My review of C by Tom McCarthy

The C of the title ostensibly refers to the novel’s central character Serge Carrefax but late in this novel we discover it also refers to carbon, the basic element of life. The fax in Serge’s surname provides a clue to the novel’s central theme. Communication in all its proliferating forms during the early part of the 20th century. In C we find ourselves in a world of coded transmissions. The establishing and plotting of networks pervades the novel. The continual extending outwards of technology.

The central character Serge barely changes at all during the course of the novel. He’s much the same at twelve as he is in his thirties. Little more than a conduit for knowledge, for the scientific discoveries of the first quarter of the twentieth century, “the source signal” as McCarthy puts it. Serge gathers rather than alchemises information, like a data base. Not that this means his life journey isn’t compelling. On the contrary parts of this novel are genuinely exciting, especially when he’s flying above German trenches as an observer/navigator during World War 1 or when he visits the excavations of Egyptian tombs.

As a boy Serge is fascinated with charting radio waves – “the static is like the sound of thinking.” His father teaches deaf mutes to speak and his sister, with whom he shares a near incestuous relationship, is studying natural history and is especially fascinated by insects. Each in their own way establishing a connection, a network with a mute or invisible world. We then see Serge in a sanatorium seeking a cure for “black bile” when the novel calls to mind Mann’s the Magic Mountain (McCarthy writes as though post-modernism never happened, reminded me at times of Cowper Powys with his hermetically sealed imagination, eccentricity and free range vitality). Then Serge, at the behest of his cryptographer godfather, learns to become a pilot at the advent of World war one. Unlike the usual template of world war one fiction Serge relishes the experience and never wants the war to end. He remains essentially adolescent. He has a fling with a French prostitute. In fact Serge has a casual affair in every section of the novel. This is a more mysterious motif in the novel. There’s a sense Serge has no interest in heredity, in procreation, in love, in reaching out beyond himself. He craves the sexual act in and for itself, disinterested in all its ramifications, a paradox for someone who is obsessed with plotting and connecting networks of communication. We learn from his drawing teacher that Serge is uncomfortable with perspective and depth. He likes flying because it flattens everything out, conceals depth, makes of the world a map.
After the war Serge attends college. By now he is addicted to cocaine. He meets Audrey, an actress who takes him to a séance. Again we find ourselves in the plotting of an invisible kingdom. Serge is determined to find the trick. Finally Serge is sent to Egypt to help set up a worldwide communications network. Here he is shown around the excavations of tombs and the honeycomb nature of the adjoining chambers with all their cryptic significance. Much of the novel’s symbolism is clarified here. All communication is coded.

McCarthy is super intelligent. This doesn’t always work in his favour as a novelist. He perhaps over indulges in his obvious fascination for analysis at times which renders certain sections of the novel hard work, if not plain boring. On the whole though this was a high flying novel with many exciting depth charges. Brilliantly researched and imagined. In many ways C resembles a road novel. A character who never lingers, both physically but more pointedly emotionally, long enough anywhere to forge binding ties with the world around him but who, paradoxically, learns more about how the world communicates. Also, in many ways, it’s a novel about the internet long before the internet existed.

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