C, by Tom McCarthy

Puchased at the Book Depository

First off, the good news — C is a much more accessible novel on the second reading than it was on the first. Now the bad news, if time is an issue for you — unless you are really into “modernist” fiction, I’m fairly certain you will want to read this twice. I certainly appreciated it more the second time than I did the first, but even then I was a frustrated reader when I reached the end. In no way do I mean that as a putdown — indeed, I think it should be regarded as an indication of the author’s success in crafting an intricate and complex book. This is a novel that both demands and rewards commitment.

I am not going to pretend that this review explores all (even most) aspects of the novel in any kind of detail. You will also note the absence of quotes — McCarthy is the kind of writer whose linked prose makes review quotes an exercise in futility (trust me, he can write). Indeed, I would predict that academics will be spending a lot of effort over the next few decades to contemplate the antecedents, references and echoes that are all part of C because it is a novel that deserves that kind of attention. This review, on the other hand, is aimed at would-be (or just-done) readers who want and respect a broad overview. Details to follow in scholarly journals down the road.

Equally interesting NA cover

I do think that Tom McCarthy should be thanking his UK publishers (Jonathan Cape) for the best physical design of a book (in terms of relating to its themes) that I can recall in recent memory. If you are lucky enough to find a version of their original presentation, it comes with a palimpsest dust cover of scribbled patterns, while underneath on the cover itself is the “C”, with a gridded starscape in the background. The black spills over into the front and back inner covers with almost furry edges. The design is an entirely fair — even brilliant — visual representation of the challenges of the book. You need to fight your way through the confusion of the present, find the patterns that are in the array of the supertext, hark back into history, knit all those elements together and then it might all make sense. (You can see why I needed two reads.)

And now to the book. Serge Carrefax, its central character, is the son of an inventor/teacher/savant who runs a school for the deaf in England — the pedagogy is on the speaking, not signing, side of that debate: “You have to make them speak. All the time!” The location is the Carrefax estate, Versoie, not just a school but also a silk farm not far outside London. The timing is 1898 and Carrefax Senior is not only a teacher of the deaf, he is an obsessed scientist, a fellow traveller with Marconi and Bell in exploring the idea of transmitting dots and dashes, radio waves, perhaps even speech, through the ether. Serge’s mother, meanwhile, may know more about making and selling silk than anyone in England, even if her husband doesn’t recognize the talent.

McCarthy chooses to tell his story through the medium of Serge (that might be “surge” like the radio wave — his father’s pronounciation — or “serge” like the cloth — his mother’s) and it comes in a series of separated episodes, starting with an exceptionally good set piece on Serge’s birth. Childhood and maturation at Versoie (titled “Caul”), moving into the war (“Chute”) and further on to London and eventually Egypt (yes, every chapter starts with C). In the opening sections of the book, this playfulness is a strength. I won’t give away the real “C” but I will admit, as much as I respected the book, the conceit wears very thin as it moves on.

And, at the risk of a major spoiler, some experienced reader advice: you need to pay a lot more attention to Serge’s sister, Sophie, than you might think early on in the book. She is three years older and is an interesting child — if Serge is inclined to the ephemeral radio waves, Sophie is very much into chemistry, botany and small insect life. There is a wonderful scene early on at the school pageant where stage manager Sophie creates so much “brimstone” in her effects on the classical theme that the audience of parents and supporters can’t get to the tea table at intermission because of the acrid fog.

McCarthy’s first (and in my opinion greatest) failing, in fact, is that he doesn’t develop Sophie nearly well enough. He needs her to create the dialectic tension with Serge’s development but she disappears fairly early on in one of the author’s less successful elements. When he finally concludes the novel, what she represents will be very important — even on a second reading, he gives the development of her character extremely short shrift. It is a major flaw in the book.

Serge, meanwhile, continues to develop his scientific side. He follows his father’s interests and becomes an amateur radio expert. One of the strong parts of the early section of the book is to watch the way that he and his sister start to diverge in their talents and interests. McCarthy plays this up by sending Serge to a German spa, Klodebrady, in a section that is so (badly) reminiscient of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain that it had me frothing.

Okay, I admit that Mann’s book is one of my favorites of all time. And what I like about it best is not the central narrative of the sanatorium, but the way that Mann contrasts the rational/spiritual, Western/Oriental views of the world which he develops in conversations between his characters — without doubt, it is one of the best novels ever written. And I appreciate that McCarthy is exploring that same tension with Serge (add Kafka in for another angle) when he sets him in this environment. But I will admit that throughout this whole section, I was gritting my teeth — the modern author is simply not up to the image that he is borrowing.

Serge then heads off to war where he is an airborne observor in the British forces in the Great War air corps. McCarthy uses this section quite effectively to establish the notion of someone who “sees from above” (while facing backwards) and then makes things happen, but is always aware that he is just an “insect” in the overall machine. And the writing is even more effective when he brings Serge back to ground and officers’ prison camp. But again, it has derivative overtones (Pat Barker did this much better) which do not serve the novel well.

Our hero acquires a drug habit during the war and when he returns to London finds a way to continue it. For me, this section of the book was the easiest to read and because of that probably the most effective. It is replete with a variety of most rewarding set pieces. There is an absolutely marvelous section where Serge exposes a psychic that makes you wish McCarthy would consider writing a totally comic novel. (Sorry — perhaps he already has as I don’t know his backlist.)

It is at this point that McCarthy gets truly serious with his novel and starts to pull some of his themes together — and I should apologize for being so flippant in the previous paragraphs. To his credit, those themes range back to early Egyptian history, pass through classical Greece and Rome and don’t ignore the decline of the British Empire as the twentieth century dawns. And he never abandons his central character Serge and his conflicts as all of this unfolds.

If the first three-quarters of the novel work for you, I think you will find this closure most effective. I had some nagging doubts, so I would rate it at maybe 4 out of 5 — parts of me wondered if McCarthy was just closing off story lines. And I did not find the closing scene very effective at all, but I suspect I will be in the minority on that count.

I will admit that on the first time through, I was pretty confused as the novel drew to a close; very much aware as I approached the end of the book that I had overlooked things to which I should have paid much more attention. I certainly felt less of that on the second read — this is a very good novel — but I could not help feeling that academics would be paying a lot more attention to this novel than most readers do. Which, in a way, is too bad as there is much to like here.

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31 Responses to “C, by Tom McCarthy”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    Funny Kevin, it doesn’t feel like a “4 out of 5″ review to me. But I think you’re being unfair to yourself: your criticisms strike me as acute, and introduce some concerns that have been missed or ignored in other reviews I’ve read.

    I’m interested in this for sure – McCarthy seems like an interesting writer who is trying to do something different.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I certainly agree with your last sentence — and the Booker listing has nothing to do with that sentiment. I don’t think the novel is perfect by any means, but it does reward the effort of reading it, even if there are some clunkers along the way.

  3. Crake Says:

    So glad you liked C, Kevin. I’m really looking forward to reading it. It looks like one of the few standouts in this year’s longlist.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Crake: It is not an easy read but it is a rewarding one. Good luck.

  5. anokatony Says:

    ‘Magic Mountain’ is also one of my favorites. Another of Mann’s books I really like is “Buddenbrooks”. I’m still on the fence as far as reading Tom McCarthy.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: Buddenbrooks is another of my favorites — in fact so far only Joseph and his Brothers has been beyond me. Mind you, he wrote so much that I have hardly scratched the surface.

    Have you started C or are you still considering. It is not a difficult read (in the sense that the narrative flows logically and the writing itself is reader friendly) but it is definitely a challenging one — I was aware that there were several consistent themes present in the subtext and that I was overlooking a number of them. In that sense, I think McCarthy is like Mann — which also means that he is not going to be for everyone’s taste.

  7. The Mookse and the Gripes » Tom McCarthy: C Says:

    [...] 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 [...]

  8. William Rycroft Says:

    Lovely stuff Kevin, a really thorough response to a book that deserves one. I suggested elsewhere that with a book so packed with references, themes and ideas it might only be possible to cover it all in a series of reviews (and somehow fitting) like the network of bloggers responses that have appeared recently. That might still be the case but a single response from someone who’s taken the time to read it twice already has been great for a fellow reader to savour. Despite its flaws I’ll be really disappointed if this isn’t on the shortlist and think it may even have a chance for the prize.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: Thanks for the kind words — I suspect this is a novel that will reward even further readings, but that will have to wait for a while. I also will be disappointed if C does not show up on the short list, but will be surprised if it wins the prize. Given the other titles on the longlist, I suspect it is simply too complex for the tastes of this year’s jury. And there are enough parts where it does drag to provide arguments against it. I agree also that the various blogging reviews that have shown up have a common theme: “This book is too complex for me to review in a single post.” That is not a criticism at all — I suspect serious readers are going to find a number of very different themes in this novel, which is to McCarthy’s credit.

  10. Maylin Says:

    I finished C on the weekend and just loved it. It’s giving Mitchell a run for his money I think and I’m torn now between which book I’ll be rooting for. Yes, academics will have a field day with it and rightly so – I already can see a dissertation on cocoon imagery alone! And thanks for the description of the UK cover – I find the North American one distinctly creepy. Actually one of my first thoughts on finishing the book was, what would A.S. Byatt think? given her interest in science and insects and also since C covers almost the same years as The Children’s Book (I know you didn’t care much for it, but it was one of my favourite books from last year). Of course their approaches are completely different, but I think that’s what made reading C so appealing for me – to see how a writer takes that same society and some of the same themes and completely adds another dimension of thinking about that historical era. The war section was my favourite; it’s so hard to write about that war without resorting to cliche and both Byatt and McCarthy did it wonderfully. I am not a science geek by any means, so I found the technical descriptions of plotting enemy locations using microphones and aerial signals quite fascinating. Plus McCarthy’s way of describing the landscape from the air was just beautiful and astounding to me. And has any novel conjured up sound as well as this one does? I wish I had time right now for a second read because yes, there are so many levels to this novel. And McCarthy can do comic – read Men in Space. Do you think C will make the shortlist?

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Maylin: I can do nothing but second all of your observations — and I particularly appreciate the contrast you make with The Children’s Book. For me, Byatt became so entranced with her detail that it smothered the book, while McCarthy nurtures it to make his myriad of themes complete (but that is just one reader’s impession). That cocoon dissertation might actually have to be a multi-volume project, given the way he uses aspects of insect imagery in every chapter of the book.

    Many thanks for the pointer to Men in Space — I will be reading it.

    Damon Galgut is still my personal favorite, but you won’t be seeing any complaints here if C wins the Prize. If it does not make the shortlist, however, I will be howling.

  12. Maylin Says:

    Here’s something interesting I found while searching the internet to see if Byatt had indeed reviewed C (haven’t found one yet). But in this review in the TLS, Ben Jeffrey notes:

    “In fact, C models itself as much on McCarthy’s other book, Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006), a poststructuralist reading of Hergé. Many of the features McCarthy identifies in Tintin’s adventures reappear in C: the strangely opaque leading man; a scene in which a supernatural event is exposed as a mechanical fraud; journeys into burial crypts and dummy tombs; and, especially, a fixation with radio signals. ”

    He goes on to quote McCarthy writing (in the Tintin book)
    “Forget journalism: what Tintin actually does is send and receive radio messages . . . . Some of Hergé’s most striking images are not of characters or actions but of radio masts, wires casting signals and antennae picking them up.”

    Just another layer in this multi-layered novel. Has anyone read Tintin and C and could comment? I have to also chuckle at and applaud McCarthy for the title. It almost forces readers and book buyers to remember his name, because if you just type “C” in any search engine or amazon or even the publisher’s website, this book is never going to come up.

  13. Kinna Says:

    I have C on my list and I’m glad that you liked it. I’m certainly one to read modernist fiction so I’m looking forward to it. Thanks.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Maylin: Thanks for those quotes. As I am further pondering this novel (and I think I will be doing that for a while) I think there is a link betweem those thoughts and the Mann-like section at the spa that annoyed me when I was reading the book. I do find that one of McCarthy’s themes is the tension between the rational and spiritual — or whatever version of that you prefer as a description (the concluding chapter certainly brings that into focus). I see the radio signal/antennas as one of McCarthy’s ways of raising that — on the one hand, the science involved; but on the other, the speculation that the signals bounce around forever inside the sphere and exert another influence (perhaps not spiritual, but other worldly to the rational). All of which, of course, is played out to great comic effect in the wonderful seance scene.

    Kinna: If you like modernist fiction, I am pretty sure you will like this book. Unlike much work that carries that description, this also has a sense of humor.

  15. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This is still the only book on this year’s list that I’m excited about reading. It’s interesting to hear the flaws, which don’t put me off but which are useful warnings.

    I’m glad though I haven’t read The Magic Mountain yet. That entire reference would have passed me by, likely still shall since I won’t get to read the Mann for ages yet.

    A very fair review Kevin. I like how you brought out both strengths and flaws, and it’s intriguing how you struggle to summarise it. Definitely one to look out for from my perspective. I may though start with his backcatalogue and build up to this one.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: One argument for starting McCarthy with this one for you (and it has not shown up in detail in reviews that I have read) is that there is a classical mythology stream that runs throughout the book as well. I am weak in that area so I only partially understood it and conveniently ignored it in my review. I know you are stronger on that and would find more. I also thought of you towards the end of a book when Serge is in Egypt and a young Englishwoman he picks up complains that a Thomas Cook guide recommended they read Herodotus to get a leg up, but everyone else read the same guide and also has the book. I suspect you would find more in the Egypt portion from your own investigations of that kind of monumental history.

    I certainly intend to explore McCarthy’s back catalogue. Maylin’s comment suggests he has explored some of these ideas before — I am always interested in authors who test ideas in one book and then explore them further later.

    Finally, I think you might consider this as a complement to your project of reading all Remembrance of Times Past. They are set in the same time frame but are dramatically different books — Proust is interested in how we got to where we are (well, how the French got there) while McCarthy is a study of the tensions of competing notions of what will get us to where we are going next. Proust did come to mind a couple of times while I was reading C (mainly in a contrast I must admit) and I think you might find that interesting given your project.

    See what I mean about how many themes are going on in this book? And how inadequate any short review is going to be at even raising them? I’m sure glad for comments that allow me to bring them up.

  17. Maylin Says:

    Kevin – I’ve never read a Tintin comic in my life, but I’ve gone and ordered McCarthy’s book on the subject – like you, I’m interested in how the ideas in C developed from his other interests. No doubt it will shed new layers on this novel that hadn’t even occured to me.

  18. Shelley Says:

    Any novel with vets returning takes on new meaning now with our Iraq vets coming home.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shelley: I think you are quite right — Serge’s personal descent in London has a poignancy that both the U.S. and Britain will see in the post-Iraq experience. And they will be joined by other countries (including mine) when the Afghan disaster finally starts to draw to a close.

    Your comment also raises yet another theme in C that applies in the present. Just as telegraphic and radio communication permanently altered the world at the turn of that century, the explosion of communications technology and the World Wide Web is having a similar impact on ours.

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    There really is a lot going on Kevin. Fascinating. Dense stuff. I have to admit, you have me quite excited about it.

    On an unrelated note, during your travels through Unsworth have you ever encountered The Songs of the King?

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’ve looked at The Songs of the King but never read it. Unsworth’s books that go way back into metaphor are least interesting to me and since I don’t have much interest in this aspect of Greek history I have never picked it up.

  22. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin. I have a great love of the Illiad, hence my own interest.

  23. Trevor Says:

    The Iliad? I love The Iliad. I might have to check out The Song of the King.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    So Trevor, the next time you are thinking about C start wondering about McCarthy’s references to Homer and the journeys and wars that are part of his epics.

  25. Trevor Says:

    If you don’t mind, Kevin, I’d like to hear your thoughts on that. McCarthy brings up Homer as an inspiration for how he approached the war scenes in this book, and I don’t think he meant that as a reference to style as much as to perspective, but it’s been nagging at me that I can’t articulate anything meaningful on that point. I’ll keep ruminating.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I think you have to start consideration of that by going back to the deaf school presentation, where Sophie was the stage manager, in more ways than one. Part of my interpretation there is that Sophie (whom I have already observed I would have liked more of) symbolically becomes the novel’s version of Homer (she does create a very real brimstone after all). And I don’t know the myth that was being portrayed well enough to go further. But I would observe that Carrefax Senior’s need to look over his shoulder and explain things suggest that this section has a relevance that might require explaining.

    If we accept Sophie as Serge’s classical attachment to a Muse (as opposed to his father’s influence with science, however twisted that might be), I think that helps to explain some of the war scenes. At the highest possible level, he knows the battle but he doesn’t know the war (my limited knowledge of The Iliad says that is a comparator). He sees some things in great detail and reports on them, but has no idea why (more Iliad). Where my limited experience falls apart is when he is in prison camp.

    At the same time, of course, McCarthy is also playing with his “insect” metaphor — Serge is just a “bug” in the back of a plane, looking at things from high in the atmosphere. If we extend the metaphor to the realist/spiritualist, Western/Oriental conflict, is Serge merely a minor player in some game he doesn’t understand or part of a much grander drama where he doesn’t really know his part (more Homer there, I would say)? All of this then keeps building through London and eventually comes to a resolution (I think McCarthy eventually makes a clear choice) in Egypt. The references here, I think, are the conflicts between the history that drives the situation and the seemingly minor actions that take place in the present.

  27. Trevor Says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I saw a lot of references throughout (and I’m sure I missed several too) to both The Iliad and The Odyssey, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. I wondered if they were peppered in as another reference, something that I thought made the book, on its surface, quite modern. I’m glad to start seeing some of the potential places this can take the reader.

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: We have this backward. I should not be leading anyone through a discussion of influences of Homer, since I have not completely read either epic.

  29. Trevor Says:

    Still, Kevin, though I recognized several references, sometimes I wondered if they were just that — references. It’s nice to put them on some ground where they can lead to interpretation.

  30. Graham Says:

    I also felt towards the end that I should have paid more attention to various parts of the book, especially Sophie. I have no doubt that a second read would fill in some of the blanks (or maybe dots and dashes is more appripriate).

  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Graham: I suspect C could be read five or six different times, each time from a different point of view. I don’t think it is worth that much of my time, but I am pretty sure in the not-so-distant future a number of academics will be doing that.

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