Thursday, April 28, 2011

C by Tom McCarthy (Part Two)

Last week, I wrote of the first part of Tom McCarthy's novel, C. Now its time to comment on the last three parts. Part 2, Chute, reads as a much more straight-forward, authentic account of a young man at war. It starts with Serge sitting am aeronautics exam - readers are located right in the exam room with him, as he writes his answers. The exam is possibly an academic irrelevance, as his father's mate and his own god-father, Widsun, is high up in the military: there's a mention later on that he is recorded in the paperwork as Serge's protector. He pulls strings and Serge is in the air-force, training in a rumpety-sounding pain (a little joke - the plane noise is rumpiteerumpitee...), but he's in his element, as an observer - taking photos, shooting his Lewis gun, sending back radio messages about what he sees. He and his partner take to landing at a particular spot where the girls prove to be extremely friendly.

His first posting is to Saint Omer, a lethargic place where the rumbling sound might be snoring or guns, he can't tell. There's a kind of grimness to his assignation: he's told there's no space in his Squadron right now, he just has to wait for someone to die: "It shouldn't take long" "What shall I do while I wait?" "Sleep, have an omelette, pick your nose" - it really doesn't take long before there's a death and he's in - within a matter of months, two thirds are dead.

Serge has a charmed existence, and feels no fear, he even pleased by the idea his flesh might merge with that of his machine - maybe its all the cocaine he's taking. He's told to rub it into his eye to improve his vision, or to snort it for a "stronger effect". He certainly sees things with extra clarity, but it also has an impact on his sexuality - the first time he takes it, he gets a sudden erection, takes his trousers off (he's still in the air) and his "seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine's tail and falls in a fine thread towards the slit earth below". Given the title, it is perhaps significant that he accompanies this action by yelling "From all the C!s ... The bird of Heaven."

On morphine, his drug of choice, he seems to get the same state as when Sophie blew up the shed - there's an initial euphoria, then "everything slows down and seems to float" - even the tracers (ie bullets with every potential to be lethal) "rise toward him languidly, like bubbles in a glass", and he likes it best when they come very close:
so that they're almost grazing the machine's side: when this happens he feels like he's a matador being passed by the bull's horn, the two previously antagonistic objects brought together in an arrangement of force and balance so perfectly proportioned that it's been removed from time, gathered up by a pantheon of immortals to adorn their walls.
He also notices that the intersecting lines of ordnance residue and exhaust fumes form a grid in which all past manoeuvres have been recorded and so history itself seems to hang suspended. Its a beautiful image, but he's not much good at his job in this state. So when he's finally attacked by a German aircraft, all he can do is think about how graceful it is, with a special message just for him, an annunciating angel. He wants it to carry him away in a "long, whispered rush of consonants". Even now, its as if he's under special protection: on its way down, his plane collides with a parachute, which breaks his fall. He's behind enemy lines, so he's taken prisoner. The guards get so slack he manages to escape, is captured and to be shot as a spy - and here's the most unbelievable element of the whole novel - just as the fellow is about to pull the trigger, they get the news that the war is over.

The third section, Crash, is an odd one. Serge is in London, ostensibly studying architecture but he's fallen with a crew of party-goers, united in their taste for drugs, and rarely does anything. His friend, Audrey, finally persuades him to go to a seance - there's an extended account of it, but Serge works out its a fraud and is angry - at the frauds, at those who believe them, and himself for busting that belief. I think this is his lost soul period - he's looking for somewhere to be: home doesn't work, these friends don't do it for him (although they promise a special form of communication) and his old friends, like Clair, aren't any use to him. And so he drives off, and the section ends as predicted by its title.

In Call, the final section, things break up. Serge has been rescued by his godfather and given a job, associated with establishing the BBC in Egypt, along with a secret squirrel spy mission to report back to his godfather anything he finds interesting. His time in Alexandra sounds like fun - he's being fed lots of history by a workmate, attending meetings he doesn't need to attend to, writing reports and then enjoying the cinema of an evening - he's sworn off drugs and finds this to be an enjoyable rhythm. Alexandria itself sounds to him of unrequited longing - he hears it in the cries of tradesmen, the wails of beggars, the muezzen's chants "threading meshed balconies" and in the music spilling from cafes, the clang of metal cups, ships' sirens. More than anything he hears it in his workmate's voice:
its exiled, hovering cadences - and what he sees in Petrou's face and body, his perpetual slightly sideways stance: a longing for some kind of world, one either disappeared or yet to come, or perhaps even one that's always been there, although only in some other place, in a dimension Euclid never plotted, which is nonetheless reflecting off him at an asymptotic angle; and reflecting, it increasingly seems, straight towards Serge.
Things in Egypt are rather chaotic for the British, as there has just been a revolution and newly minted independence for Egypt - which rather raises the question of the appropriateness of the Empire Wireless being established. The Egyptian response is to build a network which parallels the British one. Things are even worse for Serge when he finally gets to Cairo, as the Ministry is in the process of relocating. Cairo is a fine mix of British officials and their civil servants, labourers from all over Europe and entrepreneurs and hustlers from the earth's four corners and tourists (Serge picks up a particularly dim example of the latter). These tourists sound a lot like contemporary ones, searching for independence using Lonely Planet and finding themselves in a congregation of Lonely Planet clutching individualists.

There's an interesting wee passage here which picks up on something Sophie said, several years earlier, just before she died. She says that an unnamed "he" is coming soon, tomorrow or the next day. When Serge asks if she means father, she says "Father! He's not your ... It's the other one." Then she says "Didn't use paraphylectic" and later "I'll have kill him in me, or there'll be more bodies: segments on the battlefields." Now in Cairo, Serge's boss says to him "I can see your father in you", then when Serge asks about him knowing his father, the boss says "Of course ... After all, he's the one who sent..." So - I think that his so-called godfather, Widsun, is actually his father and is also the man he saw having sex with his sister - this sent her over the edge.

Now its Serge's turn to do so. He goes up the river to a place called Sedment, an enormous burial site, thousands of tombs, all stacked one on top of the other.There was a pretty major excavation there in 1921 - he's there at roughly that time, with a small crew of archeologists who fill him in with a great deal of detail about the area - its quite the learning experience to read it. Another overt reference to the title comes along - Serge asks one of the archeologists what he's found - he rattles off a list which concludes "Surtout, the C: the C is everywhere ... Carbon: basic element of life". One of his main companions and sources is Laura - I really liked her for the first time when they're in the tomb (and I think this is when Serge first really attended to her as a woman):
She's streaming information again - but the langour's gone, and the excitement's back. It excites Serge as well: not only what she's saying but how she's saying it, its strip-procession from her. He looks at her mouth. Its lips, coated by dust, are brown. Watching them move, he has the strange sensation that he's closing in on something: not just her, or information, but what lies behind these.
In fact, this part of the novel is perhaps my favourite part - not just because of the constant stream of information, but also the descriptions of the tombs they're going through - McCarthy creates the sensation of actually being there, as well as a desire to explore a part of the world I have never even considered going to. Anyway, Serge and Laura go on a bit of a magical mystery tour through previously unexplored tombs, its like an underground city, I'm all worried that they're going to get lost, then there's this ominous "small tickling sensation" on Serge's ankle which has developed to a full blown itch by the time he regains the surface. Back in Cairo, its worse - he's stumbling, disoriented, dazed, feeling something deeper than seasickness. Then his mind goes, he's imagining all sorts of things - first time I read this, I struggled to get through this part but now, now I see I missed out something pretty dramatic: his imagined marriage to his sister.
It is no coincidence that he has been addicted to heroin, also called sister in the slang of the time.

There is probably no answer to what the title refers to: I've seen Carrefax, communication, carbon, copper, continental philosophy, code, crypt, cocaine all mentioned in various reviews. Then we have the author's own take, which may or may not be taken seriously. He has been asked what the genesis of the novel is, and responds:
But one of them was thinking about Carter and Carnarvon, who dug up Tutankhamun. And I knew that a kind of hybrid of those two historical figures was going to be part of — I mean, Serge is a composite of several things. But that’s kind of one part or two parts of it. And so as a marker, I just used the letter C. I said, “Well, Carnarvon. Carter. Let’s just call them C for now.” And it was stuck. I liked the single letter title. It made me think of Sesame Street. You know, how every episode is brought to you by the letter.
It really did take the second reading to appreciate this book - the first time through, I was a bit like Serge at times, dimly conscious of something else going on just beyond my ken. I won't say that I've grasped everything by reading it twice, but at least I have become more conscious of the things in the background, the connections between the first part and later parts and more appreciative of the writing itself. Despite its being set nearly 100 years ago, there were parallels: sure, the technological developments accounted for were primitive by today's standards, but they were the origins of what we rely upon today, and the issues and conflicts arising then have their modern counterparts. Serge was out there in cyberspace just as much as we are today.

There are lots of reviews out there, but these three contributed most to me:

New York Times review
Slate review
Surplus Matter review: this one shows the connection between Serge and Sergei Pankeyev, a patient of Freud known as the Wolf Man, something I was completely unaware of. There is something I seriously like from the Wikipedia page about Sergei. In C, Serge sees his sister out his window a couple of times at night, dressed in white. According to Freud, Sergei dreamt of a pack of six white wolves but apparently "the expression "pack of six", a "sixter" =
shiestorka: siestorka = sister".

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

C by Tom Mccarthy (Part One)

I've not yet read McCarthy's first book, Remainder, but I've read enough about it to create expectations: he is said to be a master of literary theory and that book is said to explore a deep philosophical question by having the narrator doubt his own existence. I've seen "experimental" and the phrase avant garde used a fair few times to describe Remainder and so thought C would be something similar. For the most part, it reads like straight-forward historical fiction - although I guess that is a logical progression from Remainder, where it is the narrator who seeks to re-enact the past: now the novel itself purports to be a re-enactment of a past, one which only partly happened.

C is the story of Serge Carrefax, from birth to death, told in four stages: Caul, Chute, Crash and Call. The narrative is firmly located in time (starting in about 1898) and contemporary events. There's no obvious religion, we get no insight into people's motivations, not even Serge's, but there is a huge amount of technological and other scientific detail - something I liked a lot about the novel.

There are at least three types of caul in the first part: Serge is born with the amniotic bag over his head as a silky veil or hood (silk is also significant, as his parents have a silk-making enterprise, from which they make parachutes); his dad puns on the idea of a caul by predicting a web around the world for sailors to send their signals down; and the section ends when Serge finds that the gauzy crepe that has blurred his vision has finally gone (which made me wonder if he spent the entire first 18 years of his life with his eyes behind a caul).

His upbringing is unusual: his parents run a school for deaf mutes, but dad doesn't believe in either condition. He thinks anyone with the right body parts can speak, the body just needs fine-tuning, alignment and the speech must be wring or wrenched out - all it takes is a proper explanation of the correct adjustments of their organs. As part of the process, he forces an annual pageant on both pupils and guests. The pupils admittedly do speak, after a fashion, but take every opportunity to use sign language despite his prohibition. Dad is also fascinated by technology - he spends his entire life hoping to come up with some great invention. A mate brings in a Kinetoscope, an early form of film projector. These obsessions leave no time for parenting - that role is taken up by the maid, who sees the Carrefaxes as arrogant and incapabe, and the tutor, Mr Clair. But they leave their mark: Serge is very obviously his father's son.

There are quite a few creepy scenes from his early childhood: his sister, Sophie, when he is 2.5 years old, using his penis as some form of telegraph key; his beating up of a toy soldier at the same age as an enactment of killing the gardener and the completely mechanical way in which he kills a wasp. Later on, his sister becomes quite the chemist, and creates an explosion which Serge experiences in slow motion - his sister's face "seems to have slowed down" and expanded, instruments rise and hover, "incredibly slowly, as though willing themselves upwards, through excruciating effort". Then a window breaks: he watches each of its glass fragments soundlessly separate.

There is some fun: I loved it when a visitor finds all sorts of coded messages in the personal's column in the Times: he and Sophie decode them and reply. Poor old Serge is not very adept at this sort of thing. There's a wee joke: the cat is buried in the family crypt: does that make it a cat-a-comb? Then there's the Realtor's Game - which sounds a lot like Monopoly (which can be traced to 1924, but Serge and Sophie were playing in about 1905). He transforms the make-believe telephone company into an actual telephone network around his family's estate. This transforms into an interest in radio and communications - something which stays with him for his entire life. We are treated to a detailed account of his set up and of a night he spends going through the radio bands. Early txt speak features- logical, given the reliance on Morse code, and there's a wee joke: Serge notes that one fellow can't be very young as no-one over 20 would tap out the complete word. As he searches the waves (in much the same way we might now surf the web) he's conscious of things just beyond his ken, gets glimpses and half-hears them.

There's one small point which troubled me here: radio enthusiasts are called hams, they use a bug to send morse code but several references are made to the enthusiasts as "bugs". I had to consult an American dictionary on this one: Merriam-Webster does say a bug is an enthusiast. Maybe that was an early usage which has died away - there's nothing in the OED. But there is a kind of pun happening: he's a bug and Sophie becomes obsessed with bugs, of the natural variety. She, too, is said to be tuned in, as if she's a receiver. It doesn't end well for her.

I think that there's yet another form of caul: innocence. I am pretty sure that Serge sees his sister having sex although he doesn't recognise that's what he's seeing. He's heard a noise, a "rhythmic scratching, a rubbing chafe that carries on its back a higher sound". Its coming from behind the sheet (the movie had been projected non to it), and he sees a shadow cast on to it:
It's some kind of moving thing made of articulated parts. One of the parts is horizontal, propped up on four stick legs like a low table, the other end is vertical, slotted into the underside of the table's rear end but rising above it, its spine wobbling as the whole contraption rocks back and forth. The thing pulses like an insect's thorax, and with each pulse comes the rustle, scratch and chafe; with each pulse the horizontal, low part squeaks, and the vertical part now starts emitting a deep grunt, a gruff, hog-like snort. The grunts grow more intense ... the squeaks grow louder... The thing's rocking and wobbling faster and faster, squeaking and grunting more with every pulse.
Later on, he gives a peculiar account of what lovers do: he's seen a photo of a woman kneeling with a man standing beside her, holding his member while she smiles at it. This image seems to stick with him: every account of his sexual activity involves a woman kneeling in front of him. It is when he finally has sex for the first time that his vision clears. This is at Klodebrady, which seems to be a spa in Bavaria, where he is sent for hydrotherapy because he is suffering from, in old fashioned terms, black bile or mela chola. He has good reason to be melancholic: what is more interesting is the reference back, back to classical notions of the humours. The woman he chooses appeals, because he likes the illness within her body, the sulphuric smell of her, the impression she creates of things gurgling up from below. His other female companion, the pretty Lucia, is too light-blooded, and two light-hearted (and probably light-headed) to make much of an impression on him.

Its only in my second reading that I've really got that there's quite a lot lurking in this first part, things which connect outwards with actual history (the impending war is hinted at several times, and there are the numerous references to technological advances, such as the erection of Marconi radio towers) and forwards with the history presented by the novel. So, yes, I'm starting to see why those with
more knowledge than me are saying its a novel which deserves a lot of attention. So much so that I want to defer any consideration of the final three movements to another post.


Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Nameless, by Joshua Ferris

Ferris made quite a name for himself when Then We Came to the End. Although I snapped up a copy, I haven't actually got round to reading it and he's published The Nameless in the meantime. I noticed it sitting in the library so decided to try it out.

The central premise (it can't be a gimmick, because then this book would have nothing) is that Tim Farnsworth has some sort of condition, it makes him get up and walk for miles, walk until he cannot walk any more: then he falls down and sleeps. The condition has no name, all of medical science has been consulted and can't even work out whether it is a physiological or mental condition. It comes and goes, but when it comes, it stays for quite some time. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between its arrival and his work or relationships - it just is.

So, a lot of the book is just him walking, learning to survive out there in the big bad world, falling asleep, having bad things happen to him while he sleeps, then calling his wife (Jane) to come get him. Its not a good way to live.
Every so often, something nice happens to him, he gets looked after while he's vulnerable, but that's the exception, not the norm.

This puts a lot of strain on Jane's ability to work and consequently upon their relationship - the book is pretty good on tracking the times she can't work, and showing what it means for her to love him, the temptation to give up on him, to drink to forget about everything, but never really explains why he can't employ someone to follow him around or come get him - he is, after all, loaded.

It is such a weird condition that his teenage daughter, Becka, is convinced for years that he's faking it. When Jane employs her to babysit Tim, Becka finally gets that its real. They've spent a week bonding over Buffy DVDs and then, finally he walks, with her following
He shed his suit coat and his buttondown in the heat without stopping, without the least concern for how he looked to those he passed: a crazy man possessed. She picked up his discarded clothes and followed him... She trailed behind him, ready to seize on his first false move, at any subtle sign of fakery, but he never halted, he never paused... She watched him slog inside the KFC and collapse.
When he wakes, she's there and crying, apologising for not believing. This was on page 103, and the first time I felt any real connection to the novel. After she becomes a believer, Becka is a stalwart.

His family is all he has, when it comes down to it. He starts out as a partner in a law firm (and a good lawyer) but when they can't count on him (there is a bit of a sub plot involving a client on murder charges, someone Tim could save if he could work), his partnership is revoked. He fights it, even takes a menial lawyering job, thinks he has nothing other than his work to focus on, (hello - your family?). But then he needs to walk again.

He decides - and its not clear whether its because he thinks its better for his family or for himself - not to call to be picked up any more and so is getting further and further away from home. The more he walks, the more body parts (toes and fingers) he loses and the worse his health becomes. At one point he is admitted to hospital as a Richard Doe, with renal failure, enlarged spleen, sepsis-induced hypotension, dysentery and cellular damage to his heart. The final shift is when he seems to have some sort of mind/body split - its his body which demands to walk, to be fed, to sleep, complains of the various hurts and his mind which resists, calling his physical self "the other" and "brute want". There's a fair amount of musing about God, about the mind being captive of the body as he walks: this philosophising is one way in which Tim's mind fights back, along with appreciating the finer things in nature and art. Although Tim seems to win this war, after that his condition never goes into remission.

The end is really quite sweet. He's managed to keep track of what Becka is up to and when she's in Portland (I'm thinking it must be Oregon, which is a hell of a long way from New York), he goes to her. Their reunion was so tender, it brought a tear to my eyes. Its only then that Tim learns Jane is sick, and resolves to go home. His walks take him in all sorts of random directions, but he does have some wakeful periods when he has control, and he uses them to retrace his steps (he had tried buying a car, but was taken by the need to walk and never found the car again). Quite apart from the need to see Jane again, he needs to be "more than the sum of his urges", which is why he won't let Becka collect him.

Ultimately, I don't think that the unnamed in the title refers to his condition at all, but to something all humans have - the primeval wants that live beneath our sophisticated veneer and which do, like it or not, call the shots. What called him back, although he didn't really see it until he got back, was something even stronger: love.


Last Life in the Universe (2003) Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

I'm not sure I have ever seen a Thai movie before. This one was more than a little odd, but I enjoyed it a lot. It opens with an impossibility - the central character, Kenji (a Japanese fellow) musing over the possibility of suicide, being dead within three hours. He says its not for the normal reasons, but to relax and get away from it all. What's impossible is this shot
Life does seem sweet, however: he is a good looking young guy, has a nice apartment, one which looks more like a library than a house, he works in a library, every so often his brother comes round for what looks like a ritualised drinking session (this is his brother handing in his beer, shoes and briefcase before he makes his own appearance):
Nothing seems so busy that you'd need to kill yourself to get away from it. He has everything very organised
In fact, I'd say its the opposite - the lack of activity might be driving him nuts. That is, of course, until Kenji's brother is killed in his apartment (he's been with the wrong woman, it seems, and has the kind of boss who will send hitmen).

Every so often, the film cuts away to an unexplained woman (Noi)
but the connection is made about 20 minutes in. Kenji is perched on a bridge, thinking about his last lizard in the world story, looking like he's about to jump, but Noi's sister, Nid, sees him.
This scene is shown in a subsequent flash back (which left me a bit confused the first time I saw the movie): in going to help Kenji, Nid is killed in traffic.
The scenes bleed into each other here - we're watching Noi and Nid but hearing Kenji talk about loneliness - which made me think she's as lonely as he is.

When Noi returns Kenji's bag to him,
things take quite a turn - they have a silent dinner, walk along the riverside then he's asking "can I go to your home". Its here that the film is at its most odd, in that in the hour or so of the movie spent at Noi's house, nothing much happens.
The place is a mess,
he cleans up,
they talk a little (she's learning Japanese, he's learnt some Thai and they share a little English). She's more or less annoyed with his presence and even kicks him out at one point but, ultimately, she's grieving and he's a form of support. He has his own reasons for not wanting to go home - Noi thinks its a joke when he says "two dead people inside".

Poor Noi - she buys him some "fucking expensive" sushi to make amends, but he's allergic to fish. He does know the important things to say in Thai:
(she is pretty, beautiful even):
Eventually there's even a little bit of playfulness in their relationship, but it remains chaste and innocent throughout. I suspect that's what appeals to Noi about Kenji, as her sort of boyfriend is far from innocent. There's a scene where the house magically cleans itself
- I think this is about her getting her life back on track, getting her house in order

The movie has a spare aesthetic, is normally very slowly paced, with long, lingering shots and very slow closeups. Quite beautiful (the cinematographer is the famous Chris Doyle). Watching it a second time revealed so many things that I'd either missed or not understood the first time round. Still, there are some things left unanswered - why is Kenji in Thailand (he does have a suggestive major league tattoo), what does Noi do, what actually happens right at the end?

There's an overall tone of sweetness, and sadness, as these two quite unlikely characters come together. My favourite scene is towards the end, when Noi is getting ready to go to Japan and gives Kenji her car - its tender, funny and generous. Least favourite is the farcical second shootout in Kenji's apartment - it made no sense, and the hitmen were jokes.

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