Story of my life, really. I met Tom McCarthy at a party in Dublin just after his first novel, Remainder, was published by an obscure Parisian art imprint. At that stage, of course, nobody knew that Remainder would go on to become a huge cult success, or that Zadie Smith would claim it as "one of the great English novels of the past ten years" for its stern rejection of the conventions of traditional realism.
Perhaps I would have gleaned all this, presciently - and found myself with a world literary scoop on my hands - had I only lingered in the kitchen a little longer than the time it took to say "congratulations". But no. Slinging back a tequila shot, I spent the night stumbling drunkenly about the dance floor, dispensing with my brain cells rather than stimulating them.
Never mind. At least hedonism is something the hero of C, McCarthy's latest, Booker-longlisted novel, seems to relate to. C is the strange story of Serge Carrefax, scion of a late-Victorian family grown rich from manufacturing silk. His father, who manages a school for the deaf in the English countryside, is a pioneering wireless buff; under his influence Serge becomes obsessed with wireless technology, haunting the airwaves at night via his homemade set. When World War One breaks out he joins the School of Military Aeronautics and is soon flying sorties above the Western Front, calling down artillery strikes on the Germans. He also takes to snorting cocaine before each take-off, bringing on an autoerotic climax:
Higher up, the vapour trails of the SE5s form straight white lines against the blue, as though the sky's surface were a mirror too. Scorch-marks and crater contours on the ground look powdery; it seems that if he swooped above them low enough, then he could breathe them up as well, snort the whole landscape into his head. The three hours pass in minutes. As they dip low to strafe the trenches on the way back, he feels the blood rush to his groin. He whips his belt off, leaps bolt upright and has barely got his trousers down before the seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine's tail and falls in a fine thread towards the silt earth below.
"From all the Cs!" he shouts. "The bird of Heaven!"
After the war, Serge tries to study architecture, but decadent London during the Roaring Twenties (heroin parties, lesbian showgirls) distracts him. After a car crash, he is packed off to revolutionary Egypt on a complex mission relating to the Empire Wireless Chain, a radio system designed to broadcast the embryonic BBC round the world. During a sex scene in a pharaonic burial chamber a deadly insect bites him, and the book ends with a series of feverish hallucinations.
In one sense, then, C is a good old ripping yarn. But the real action runs parallel to the plot, in the crackling zone of words. Images and associations are constantly bumping up against one another here, breeding strange new meanings that seem to go nowhere. The text effectively becomes a kind of drug-riddled fever dream, operating at a strange, subliminal frequency, which may or may not contain an urgent message for the reader.
Take the opening scenes. A doctor arrives at an estate called Versoie to deliver a baby. This estate houses a silk factory managed by the baby's mother, as well as a school for deaf children, which is run by the father. Apart from the echo of Versailles in the manor's name (which turns out to be significant later on), the name also conjures vers a soie, which is "silkworm" in French. Oh, and Vers is French for "towards", while ouier is "to hear" - meaning both parents, and their day jobs, are effectively represented by the name of the estate.
Also, the baby is christened Serge Carrefax - a play both on "surge" in the electrical sense (conductivity, transmission and the emergent broadcasting technology of the period are key ideas in the book), and the fabric "serge". The surname Carrefax encrypts the idea of "carrying" compounded with "fax" in terms of transmittal. Or is it "fax" in the sense of a facsimile or copy? Both meanings turns out to be significant.
Phew. It's exhilarating, but relentless. And that's just the first few pages.
It all adds up to an ambitious assault on what McCarthy has called the "certainties of middlebrow aesthetics" - that is, rounded characters, generic plots and big, earnest "themes". Serge, for example, remains little more than a cipher, because McCarthy wants to point up his artificiality - he's a construct transmitting enmeshed messages, like the wireless technology with which the book is so obsessed. In an obvious debt to Robbe-Grillet, he is laying out his arguments for the novel as a complex form of communication, a kind of code. Every reading is different; the recipient is the key.
You'll know already, I should think, whether this is a book for you - in the kitchen with the frisky, finger-popping experimentalists, furiously channelling the spirit of the 20th century avant-garde, or chugging away on the dance floor with the champions of realism.
If it's the latter, don't dismiss C out of hand. It's ruthlessly intelligent, rich with meaning and metaphor that are meshed together not just at the narrative level, but linguistically too. It's elegantly written and full of black humour. Hell, it might even win the Booker. Now that would surely make even the most retiring novelist put on his red shoes and dance.
Melissa de Villiers