-card, but both joyce and woolf deeply in love with human beings. i suspect mccarthy is too, though admitting it is hard after ranting loudly against liberal humanists.

oh, and this great, too, though i'm only halfway through. pete dexter (paris trout, deadwood?) is scandalously overlooked in this country, which is plain stupid. the cover, sadly, gives no real idea of the novel's energy and intelligence and the seriousness which underlies the comedy. we may see it only in passing and the plot may not hinge upon it, but it also happens to be one of the very few books i've read recently in which a man has sex with a chicken.