Thursday, September 2, 2010

C, by Tom McCarthy

Jonathan Cape, 2010
310 pp. 

Trying to put all of my thoughts together about this book was like giving birth, I swear. It took me forever, even after having read this book twice.

When you begin reading C, you immediately discover that you’re in for something well off the beaten path. The book is divided into four parts: the first offers the main character’s (Serge Carrefax) birth and childhood. At the time of Serge’s birth, as we learn from Serge’s father, the inventor Marconi was out on Salisbury Plain, doing his final demonstrations of his new wireless radio (he would receive the patent from the British that same year). Marconi’s invention proved that radio waves could travel through air, rather than through wires – from a transmitter to a receiver and ushered in the birth of modern telecommunications. This theme of transmission and receiving becomes a solid core element of McCarthy’s novel.

Serge has a rather unconventional childhood, with a father who runs a school for the deaf (where he focuses on teaching them to speak) and is obsessed with communications and technology. The first time we meet Simeon, he’s in the midst of spooling copper wire all around the grounds of the family home, Versoie, experimenting with signal transmission. Simeon hopes to find “a patent way for using radio to sense the weather in advance.” His mother raises silkworms, processing their cocoons to produce silk that brings very high prices on the market. He also has an older sister, Sophie. As they grow up, they are great playmates and friends. They are both interested in codes and ciphers (unlike their father, who believes codes & encryption go “against the whole principle of communication”), combing through the Times personals to find secret messages; they become involved in a rather complicated game of Monopoly designed by their tutor on the Versoie grounds (where there is constant noise and humming, both natural and technological – so that the grounds of their home are literally alive) where they come to thrive on the competition; both enjoy experimenting with chemistry from the Boy’s Playbook of Science – in other words, they grow up with a close connection to each other, as close as two siblings can be – much like two complementary opposites of a whole.

Sophie has a love for the natural world, and when she’s older, chooses to study natural science. Serge is like his father, more on the scientific end. He spends a great deal of time listening to the wireless, picking up static (“like the sound of thinking….the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush”), and then silence, and finally the “first quiet clicks” where “words start forming…”. He starts out on the local frequencies, moving out farther and farther into the airwaves, to Paris, then on to even higher frequencies, and as the clock climbs to the top of the hour, there’s silence – then the clicks start up again. As he listens, he conjures up images local to where the transmissions are originating. And at some point, the clicks dissipate, and “wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear.” But then…trauma strikes in the form of Sophie's death and as a result, Serge ends up at a sanitorium, where his doctor notes the cause and the cure:
“…Blockage. Jam, block, stuck. Instead of transformation, only repetition…Blockage must be broken, then body and soul will open up, like flowers…Out now…Go and start transforming.” begins.

The second part finds Serge off to the first world war, to the British Air Force, working as an aerial observer, where he is able to see from above. Conversely, when taken prisoner, he finds solace in staying below in the tunnels. It is during his time as in the war that he also discovers the joy of cocaine, at first rubbing it in his eyes and then moving on to snorting it, offering him a heightened sense of awareness & perception. He continues his drug use once back in London where he hangs out with some very off-beat people living a rather Bohemian lifestyle as part three of the book begins, and in part four, Serge is off the Egypt, where it’s now 1922, and Egypt is celebrating its nominal independence from the once-great British Empire. He’s down in the crypts, exploring the history of the ancients, leading to an impressive and appropriate finish.

At first glance, this book seems to be a rather conventional novel. And in some sense it pretends to be: it’s a sort of coming-of-age story, told linearly, along the path of technological progress in the opening years of the 20th century. That’s what most conventional readers are used to. But when you start getting into it, McCarthy muddies those particular waters by adding in his theme of transmission and repetition throughout the novel, giving the reader pause for thought. You have to ask yourself: what is actually being transmitted here – what is being repeated?

This book isn't very user friendly, but in many ways, this stems from trying to unlock the keys to the puzzles here, of which there are many. I I think that part of what McCarthy is trying to show is the sense of loss, despair and a sense of alienation that began to make its way into the realms of literature & art and characterize this period of time in history -- all of these are reflected in Serge at the loss of his sister.  Major dislocations across the world occurred during this time, not the least of which was a new web of  "interconnectedness" (for lack of a better term) and "webs"  across the globe.  This was made possible by technology that furthered communication, transportation and, as the author notes toward the end, the beginnings of "Westernization" (and fyi, I hate that word)  desired by many formerly-colonized countries as the power of the Empire began to wane across the globe. Societies that once were based on tradition now wanted what the "West" had -- and in some cases, this wasn't always a good thing.  But I digress. Serge spends a great deal of his young life seeking to make connections that rationality (logic and reason) can't really explain -- and ultimately, it is not until he is down with the dead in Egypt and then on a boat home that things begin to converge for him. I think that my lack of familiarity with some of the art & literature referenced (and derived from) by the author put me at a definite disadvantage. But I've come to realize that it doesn't really matter. 

After the second reading, I decided I liked the book, didn't love it, but I do recognize that McCarthy is an extremely talented writer. I want to try his book on Tintin next. I don't know if this is a book that the general public is going to embrace, but it's still very worth the time you spend reading it.


  1. sounds like a really unusual read! i am fond of quirky, which is one of the reasons i like, for example, jasper fforde

  2. LOL! I know what you mean about putting thoughts together on this book - it took me ages! I couldn't decide if I liked it or not and re-read a lot of it to make up my mind. I agree with you - I liked it but didn't love it.

  3. Actually, I think I rewrote this like 4 times. I'd write something, hate it, rewrite it, hate it, and finally I just quit thinking about it -- and then figured out what I wanted to say!

  4. hmmm .. this is one of those books that sound like you either LOVE it or can't make up your mind about it ... sounds interesting enough to at least put on the wishlist! Thanks for the review!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries


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