By Tom Mcrathy
British writer and conceptual artist Tom McCarthy had a critical hit with his debut novel, Remainder(EXCELLENT) May/June 2007), the story of a man who uses a large settlement to recreate a moment of deja vu in minute detail. McCarthy's latest effort, C, is an expansive, experimental biography set around the turn of the last century. The novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
THE STORY: C is the biography of the short, eventful life of Serge Carrefax, an enigmatic boy growing up on an English estate with a father who is a cutting-edge inventor and heads a school for the deaf. Serge is followed, it seems, by the letter "C," which drives the novel's four sections--"Caul" (a homage of sorts to Dickens's character David Copperfield), "Chute," "Crash," and "Call"--as well as most of the episodes in Serge's life. But the novel also catalogs fin de siecle Europe: the introduction of groundbreaking technology like Morse code, the radio, and Tesla's work with electricity; the political tensions leading to World War I; and many more mystical episodes that connect Serge to the larger world and that blur the boundaries between dream and reality.
Knopf. 320 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307593337
Los Angeles Times CLASSIC
"With C, Tom McCarthy has written an avant-garde masterpiece--a sprawling cryptogram--in the guise of an epic, coming-of-age period piece. ... C is coming-of-age as philosophy, philosophy as fiction, fiction as 'dummy-chamber' ('the real thing's beyond')--the novel as encrypted code for life." MEEHAN CRIST
Washington Post CLASSIC
"The end of Tom McCarthy's extraordinary novel C takes readers back to its very beginning. ... In creating a work that recycles itself and our culture, McCarthy has produced something truly original." SAMANTHA HUNT
Entertainment Weekly EXCELLENT
"Serge's life--and his obsessions with telegraphy and Morse code--reads like W. Somerset Maugham tweaked to a frenetic and distorted frequency. C is also a novel about connections." KEITH STASKIEWICZ
NY Times Book Review EXCELLENT
"C is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of meaning: our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. ... Like life, which we overinterpret at our peril, this strange, original book is--to its credit--a code too nuanced and alive to fully crack." JENNIFER EGAN
Wall Street Journal EXCELLENT
"The formal difficulty of C may go back to the postmodern idea that shifts interest from the 'what' to the 'how' of art, the game of problematizing. ... C is clever, confident, coy--and cryptic." ALEXANDER THEROUX
Boston Globe EXCELLENT
"Toward the book's close, McCarthy loses control of his narrative a bit and suddenly resembles a professor racing to get through the syllabus before the semester ends: so many ideas to impart, so many points to underline, so little time remaining. What we get for that final stretch is more lecture than literature, but it can only blunt, not negate, the signal achievement that's come before." LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
New York Times POOR
"Very similar themes [like Remainder] lie at the heart of [McCarthy's] disappointing and highly self-conscious new novel ... C fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text." MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Even with a good deal of mainstream attention for his third novel, C, Tom McCarthy is still something of a fringe writer. That's by choice, and not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe McCarthy, who owes a debt to James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and the French nouveau roman, has it right when it comes to the writer's prerogative. "There is an intrepid attitude to Mr. McCarthy's literary sally that has little to do with pleasing publishers or an audience," writes the Wall Street Journal. The result is simultaneously brilliant, cryptic, reflexive, and difficult, and McCarthy seems to be content with letting his audience find the story here. Despite being an "experimental" novel, C is never less than thought-provoking, particularly for the multilayered narrative whose threads invite recognition while resisting interpretation. Only the New York Times thought otherwise--but that's Michiko Kakutani for you.
RELATED ARTICLE: BOOKMARKS SELECTION
By Emma Donoghue
In her novel Slammerkin (2001), Irish author Emma Donoghue follows an ambitious 18th-century prostitute living in England. Now, in a startling departure from her earlier work, Donoghue uses a child's voice to relay the wonder, and horror, of a life lived in captivity. Room was short-listed for the Booker Prize.
THE STORY: Five-year-old Jack, happy and well adjusted, lives alone with his devoted mother. Their daily routine includes a structured curriculum of math, reading, music, PE, and sometimes even a little television. Jack, who entertains himself with various imaginary games, is perfectly content--except at night, when Old Nick visits his mother and Jack must hide in the closet. Just 19 when she was abducted on the way to her college library, Jack's mother has been held captive for seven years in a soundproof garden shed, an 11-by-11-foot room that comprises Jack's entire universe. Gradually, Jack comes to realize that the only life he has ever known is really quite extraordinary.
Little, Brown. 321 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780316098335
Boston Globe CLASSIC
"An emotionally draining read, yet at the same time impossible to put down, it has all the makings of a modern classic. ... It is, hands down, one of the best books of the year." LIZ RAFTERY
Dallas Morning News CLASSIC
"The utter genius of Room comes from Donoghue's careful construction of the child's narrative. ... For anyone who's thought, 'How do you survive that?' Donoghue provides mesmerizing insight, in a voice at once winsome and blistering." JOY TIPPING
Washington Post CLASSIC
"[O]ne of the most affecting and subtly profound novels of the year. ... Not too cute, not too weirdly precocious, not a fey mouthpiece for the author's profundities, Jack expresses a poignant mixture of wisdom, love and naivete that will make you ache to save him." RON CHARLES
Entertainment Weekly EXCELLENT
"Though the story's chilling circumstances reflect the horrors endured by tabloid-famous abductees, Donoghue avoids all sensationalism. Instead, she gracefully distills what it means to be a mother--and what it's like for a child whose entire world measures just 11 x 11." LISA SCHWARZBAUM
NY Times Book Review EXCELLENT
"Jack's voice is one of the pure triumphs of the novel: in him, [Donoghue] has invented a child narrator who is one of the most engaging in years--his voice so pervasive I could hear him chatting away during the day when I wasn't reading the book. ... [Ma is] a sympathetic figure, and her choices, in her situation, are believable, even understandable, but by shaming the questioners, Donoghue also cuts off a reader who may have similar wonderings." AIMEE BENDER
"Impressive. ... Room meditates on the nature and mixed blessings of love, innocence and motherhood itself." LAURA MILLER
"Absent are any of the emotional subtleties, insights or genuine trauma that would actually happen in such an ordeal. But read as a love story between mother and son, the book is a triumph, a celebration of the lengths we go to for our loved ones, and the comfort in the skewed world that relationships create." KARLA STAR
Critics were enthralled by Donoghue's latest novel, inspired by the Josef Fritz case, in which an Austrian man locked his daughter in the basement for 24 years. Describing it as gripping, claustrophobic, and "fantastically evocative" (Washington Post), they also predicted that Room, recently short-listed for the Booker Prize, would appeal to a much larger audience than the author's previous fiction. On the other hand, several reviewers noted that Jack's understated anxiety in the book's second half didn't quite ring true, but they also acknowledged that the critique was "based on the very high standards set by the beauty of the book" (New York Times Book Review). As a thriller of sorts and a love story, Donoghue's novel is a stunning achievement. Or, as one critic put it, "Such a story, such a mother" (Entertainment Weekly).
Bitter in the Mouth.
The Vietnamese-born Monique Truong earned many awards for her first novel, The Book of Salt (EXCELLENT SELECTION July/Aug 2003), the story of a gay Vietnamese man who cooks for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in World War I-era Paris.
THE STORY: Born with a form of synesthesia, Linda Hammerick tastes words, a trait that gives her emotional power. Growing up in a small North Carolina town in the 1970s and 1980s, Bitter in the Mouth follows Linda at school, where she and her best friend Kelly ("canned peaches") fawn over Dolly Parton and vie for a boy named Wade ("sherbet"); at college at Yale; and in New York City in her 30s. Moving back and forth in time as she learns to control the "incomings" of her secret sensory overload, Linda reflects on her relationships with her great-uncle Baby Harper Burch--a gay cross-dresser she loved dearly--as well as her acerbic grandmother and her unsympathetic mother. But secrets abound, and only when tragedy strikes does Linda come to understand her identity.
Random House. 285 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781400069088
Los Angeles Times EXCELLENT
"Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong's bone is the outsider's plight, and her pen is a scalpel, laying perfect words down along that nerve until even the happiest reader understands what it means to forever stand apart from your family and the larger society you inhabit. ... Bitter's end is neither bitter nor sweet, but the perfect combination of both: bittersweet, a word requiring no italicized...