by Tom McCarthy (2010)
Knopf (2010)
310 pp

I have been looking forward to reading C since I first heard the premise: a modernist-style tale that takes place in the early twentieth-century following a young Englishman, who is enchanted by technology — particularly communications technology, like radio — as he comes of age, goes to war, survives, travels Europe and heads to Egypt. So maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but I know McCarthy’s reputation as a writer who focuses on ideas, allowing his characters to languish in order to tease out insights, and having a novel like that on the Booker longlist made me excited.

Now, I’ve read it, I liked it and sometimes loved it, but I have no idea how to write about it. On the one hand, it does have a conventional sequence of events that would be somewhat easy to lay out, somewhat like I laid out above. Those events are, for the most part, interesting. On the other hand, the events themselves are not as interesting as the underlying ideas and wordplay and philosophies (McCarthy set out to write this novel from an anti-humanist perspective — and I think he succeeded there), and the characters tend to blur in and out of focus as McCarthy gives the theories lift by playing with radio waves and signals: to write a comprehensive review that will give readers a taste of this book is, for me, going to be impossible.

So I must warn you. In this review I go a bit further in bringing up potential spoilers than most others have. One in particular, though it takes place early in the novel so I’m going to call it fair game. Plus, bringing it up is the only way I can think of to look at this book from the perspective I’d like to use. I’ll warn you when it’s coming.

Before going further, I’d like to say is that the cover design by Peter Mendelsund is fantastic. The almost nostalgic old image that, though innocent, haunts, painted by someone who is dead, of a young child, who must surely also be dead and whose face is covered up and distorted — one-eyed, mouthless — by the Morse Code dashes and dots: this image encapsulates a lot of what I got out of the novel.

The book begins in England in 1898, in a chapter titled “Caul.” The doctor arrives at a home, ready to deliver the as yet unborn Serge Carrefax, who, when he comes, comes shrouded in a caul. Pulling the doctor — and the reader — asided (and away from the birth), Serge’s father seems to be concerned mainly about whether the doctor has brought with him the copper wire he requested. It’s a nice start to a novel and appears fairly conventional: a baby born with a portent of fortune whose father is distracted from this great event by his own pursuit of breaking-edge technology. However, that would be too focused on the characters. That Mr. Carrefax is distracted by technology is one of the most important things to take away from this first set-piece. The technology Mr. Carrefax is working on is for communication, and yet what a breakdown.

Besides wires and waves technology, Mr. Carrefax is also deeply invested in the pedagogy of teaching deaf and dumb people to communicate, something he has succeeded in doing to varying but impressive degrees of success. His wife, for instance, though deaf can communicate very well by reading lips and then speaking with her own voice. Under Carrefax’s theory, there’s no need for signs. Speech that comes from breath is a deeply important part of what humans should be striving for. After preaching the divine nature of speech (“Speech itself breathed the earth into being — and breathed life into it, that it in turn may breathe and speak. What, I ask you, are the rising and falling of its mountains and its valleys or the constant heaving of its seas but breath?” ), Carefax links the basis of his pedagogy to the divine: “And we, ladies and gentlemen: do we not also move to the same gasping and exhaling rhythm? Is not our spirit, truly named, suspirio? Breathing, we live; speaking, we partake of the sublime.”

It is fascinating to me, then, that McCarthy has this same character fascinated by technologies that create illusions of contact and which, from some perspectives, become distorted and might actually wash out not just an individual’s importance but also humanity’s because it survives humanity. The waves continue bouncing around forever.

Serge grows up in this environment (which is also a silk farm — his mother’s project; yes — there is a lot going on here) with an older sister named Sophie. There are some wonderful passages depicting the two of them experiencing childhood together, a childhood enhanced (or not) by science. While Serge directs his attention to radio, Sophie is enamored by the natural sciences and chemistry. However, they manage to cross interests frequently.

Now, dear reader, is where you may want to avert your eyes. I’m about to disclose that event I warned about above, so . . . beware: POTENTIAL SPOILER!

Their childhood together is, sadly, cut short. Sophie is an enigma to her younger brother, and she has never acted stranger than she does in her last days, just before she ingests cyanide and is found dead. For me, though his grief is never directly dealt with, the rest of the novel must be seen through Serge’s grieving eyes, though McCarthy is not going to make that easy for us. For one thing, upon her death, Sophie becomes ephemeral to Serge. Her body means nothing. Her funeral is almost comical, in the same tragic sense that I find parts of As I Lay Dying comical. Here is an exchange between Mr. Carefax and the doctor:

“As you’ll doubtless be  aware, it’s not unknown for death to be misdiagnosed, which makes for a certain . . .” 

“You think it might not have been accidental?” Learmont asks. 

“Not — what? No, no: that’s not what I meant. I was referring to the rare — yet still, I believe, well-documented — instances in which a death is recorded, only for the so-called deceased to awake several days later and recover their full capacities.”

“I’m sorry to say that in this case we can entertain no hopes, not even the faintest, of — “

“Bells were used, in times less technologically advanced than ours, with cords running from within the coffin to miniature towers mounted on the tombstone, should the incumbent come around and wish to signal the fact to those in a position to liberate them — a vertical position, as it were . . .” 

“But your daughter’s been . . . I mean, after the autopsy, there’s simply no way that — ” 

“Yes: splendid! So I was thinking that perhaps we could avail ourselves of more contemporary hardware. I’ve arranged for a tapper-key, donated from Serge’s arsenal of such equipment, to be placed beside her in the coffin, and will attach a small transmitting aerial to the Crypt’s roof, should she — ” 

“Which one of my keys?” Serge asks. “You’ve never consulted me!” 

“That way, she won’t need to rely on the circumstance, far from guaranteed, of someone happening to pass by the Crypt at precisely the moment she comes to and rings. The signal emitted will be weak, but strong enough to cover the estate, should, for example, Serge be experimenting with his wireless set, as I believe his wont is these days . . .” 

There are still remainders of Sophie, of course, and not just her clothing and other effects: in a house as technologically savvy as this, there is no way to get around recognizing her presence on surfaces as natural history suggests or in the air as waves. Yet McCarthy never lets us forget that this immortal ephemera that remains is something else. In fact, we put up with a lot of distortion when sounds and events are happening live:

He’s spending lots of time up in the attic these days. It’s the spot with which he most associates hours spent alone with Sophie. The cylinders discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded on them — tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within their crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence. He looks over the flat, motionless landscape as he listens. The sheep never seem to move: they just stand still, bubbly flecks on Arcady Field’s face. The curving stream also seems completely still, arrested in a deathly rictus grin. Only the trees in the Crypt Park seem to have any movement in them: they contract and expand slowly, breathing the sound of the Day School children practising their recitation:

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth . . .

The looping, repeating lines mutate and distort so much that, even when the words come out correctly, they seem like a mispronounced version of something else, other sentences that are trying to worm their way up to the surface, make themselves heard.

Impressively, McCarthy also makes Serge himself feel ephemeral to the reader. As he goes through his life in the early part of this century, we are distracted, as in the passage just quoted, time and time again by something else — by McCarthy’s ideas and playfulness, to be more precise. In this book, through his language, he makes communication spacial and creates a space around his characters, even his main character. It’s like I’m following a character close but directing most of my attention to the sounds in the air. I remember that even his birth was somewhat obscured by a communication project.

And then there are the ways McCarthy obscures (but not to the point of obfuscation) his narrative by some static in the form of wordplay. It’s certainly not as sophisticated as what you’d find in Joyce or Nabokov, but McCarthy fiddles with words and language more than most do these days. For example, here is a passage that has just been playing with the word “insect” and moves quickly on to “incest” — but not quite, not quite yet.

“You like your sister, huh?” the dispensing officer, a Barney from Queens, New York, joshes him the third time he negotiates a trade-off.

“Sorry?” The question takes Serge aback.

“It’s what the Negroes call it up in Harlem.”

“Call what?”

“This,” Barney answers, pointing at the phials. “Sister, dope, Big H: heroin. You don’t call it that here? I mean in England?”

“No,” Serge answers him after a pause. “I don’t think we do.”

The arrangement becomes a regular one: every week Serge hands over to Barney the fruit of Versoie’s trees and beehives, Barney hands over the goods, and sister roils and courses through his veins. 

Of course, the way the drugs play with perception, put Serge “in tune” with certain frequencies, is all part of the intricate mechanics of this book.

Now, this is not to say that the book is brilliant, though on some level I think it is. Still, I admit to being disappointed many times, despite being very satisfied in the end. For example, there are some extended passages that are very boring. I can often handle boring. I think sometimes it is necessary and that boring parts can be quite fascinating, but I didn’t get that here. Sometimes I’d sit staring at a page for twenty minutes, attempting again and again to make it through the paragraphs, but always finding myself thinking of something completely different. Then I would become fascinated again. Then bored. The ideas and writing slowed down until it was worse that “boring”: it was dull. Also, some of the set pieces not only don’t satisfy, but they flop. KevinfromCanada expressed his disappointment in the section where Serge goes to a health spa — I agree with him, though I haven’t even read The Magic Mountain. Such disappointments sometimes intruded and made me doubt the brilliance of the book. Was it all pseudo-intellectualism? Could it be more trick and not much substance? Are all of the connected elements merely devices that, as one reviewer said, were reverse-engineered to create the novel?

In the end, I decided the answer to those questions was no — mostly. This is a very worthwhile book, its play and its intellect quite nicely supporting an astonishing amount of substance. It is a bright light on the Booker longlist and hopefully its shortlist. For one thing, the multiple ideas and the play go on throughout the book and tie together with satisfying insights. The ideas are interesting, particularly for me the idea of trying to capture someone in time but seeing that really there is little remainder, and most of that is distorted by static and becomes something else entirely. The person is gone, no matter what remains. Astonishingly, McCarthy manages all in a very conventional sequence of events that start at one point in time and move forward, always. Finally, McCarthy can write. This is one of the best sentences I’ve read in a long time. Serge has just exposed a hoax in the popular field of spiritualism, though in doing so he has destroyed a woman’s connection to her dead Michael:

If mass and gravity have been added to her, something’s been stripped away as well: despite her layers of clothes, she somehow looks more naked than she does even when undressed, as though a belief in which she’s clothed herself till now, a faith in her connectedness to a larger current, to a whole light and vibrant field of radiant transformation through which Michael might have resonated his way back to her, had been peeled off, returning her, denuded, to the world — this world, the only world, in which a table is just a table, paintings and photographs just images made of matter, kites on the walls of playrooms unremembered and the dead dead. 

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