The bookies' favourite for the Man Booker Prize renews Peter Geoghegan's faith in the English novel

The Man Booker prize is a bit like the Champion’s League for literature. Every year the competition promises excitement, variety, sophistisication, flair. But, more often than not, the eventual winners are worthy yet predictable (Barcelona, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) or come out of leftfield and turn out to be a bit rubbish after all (Porto, Yan Martel’s soporific Life of Pi).

The 2010 Man Booker longlist was announced last month, but unlike previous years favourites for the prize, it's not a former winner (although Peter Carey has been nominated) or a bestseller (David Mitchell is on the list). Instead it’s Tom McCarthy’s C that has the bookmakers – and the critics – chattering, and with good cause.

Serge Carrefax, C’s protagonist, is born in 1898, in Versoie, an estate and school for mute children in southern England. His father is the school’s principal and also a keen experimenter; Serge literally emerges into the static whirr of his father’s experimental wireless apparatus, tuned in to the electric hum of the new, invisible network.

In many ways C is typical McCarthy. The London-born writer, artist and self-avowed avant-gardist has spent the past 15 years producing works of complexity and contradiction that – from feted debut novel, Remainder, to his Dadaist-influenced International Necronautical Society art collective – often defy attempts at linear comprehension.

Spanning 24 years and over 300 pages, C is a remarkably ambitious project. There are characters and a plot, but in other respects it's less a novel and more an experiment in fiction as a form that harks back to those high priests of modernism, Joyce and Beckett.

Serge’s precocious older sister Sophie is the darling of the vibrant Versoie household. Her aptitude for natural sciences lands her a place at Imperial College, but her early flowering passions soon give way to deeper, darker intrusions, leading to her death by cyanide after just two terms at university.

Framed against a backdrop of Marconi and Amundsen, the motorcar and the gramophone, our young (anti-) hero begins a picaresque journey that owes as much to John Berger’s G, as it does to Thomas Pynchon, McCarthy’s closet stylistic reference point. But where Berger’s titular G progresses from alienation to class consciousness, Serge Carrefax is shiftless and impotent; wandering from London to Egypt, via the Great War, but finding fulfilment only in sex, drugs and death.

C is less a celebration of modernism than a forensic dissection of its failings, both as a literary movement and a great civilising project. Shamans and quacks abound, while Carrefax senior’s faith in radio waves leads him to believe that they can exist across space and time: ‘We could pick up the words, the very vowels and syllables, spoken on the cross…’. Before our eyes, the early optimism of the 20th century gives way to dark, visceral forces.

McCarthy has said that C grew out of earlier research on Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, the discoverers of Tutankhamun, and Serge spends the final quarter of the book working undercover in a fevered Egypt on the brink of independence. ‘You’re our attaché for detachment – our deattaché’, he is told on arrival in Alexandria, and by the end of the tour of duty his detachment is final.

A devotee of Jacques Derrida and Paul Virilo, McCarthy’s is an unabashedly literary oeuvre, but while post-modern flourishes abound the writer nevertheless succeeds in weaving elements of disparate sub-genres – youthful sexual awakening; war drama; spy romp – into a compelling, if not easily comprehendible, whole.

By turns dazzling and disarming, Tom McCarthy has shown reports of the English novel’s demise to be premature. C deserves high praise for its scope, vision and execution; it would be churlish to complain if such a bold statement were to walk away with the Man Booker come October.