Tom McCarthy’s marvelous, confounding new novel C tells the life story of Serge Carrefax and his strange adventures at the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel begins with Serge’s birth on his parents’ estate Versoie; he’s born with a caul, a “veil around his head: a kind of web,” a mystic mark that both disconnects and, paradoxically, joins him to the world. At Versoie, Serge’s father Simeon experiments with wireless technology and runs a school for deaf children while Serge’s deaf mother farms bombyx mori moths for silk. Serge and big sis Sophie are left to the care of their tutor Mr. Clair, but they manage to get into trouble with their chemistry set when he’s not looking. In addition to offering the Carrefax kids a classical education, Mr. Clair, a proto-Marxist, teaches them a game akin to Monopoly. In a particularly inspired scene, they soon dispense with the game board to recreate the game on the real-live grounds of Versoie, eventually incorporating the aid of a wireless communication system. Then, when moving from wireless receiver to wireless receiver becomes too much hassle, they simply co-ordinate the game in their collective imagination, managing properties in the pure abstract. The game elegantly emphasizes the siblings’ development from playing via symbolic representation, to enacting those symbols on a one-to-one scale, to finally internalizing and encapsulating the real world. It’s as if they’ve swallowed Versoie into their very beings.
Versoie initiates and enacts its own strange culture and mythology, one that intertwines inextricably with Serge and Sophie’s childhood. It’s a rich, detailed world, at once magical and unsettling, bustling with bizarre pageants (part of Simeon’s curriculum), eclectic experiments, and visitors like Widsun, a British intelligence code-breaker/code-maker who serves as a mentor first to Sophie and later Serge. While Sophie delights in secret codes and chemistry (particularly poison-making), Serge experiments with wireless technology, spending late nights on his homemade wireless set with other “bugs.” In one scene, Serge listens to “an RXer in Lydium who calls himself ‘Wireworm’ [who] is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General’s plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.” Tech geeks with hyperbolic handles griping over minutiae in the wee hours–sound familiar? McCarthy describes Serge’s reaction: “Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm’s not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word ‘fashion.’ The spacing’s a little awkward also: too studied, too self-conscious.” We get text messaging a century before text messaging, and as Serge searches between news reports and chess games and distress calls, we see that the world wide web is far older than we might have thought. Later in the novel Simeon writes a letter to his son where he describes a proto-internet, claiming his ambition is “to transmit moving pictures over distance, such that life in all its full, vibrant immediacy may be relayed without any delay.” This isn’t steampunk though, it’s simply a reminder that wireless technology isn’t an invention of our own time. C is an historical fiction deeply concerned with technological fact. It’s also a bildungsroman, too, so let’s return to young Serge, who soon ventures to a Bohemian spa with Clair as chaperon.
The adolescent Serge is ill. He perceives the world through a “guazy crepe” that blackens his vision, recalling the amniotic sac that webbed his head at birth. At the spa, Dr. Philip diagnoses Serge’s problem: “You . . . have got blockage. Jam, block, stuck. Instead of transformation, only repetition.” He accuses Serge of enjoying his illness, of enjoying “to feast on the mela chole, on the morbid matter, and to feast on it repeatedly, again, again, again, like it was lovely meat–lovely, black rotten meat.” The Burroughsian image of black meat pops up again and again in C, perhaps suggesting the human limitation to transcend–or in Philip’s words, transform–the mortal condition. However, Serge manages, through his own devices, to break through the blockage; if his epiphany is ultimately negative, at least it is real, a semi-Cronenbergian sexual awakening with a hunchback.
Like Versoie, the Bohemian spa is both a rich and alienating setting; McCarthy’s great gift to the reader is crafting enough detail in his set pieces to make them seem utterly real, yet to withhold enough so that the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps that might exist outside of Serge’s proximity. C is only 300 pages long yet feels much deeper–not longer, but deeper. This is most evident in the novel’s next milieu, the Great War, where Serge serves as a Royal Air Force aerial observer. War novels, histories, and movies have given us so much information about WWI that it would be easy for McCarthy to rely on stock tropes and received wisdom in communicating his set-piece, but instead he gives us something startlingly new. For example, how were the drugs in WWI, McCarthy asks. It’s in the Air Force that Serge first uses cocaine, rubbing it into his retinas to improve his eyesight while he’s spotting for German artillery batteries. He quickly moves to snorting mounds of the stuff before each take off. Here’s a lovely passage, where we see Serge’s nascent addiction blurring his perspective, ultimately leading to an autoerotic climax–
Higher up, the vapour trails of the SE5s form straight white lines against the blue, as though the sky’s surface were a mirror too. Scorch-marks and crater contours on the ground look powdery; it seems that if he swooped above them low enough, then he could breathe them up as well, snort the whole landscape into his head. The three hours pass in minutes. As they dip low to strafe the trenches on the way back, he feels the blood rush to his groin. He whips his belt off, leaps bolt upright and has barely got his trousers down before the seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine’s tail and falls in a fine thread towards the slit earth down below.
“From all the Cs!” he shouts. “The bird of Heaven!”
Serge doesn’t bother to reflect much on this episode and McCarthy’s third-person narrator is so effaced in the novel as to seem almost invisible. McCarthy shows and never tells, even when he allows some insight into Serge’s psyche. We learn that–
Of all the pilots and observers, Serge alone remains unhaunted by the prospect of a fiery airborne end. He’s not unaware of it: just unbothered. The idea that his flesh could melt and fuse with the machine parts pleases him. When they sing their song about taking cylinders out of of kidneys, he imagines the process playing itself out backwards: brain and connecting rod merging to form one, ultra-intelligent organ, his back quivering in pleasure as pumps and pistons plunge into it, heart and liver being spliced with valve and filter to create a whole new, streamlined mechanism.
Serge’s indifference toward death (or life) and his frequent drug-use aren’t the manifestations of a death-wish–although C does pull its hero to a mortal end, as a bildungsroman should–rather, we see in Serge’s cyborg fantasy a wish for transhumanist transcendence. Serge’s job as a flying observer grants him some measure of transcendence, reducing the landscape to a flat two-dimensional perspective that he can easily process and read. At the same time, the novel tropes against the motif of two-dimensional perspective, repeatedly pushing Serge into interior excavations, like a worm or beetle digging in to the earth. This happens in the most literal sense at the end of the Great War, when the Germans capture Serge and hold him as a P.O.W. Serge is fine though, happy to tunnel underground (as long as his morphine hookup remains unimpeded).
Serge’s drug addiction continues into his postwar years in London. Nominally an architecture student, he spends most of his time scoring heroin and coke and partying with would-be actresses. Serge’s inclination to two-dimensional perspective inhibits his architectural aptitude. He can only plan tombs. McCarthy’s evocation of 1920s London is dark and strange, a drug-addled fever dream riddled with ciphers and ghosts. The set-piece comes to a head when Serge’s girlfriend takes him to see a psychic medium who purports to channel the spirits of those who died in the war. An enraged Serge uses wireless technology to reveal the scam, but puncturing the fantasy effectively brings an end to his relationship.
Serge soon reconnects with his father’s friend Wisdun, who sends the young man to Egypt. Serge’s mission is to scout sites for the wireless pylons that will unite the world, but he’d really rather puzzle out the cultural, historical, and linguistic mishmash of Alexandria and explore unopened tombs in the desert with an archeologist’s sexy assistant. I’ve perhaps revealed too much of the book’s plot so far, and while I think I’ve avoided spoilers, I’ll hope that you simply take my word that the Egyptian set-piece at the end of C is a masterful, disturbing climax to a rich and rewarding book. C culminates by tying together its central juxtapositions of sex and death, connection and disconnection, excavation and total, flat perspective with its many motifs: bugs, tombs, art, drugs, language, time, communication, spirit. The book’s final pages are stunning; it’s the kind of linguistic storm that demands immediate rereading.
And you’ll want to reread the book: McCarthy gives us so much to unpack. There’s that enigmatic title, of course. What is the “C” in C for? C is for Carrefax, of course, but that’s too obvious. In his blurb, Luc Sante rightly points out that “C is for carbon and cocaine, Cairo and CQ.” I might also add that C is for see and sí and sea; C is for call and caul; C is for communicate and communion; C is for the c that slips from “insect” to “incest.” (I could go on of course; a third reading of the book will undoubtedly yield more). C seems to call to Thomas Pynchon’s V., a novel littered with historical episodes that dances with a bildungsroman’s structure. C also calls to Voltaire’s satirical bildungsroman Candide. And while I’m lazily name-dropping authors and books, I might as well favorably compare C with Joyce’s Portrait and much of J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs. It’s also thoroughly soaked in Freud and continental philosophy.
C is the best novel I’ve read in a long time, and the first novel I’ve immediately reread in full in a very long time. It will leave many readers cold (or even disgusted, perhaps), but isn’t this always the way for writers who push their audience? (Consider my lazy name-dropping above). You probably know by now if this is for you, but if I haven’t been clear — very highly recommended.
C is available in hardback in the UK on August 5, 2010 from Jonathan Cape, and available in hardback in the US on September 7, 2010 from Random House.