C (2010) is a massive disappointment that should have come nowhere near the Booker. The first chapter starts well enough with Serge Carrefax’s birth, but in some ways it sets up the major problem of the book, which reads like a very dutiful answer to the question of what would happen if someone was born in this strange situation. The review blurb from Jonathan Dee on the back cover is criminally inaccurate, referring to the novel as “an avant-garde epic” when it is neither avant-garde nor epic. In fact, it is very straightforward bildungsroman as we see Serge grow up against the historical backdrop of the first three decades of the twentieth century. Granted, aspects of the coming-of-age go awry as Serge is not successfully integrated into the community (for example, he thinks the experience of fighting in World War I is entertaining and that everyone else is just faking the shell shock afterwards), leading to a general flatness of character instead of roundness—but this ground has been explored many times over and much better by other novels.
The flatness gets to a key aspect of the novel: Serge sees the world as flat and can never get perspective right when drawing. He sees know depth in the world, and there is not much depth or growth to his character. You could say McCarthy is trying to use the flatness of the character to get to the roundness: the drama of Serge is his inability to see the world is round, leading to a death drive that hurls him forward. I think this is the most charitable explanation for what McCarthy is doing, but it doesn’t play out very well because the novel’s engagement with the world around Serge is itself so incredibly dry. You get the sense that McCarthy read a lot of theorizations of postmodern fiction as tied to flatness and space in historical metafictions, and then set out to write something that would fall into that category, leading to passages that read like watered down Pynchon or Powers, none of the excitement of the prose left intact. The worst parts are the didactic historical and scientific moments, McCarthy showing you he has done his homework by giving us not-usually-portrayed aspects of the rest cure experience or by having characters explain Egyptian entombment. I suppose many of the details McCarthy highlights would have been left out of your junior high world history textbook, but the passages read with about as much enthusiasm as the football coach who was assigned to teach the class to fill out his schedule. Historically and scientifically immersed fiction need not be so dull.