C

Whoever said "All publicity is good publicity" failed to predict the behaviour of Tom McCarthy. Since the belated success of his novel Remainder (completed in 2001, a hit in 2007), he has emerged as the most galling interviewee in Britain, outstripping even Martin Amis, improbable as that sounds. The typical McCarthy utterance draws a perfect circle: "The avant-garde can't be ignored, so to ignore it - as most humanist British novelists do - is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin. Then you're just a creationist." His fame has complicated matters. He serves as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, but is now invited to pontificate in the kinds of media outlets for which this art collective would have unaffected (or only partly affected) scorn; he continues to excoriate the mainstream and champion the little-known, all the while indulging an appetite for self-promotion that makes Norman Mailer look like Thomas Pynchon.

Some of the blame for McCarthy's prominence must fall on Zadie Smith and her unfortunate essay "Two Paths for the Novel", an updating of Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1950s polemics, published in the New York Review of Books in 2008, in which Remainder is pitted against Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a work indicative of "the novel's present complacency". Smith sees McCarthy's blankness and nihilism as the "strong refusal" of O'Neill's belief in the old myths of self, while failing to see that readers may wish to fall under the sway of both novels, even if they are "antipodal", and both sets of assumptions, even if they conflict. To demolish the enemy, you must first identify him, and Smith sets her sights on something she calls "lyrical realism", a tag no better equipped to encompass the work of the hundreds of writers she intends than "dirty realism" was able adequately to describe the work of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff.

McCarthy, for his part, is fed up with "middlebrow aesthetics" and "liberal humanism", especially as manifested in the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to "a fully rounded, self-sufficient character's intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on". What has he been reading? If McCarthy thinks that is what most novels are like, it is little wonder he doesn't enjoy them. He expresses his anti-humanist alternative in terms of unanimous desire: "We don't want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything." That the author prescribes a nostrum for an imaginary ailment somewhat undermines the urgency of his project.

Anyway, this debate has lost much of its relevance because McCarthy's new novel is full of familiar delights and familiar tedium; even if Smith's Manichaean melodrama had a basis in reality, this book would play no role in it. The delights of C arise from its imaginative energy and bursts of mesmerising lyrical prose. The novel explores the dizzy emergence of technology at the beginning of the 20th century rather than its depressing development in the 21st century, and does most of this exploring in the country, a setting generally ignored in favour of the city as a more obvious centre of metallic modernity.

We follow Serge Carrefax (1898-1922) as he travels from the south of England to an unnamed European spa town, to France during the First World War, to London after the war and finally to Egypt. Serge does little emoting and less developing; he is an aerial for the novel's ideas. As a boy, he is enthralled by the automatism of cinema, finding the memory of moving images more real than his surroundings; he grows up to share his father's enthusiasm for wireless technology. Serge's mother is a silk merchant and his sister Sophie becomes a whizz at natural sciences. After Sophie's death, he develops mela chole (dark matter) in his stomach, though like most things in the book it may as well be called metaphor.

This is a novel characterised by, and preoccupied with, networks; its letter-title signifies - among other things - cocaine, carbon, crypts, connectedness, cathodes and Ceres, as well as a third novel (after Remainder and Men in Space). Much has been made of McCarthy's influences - Pynchon's V is an obvious one - the claim being that they are much more dynamic (his favourite word) than those of other writers of today. McCarthy is under the impression that "most contemporary authors", whom he is proud to admit he hasn't read, haven't read Beckett. He presumably means contemporary authors such as J M Coetzee, Colm Tóibín, Tim Parks and John Banville - to name just those who have written about Beckett in the New York Review of Books.

McCarthy should read those writers for a lesson in how to be obsessive and attentive without being dull. Protracted descriptions of a pageant and a seance drain the reader's will to live. The use of the present tense does not ease matters. Nor does the recurrence of images - more than 50 of them - mixing organic processes with each other, or with mechanical processes. Serge's farts carry "signals, odour-messages from distant, unseen bowels"; a cancerous ear is like a brass gramophone speaker, "slightly green with time"; death reminds Serge of a signal; his father's idea for the television reminds him of death; smoke from a train chimney is like lace; cigarette smoke is like lace; blood runs into spilt milk, "marbling its pool with deltaed strands, like natron on a lake of soda". The repetition is intended, which only makes it more annoying.

Initially thrilling, the novel's tone and vocabulary begin to pall after 100 pages. McCarthy evidently enjoys the sense of mystery available to the comparative adjective ("deeper, older, more embedded"); the words "black" and "dark" are hurled at the page. Near the beginning, it emerges that Serge cannot draw in perspective: "his perceptual apparatuses refuse point-blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration"; towards the end, on a murky assignment in Egypt, he becomes unable to recognise English speech, "as though his aural apparatus had been thrown off-kilter by the land's vibration". After a certain point, most sentences go something like this (not a parody): "Everything seems connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far end of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays."

Although McCarthy favours the emphasis on facts and visual description encouraged by Robbe-Grillet and achieves something of Kafka's chill, C remains disappointingly approachable. It neither confounds nor excites; for better or worse, it is not a new direction. Serge, for all his affectlessness, still "casts his mind back" and even feels "excitement and desire growing in him". Details carry symbolic freight; the author uses evocative devices such as onomatopoeia (the word "plash" appears three times). Robbe-Grillet said that the anti-bourgeois novel would not be able "to escape altogether" - but you might have expected Tom McCarthy, after all the rhetoric, to escape a little more than this.

C
Tom McCarthy
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £16.99

Leo Robson is the new Statesman's lead fiction reviewer