From the cockpit of a World War I biplane to the bowels of an Egyptian tomb: The novel tipped by odds makers to win the Man Booker Prize tomorrow provides plenty of thrills. Too bad author Tom McCarthy is more interested in themes than plot.
His new book, “C,” centers on Serge Carrefax, a boy born in England at the start of the 20th century to the buzz of his father’s tinkering with early radio technology. He grows up unwholesomely close to his older sister, a science whiz who dies at 17 -- whether by accident or suicide we never learn.
The loss tips Serge’s interest in wireless communication into obsession. At her funeral, he senses her in the air, “like a signal, dispersed.”
Signals, signs and codes permeate this book: Even Serge’s name alludes to electrical currents. When people converse, they tend to be misheard or misunderstood, resulting in dialogue full of repetition and correction, rapped out like Morse code.
Coming of age, Serge enlists as an airplane radio operator during the Great War, acquiring a taste for cocaine high above Germany. Back in civilian life, he gravitates to London’s druggy bohemian fringe (and many an unconvincing scene).
“There’s a lot of snow in London at this time of year,” an actress tells him one warm autumn afternoon.
As the book spins toward a close, the government dispatches Serge to Egypt. Though the jaunt won’t end well, it allows McCarthy to riff on Egyptian mythology (to go with the French and German philosophy he crammed in earlier).
McCarthy is a vivid writer, yet his riddling intellectual complexity traps us outside Serge’s experiences. Beneath the transfixing surface lies an emotionally sterile, skimpy narrative.
“C” is published by Cape in the U.K. and by Knopf in the U.S. (310 pages, 16.99 pounds, $25.95).
Communication also preoccupies Claire Keegan in “Foster,” though she focuses on the eloquence of silence and the intimacy of wordless domesticity. A far quieter work than “C,” it was first published as a short story in New Yorker magazine, and has now been reworked and lengthened, though it remains compact.
Spanning a single summer in rural Ireland at around the time of the IRA hunger strikes in the early 1980s, the tale is told from the perspective of an unnamed young girl. Her feckless father has dumped her with scarcely known relatives called the Kinsellas while her mother produces yet another sibling.
The language is leanly evocative, its smallest details conveying reams about the girl’s foster home, a place warm, gleaming and without children. Tragedy haunts the Kinsellas, and neighboring busybodies can’t wait for the chance to tell all.
She will learn much during her summer sojourn, chiefly this: that there are some things better left unsaid. As Mr. Kinsella tells her, “Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.”
“Foster” is from Faber (88 pages, 6.99 pounds).
Laika and Sputnik
Though Patrick McCabe’s new novel is also set in Ireland, the similarities end there. His Cullymore is a quintessential small town, thrumming with feuds, grudges and petty rivalries, a place where sectarianism is a handy pretence for personal vendettas.
Spanning a half century of great change in Ireland, “The Stray Sod Country” opens in 1958 with news reports of Laika, the Sputnik space dog. The mournful image of the mongrel floating in outer space becomes a recurring emblem of isolating modernity.
More ancient influences are at work, too. Cullymore is a town that still believes its superstitions, including the story of stray sod country -- a no-man’s land where you end up once you take a wrong turn, as plenty of McCabe’s characters discover.
He braids these folkloric details with postmodern japery, and every now and again the disembodied voice of the omniscient narrator butts in, cajoling and goading his subjects into ever more extreme actions. Golly Murray the barber’s wife, for one, becomes possessed by murderous thoughts toward hoity-toity Blossom Foster, who in turn winds up flirting with Golly’s husband.
They’re not the only ones possessed by alien impulses. A local priest can’t stop cursing, and a former Latin teacher -- a minor authority on Horace -- has spiraled into insanity after kissing a boy on the lips during class.
It’s a rambling novel, yet its fidgetiness is underpinned by an arresting, primordial darkness.
“The Stray Sod Country” is from Bloomsbury (339 pages, 17.99 pounds, $15).
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)