Tom McCarthy’s “C”

Promisingly enough for its chances, C begins in the manner of that Booker of all the Bookers, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: a child shares the moment of its birth with something other, more ephemeral. For Saleem Sinai, his fate is forever to be entwined with India’s; for McCarthy’s Serge Carrefax, on the other hand (and the clue is in the name), it is wireless communication – radio – which makes its mark on him from his earliest moments. The novel begins in 1898, when Marconi is first experimenting with transmitting sound through the ether, and it ends in 1922, the year the BBC was founded. In these 24 years our modern – our modernist – world is beaten and battered into shape. Serge is born with a cowl, signifying good luck; the reader doubts the omen.

McCarthy’s new novel – shortlisted for the Booker just weeks after its publication – is replete with such literary references, as Mr Self has noted over at the Asylum. In this and many other ways, C reads like any other piece of literary fiction, all allusion and elision – I know that this is how at least one reader I respect experienced the earlier pages of the novel. But at the same time C is playing with our expectations with an almost malicious intent: all these references really don’t build into anything greater, they rarely signify a grander meaning; they’re just encoded into the text, often for the simple joy of discovery.

‘Code’ is one of the many words for which ‘C’ may be taken to stand. Serge’s father, Simeon, runs a school for deaf children (his own wife is deaf), and he also experiments, like Marconi, with radio and sound. For him, communication – another key c-word – must be about clarity and openness, or else it is for nothing. But his friend Widsun, who works for Britain’s putative intelligence services, has a countervailing view, and one which comes to be dominant in the world at large: that communication is and always has been carried out in a series of codes, that language itself – of course! – is a series of sounds and nuances with which we imbue meaning, unintelligible beyond its initiates. The great proliferation of spy networks which infect the Europe of the period, darkening and fuzzing the continent like the gauze Serge develops over his vision (and which is ultimately cured by coitus, another form of congress prominent in the novel), are the means used by nation states to break through these constant cross-currents of meaning. They fail, of course – thus the Great War.

Serge is just the right age to be called up, and he joins the Flying Corps as an observer. Note the passivity of that role: Carrefax is not a pilot, but one of life’s voyeurs, a coy examiner at one remove from his subject. C confounds our expectations of the novel not just by obscuring its theme or ultimate meaning, but by denying us a sense of forward momentum, of developing plot or character. Serge passes through the tumultuous events of his life, barely registering their occurrence; as a point-of-view character he is everything one might be taught to avoid on a creative writing course. Unemotive and unempathetic, he experiences the war as an energising, rather than enervating, moment; his post-war self sees in shell shock not a response to the horrors of war but an outward sign of a much deeper malaise.

If C is about anything it is, in the manner of the modernists to whom McCarthy has claimed to be paying homage, about this dislocation. The explosion of communication, of information, which is occassioned by the technological breakthroughs of Serge’s lifetime result not in the more peaceful, more understanding, world for which Simeon might have hoped; rather, the novel ends in Egypt, with archaeologists scrabbling around in the unknowable past of pharohs and Copts, as the world competes and collapses around them. Serge retreats into increasingly passionless sex and ever multiplying amounts of cocaine; consolation, nevertheless, is scarce. In this sense, C is science fictional – it is about the process and consequences of discovery, and several of its characters – not least Serge’s sister, Sophie, whose unexplained suicide casts a shadow across the whole novel – are intensely engaged in ‘doing’ science, an activity which in turn makes Serge’s broken world tick.

What makes C tick, however, is much less easily identified. Indeed, it actively rebuffs any readerly attempt to decide either way. A plot summary or character study does not do this novel justice, since it is more properly one constructed from a series of repeating figures, like Morse code stuttering through static. Some of McCarthy’s motifs – tourists arguing in an Austro-Hungarian spa town as prefigurement of war – are bathetic; others – Serge and Sophie’s insect-dreams, repeated scenes of theatrical farce – are more multivalent and thus pregnant. But, in the way that Serge finds beauty in the white noise between frequencies, so C discourages us to separate signal from noise. Better, as Jenny Turner in the LRB, to explore the images we, not the didactic author of a progessivist novel, perceive in the flux between the two.

Whether all this is precisely experimental I’m less sure, but it is certainly fiercely orthogonal to, and dismissive of, the mainstream literary novel it slyly mimics. McCarthy deliberately confuses and confounds; he demands an awful lot of his readers, and at times rewards them too reluctantly – there’s no way around the fact that without impetus some of this novel’s pages grow tedious. Yet beneath this still – almost dead – surface, C is bursting with ideas. Almost every moment on every page is connected in some way with another. One is sure that somewhere McCarthy has a hideous spider’s web of a diagram, so whole and considered is this novel’s vision – as you read it, you are aware that it has a life beyond any initial reading. (This may ultimately pay it dividends, since the members of the Booker jury will have read it at least three times by October 12th.) It is also at times a very funny book – Tomcat, in a great review, has said that “C’s sense of humour is the dark love-child of propriety and perversion”; it is also, of course, terrifically serious and very, very clever. It is not always captivating in style or subject matter, and in making everything a code or a cipher, in elevating the cryptology above the solution, it might risk hollowness; but few novels take such risks with quite so much confidence and conviction. Remarkable.

8 thoughts on “Tom McCarthy’s “C”

  1. My brother in law – who is a full time fan of the literary avant-garde compared to my own only occasional forays into it – gave me this over the summer and I was utterly absorbed by it. It is such a dense novel that I will need to re-read it, but it is a long time since I have been so pulled in by a novel. As you say, remarkable.

  2. Alison – good call! Will be very interested in your thoughts. Red Plenty’s on my list, too, though …

    Nick – glad you felt the same way about the book. I tend not to re-read very quickly after an initial going through, but you’re absolutely right that the density of C demands it. I still feel that it perhaps isn’t as beautiful on a word-by-word basis as, for instance, the Jacobson; but it is without doubt a novel to wallow in, ambitious and fertile. To wit …

    Tomcat, I think it must win the prize, yes. I’ve just finished In A Strange Room, and must say I’m rather fond of it … but for sheer scope and artistic power it’s not on the same planet.

  3. I’ve read the entire longlist now, and ‘c’ is by far the best. Although, I was angered that ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ didn’t get shortlisted. That was an overrsight, I feel.

  4. I’m always complaining that the B word is over used but it really did remind me of Ballard but with a sense of humour. I’ll also note that one of the sections is called Crash so I wonder if this is conscious. In his introduction to that novel, Ballard says:

    The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia…

    C reads a bit like the birth of that world (with McCarthy being free from the personal events that shackled Ballard to the post-nuclear world). Which would be the death of modernism, I guess.

    I liked the book a great deal. However, as you note, it can sometimes be tedious. I am sure the Egypt sense is necessary – I sense that spider diagram too – but it is a lot to wade through for the reader. That might also be a side effect of finding the earlier sections extremely powerful.

    Also: caul, not cowl.

  5. Tomcat: I was sad to see Mitchell excluded, and can’t see how Room is there when Thousand Autumns isn’t. On the other hand, and though I enjoyed the book a great deal, there are at least three books – the Jacobson, McCarthy and Galgut – on the shortlist which have it beat on one level or another.

    Martin: can’t argue with you on the Ballardian echoes, though I’m not familiar enough with the breadth of his work – for shame – confidently to nail them down. Very much agreed, though, both that a) C is about the birth of a very sick world, and b) it’s tedious and even pedantic in places. Finally:

    Also: caul, not cowl.

    I have Neal Asher on the brain.

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