C - 2015 Reading Challenge
In 2010, Tom McCarthy's novel, C, was shortlisted for a Man Booker prize. For those of you who don't know, it's arguably the most prestigious novel prize in the UK. Former winners include Hilary Mantel, Richard Flanagan, Julian Barnes, and Beryl Bainbridge. So yeah, it's kind of a big deal. While C didn't take out the prize, it's certainly been hailed by many critics as a masterful work, and reviews lavishing praise have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and many other big publications.
I'm saying all this, pointing out all the praise that the novel received, because honestly--I hated it.
A book with bad reviews
Let's start with that, because this is the category I've put it in on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist. While C received a lot of critical praise, there are also a good number of bad reviews for the book. It's not because it's poorly written, and definitely not because it's badly researched. McCarthy is a great, highly intelligent, experimental author who is widely respected in the literary community.
So why didn't you like it, Amy? Such positive critical reception certainly must mean that it's a brilliant novel. Maybe you just have crappy taste.
Maybe, indeed. In fact, when I finally finished this book after two weeks of hard labor, the first thing I said after flinging it across the room was "I feel so stupid when I hate books that have such good reviews."
First, let me say that C did have some enjoyable moments. There were times when characters were almost too clever for their own good, and I actually learned things while reading it. I think it could have made a really good nonfiction history book, to be honest--it was that well researched. But there was one huge problem that I had with it, which I will share below.
Fortunately for me, I found camaraderie on Goodreads. Now before you judge that, I do realize that you can look at any book on Goodreads--no matter how gorgeous or groundbreaking--and find terrible reviews for it, so I really shouldn't take too much pleasure in knowing that C got some pretty terrible reviews there. But what I took comfort from is seeing so many other readers feeling the same thing that I felt:
I just did not care about Serge Carrefax.
Reader beware: there are spoilers below. If you do want to read this book, I suggest you go buy it here and don't finish my review.
Serge is the main character the book revolves around, from his birth to untimely death at approximately 25 years old. We see him find the body of his older sister after she's died of mysterious poisoning. We see him go off to World War I as an observer in the air force. We see him become a POW in a German camp. We see him nearly get shot before the Germans who've captured him conveniently find out the war has ended, just in the nick of time. And we see him go to Egypt for God knows what reason (I honestly have no clue, even though it's the full last third of the book) other than to get a history lesson and die.
As a reader, I want to care about the person whose story I'm reading. That only makes sense, right? It's one of the first things they taught us as creative writers, so I figure it's important. If nobody cares about your character, then no matter how fascinating your plot may be, no one will care about your book.
Turns out, they're absolutely right as far as I'm concerned. I had this experience a few weeks ago reading Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album. Both of these novels were written by great authors, were very well reviewed overall, and had absolutely fantastic plots. Yet I didn't like them.
For goodness' sake, the amount of things that happen to Serge in 310 pages is extraordinary. C should have been a breathtaking page-turner of a novel, but instead I had to force myself to pick it back up every time I put it down. The premise was exciting. The theme of how communication happens and Serge's ability to see symbols in everything was fascinating.
I just didn't care.
And I figured out early on why I didn't care. Because Serge didn't care. Throughout the novel, no matter what insane, tragic, or exciting thing is happening to him, Serge absolutely gives zero craps about it. That's the literary term.
All of that being said, I know theoretically that McCarthy set out to write the 'anti-novel' as some would call it. And I have no problem with messing with convention, because if no one had ever messed with the convention of putting on plays to share stories, then we wouldn't have the novel in the first place.
But if you're going to screw with the way people have been doing things for hundreds of years, if you're going to break all of the rules, it better be because you're improving on the original. And for me, at least, C does not do that.
It left me dying for a story I could sink my teeth into, and fortunately I found that with Haruki Murakami's novel Kafka on the Shore, which will be my next review. I'm 170 pages in and in love.
Have you read C? Did you love it? Tell me why. I genuinely want to know.