Sunday 2 December 2012

C - making me feel upper-mid-brow

C by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape: 2010) This book follows Serge Carrefax as he anchors his life to the key developments of early 20th century technology, with the radio at it’s core. He spends much of his life trying to understand his existence, the nature of loss, and his own inherent sadness. Pathos galore.

As I’m only half way through my current read, I looked at my bookshelf and decided to tell you about this book instead.

Partly because last week's book had a ridiculously long title, and this has the shortest of anything I've ever read, and I like that joke. But it also stands out because it makes me feel guilty, more than any other book on my shelf.

Why guilty? Because I just didn’t get it.

I really didn’t. And I know there’s something to get. People whose opinions I trust have told me how great this book is. It has given rise to praise which is embarrassing at times. It’s nearly two years since it was published, and it’s still drawing applause, which makes me think it stands a chance of living a long time in the public mind.

So, clearly, there’s big biscuits to be had here. I just couldn’t reach them.

It’s possibly because this has a high brow, post modern style that I struggle with. I’ve never studied “literature” in any sort of serious academic setting. I don’t have the tools to navigate a narrative which is deconstructive, and avoids any traditional hint of character and plot. I try, I really do. And I like to think I’m a fairly fast learner with my own fair share of common sense. But as I was reading C, it felt as if there was a huge point being made which remained hidden from me as a member of the low-brow (or at least mid-brow. Is there an upper-mid-brow? If so, that’s probably where I’d nestle).

All of which makes me feel guilty. Or dumb. Or both.

And then, earlier this year, I read another post-modern, terribly academic novel in Umbrella. And I found myself enjoying it much more. Yes, the long periods of confusion remained, but they were broken up by beautiful bits which grabbed me, and even the confusion seemed to have a purpose and a meaning by the last page.

I never got that with C.

So maybe it’s not the style that is all to blame. If I can enjoy Umbrella, maybe there’s something else about C which made it fall down for me.

For example, I never found myself connecting with the characters in the same way as I did with Umbrella. There are eccentricities baked into the plot and the people which kept me constantly off-balance, and not in a good way. There’s a metaphysical core to a lot of what happens that I never bought into the way I ought to have done.

It wasn’t entirely lost on me. I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy this simply because I missed the point completely (though clearly I did a bit). The big arcs, the emotion, the central themes - I spotted some of these and understood them to a point. But I never believed them. The subtleties that make you really connect with a book never came. The detail and the empathy they illicit remained annoyingly out of reach.

Maybe you’ll read this and you’ll get it better than I did. Maybe you’re better armed to unpick its worth.


I don’t mind putting in effort for a book. But I need something back. I found this tough, and never felt my effort was rewarded. The flashes of brilliance never struck me.

Only 3 and a bit weeks until Christmas, which means the GBRYIR is on its way. It also means the decorations are up in my and Mrs GBR’s flat. And we’ve had mince pies. And I’m wearing my Christmas hat. Try not to be too jealous.

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