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[338] C – Tom McCarthy

C reads very much like a literary experiment. Literary fiction it is, it doesn’t remind me of any stylistic precursor. The enigmatic title refers to the protagonist, Serge Carrefax, who grows up around the turn of 20th century in England in Versoie House, where his father runs a school for the deaf. He and his ill-fated sister, Sophie, cultivate very esoteric interests. They enact strange experiments in chemistry and astronomy in a school pageant depicting Ceres’s journey to the underworld. After Sophie dies, he travels to a Bavarian sanitarium in search of the healing chemical cysteine and, following his enrollment in the 104th Airborne Squadron, enjoys flying reconnaissance while high on cocaine.

“Cocaine?” Serge asks. “Isn’t that for teeth?”
“Yes, but it works wonders on your vision: sharpens it no end. Go pick some up from the Field Hospital in Mirabel.”
Serge does so. He’s given a small make up tin of white powder, a little of which he daubs onto his retina just prior to take-off the next day.”

The book follows Serge through his relationship with Sophie, to some recuperative health spa, to his experiences in the Great War, to his homecoming as an adult, to his Egyptian espionage, to a fateful tryst in an ancient tomb—where he at last discovers the delicate wavelengths that connect him to some historical signals for which he is the ideal receiver.

Serge becomes fascinated with these tunnelers, these moles. He pictures their noses twitching as they alternately dig and strap on stethoscopes that, pressing to the ground, they listen for sounds of netherer moles undermining their undermining. If they did hear them doing this, he tells himself, then they could dig an even lower tunnel, undermine the under-undermining: on and on forever, or at least for as long as the volume and mass of the globe allowed it – until earth gave over to a molten core, or, bypassing this, they emerged in Australia to find there was no war there and, unable to return in time for action, sat around aimlessly blinking in the daylight . . .

While C features a strong thematic foundation, with themes strecthing and intertwining in abundance throughout the book, it reads much like a bunch of dazzling flights of description put together not for telling a story. C delivers almost nothing in the way of either characterization or psychological insight. Instead, one is treated to page after page of explanations such as this one:

The detector’s brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser’s Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn’t any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiver-pattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms.

In spite of sheer creativity, one knows almost nothing about Serge other than his eccentricity. Readers are as completely oblivious of the important aspects of his life as Serge is, consider McCarthy works so hard to appeal by way of indulgent snapshots of digressive materials. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out which instance is the one that McCarthy intends reader to decode and add to the meaning of the story. C is as creative as it is admirable, but admiration is separated from loving with a distance. The book gets too carried away with the creative digression.

320 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
C is shortlisted for Independent Literary Awards: Literary Fiction.

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17 Responses

  1. I completely agree C is both admirable and creative. It’s a book I admire and enjoyed reading, but it’s not one I can say I loved.

  2. I’ve read no less than a dozen reviews of this book and nothing convinced me I had to read this.

  3. It’s funny, because as I was reading it I was ready to toss it across the room, but somewhere in the second half, it grew on me.

    It’s not a book that I will ever say I loved, but the communication bits intrigued me and although not much was said about Serge, a lot was said about him through his actions.

    The writing was very disjointed at times, almost in code. A code to be deciphered. Much like early communication. It puzzled me at times but I was also fascinated by it.

    • Right. Along with Great House (on the shortlist), C is the most literary book. The individual treatise on the themes on which he shines light are very well-written. But they don’t seem to connect very well, nor do they add meaning to the story. If you ask me to regard on writing alone, it’s the best literary fiction, but to take into consideration of the story, it’s just okay.

  4. I’m really interested in this book, but I haven’t seen that many reviews. Thanks for the insights.

  5. I started this and could not finish so I am interested in reviews to see where I missed out something.

  6. Ah, I’ve been wondering about this one. It looks so well done in many ways but I’ve been seeing a few “meh” reactions.

  7. […] on Safe From the Sea Melody on Room Ti on Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand Matt on ‘C’ by Tom McCarthy Meg on Great […]

  8. Wasn’t sure I wanted to pick this one up or not, so I’m glad I read your post. Thanks for the review!

  9. Your review sounds a lot like others I’ve read of this book. Still gonna give it a try!

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