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.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.