Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
Tom McCarthy's C is one of the most intricately constructed novels I've ever read. While the story begins simply enough as a recounting of protagonist Serge Carrefax's upbringing in early 20th-century England on his father's estate (which doubles as a rather unorthodox school for the deaf), by its conclusion it has spanned two continents and 25 years. Such sprawling storytelling is usually indicative of a high page count, but McCarthy condenses it to just over three hundred pages and manages to render any thoughts of potential additional pages unnecessary.
Serge grows up in the shadow of his older sister, Sophie, a burgeoning chemist from a young age who can recite the Latin names of all the flora and fauna around the house (and never hesitates to do so when given the opportunity). Serge's interests lie in the newly developing field of radio waves, and he spends hours in the attic of the house attempting to transcribe any transmissions he manages to pick up with his crude receivers. When Sophie is no longer around, her absence takes a physical toll on young Serge, who is taken to a spa in Eastern Europe that is rumored to have extraordinarily restorative waters.
From there, he ends up serving in World War I as an observer, charged with transmitting via radio the locations of various targets of interest from the air. After the war, he attempts to study architecture, but ends up spending most of his time searching out various drugs in the city with his friends. When he hits rock bottom (crashing his car and very nearly killing himself), he is commissioned to travel to Egypt to scout out possible radio-tower locations as England attempts to maintain communication with its outlying colonies there.
Each phase of Serge's life has its own section in C, and from my simple plot summary above, perhaps this doesn't sound that intriguing. But the five sections are connected by McCarthy's virtuosic flights of description, and he does a masterful job at threading particular images and ideas through each individual section. For example, one constant theme throughout the book is that of renewal, or using something for a purpose not originally intended for it. As a young man, Serge uses disparate scraps of metal and wire to enable radio transmission and reception; later, while attending a seance in the city, the "spirits" inform the audience that the dead make use of the living's remains:
And think of all the things that die, and decay: they're not lost. They may form dust or manure for a while, but that gives off an essence or a gas, which ascends in the form of what you call a "smell." All dead things have a smell. That's what we use to produce duplicates of the forms they had before they were a smell. So decayed flowers make new flowers; rotting wool makes tweeds; dung makes food...
By skillfully manipulating these thematic threads, McCarthy enables their own recurrence throughout the book to reinforce these ideas in our own mind, presenting them to us in manifold forms that all point back to the same issues.
None of the author's imagistic prose is more intense than his final rhapsodic chapter, which consists of Serge's feverish remembrances whirling around his head in a maddening stream-of-consciousness spiral. Throughout the book, there are recurring references to static, transmissions echoed around the world, which grow stronger with each new instance; and in this final chapter, Serge is hit with the full force of all the people, the places, the smallest details of his life in one giant "burst of static." McCarthy's prose is incandescent here (the last section is my favorite in the book), and it forces you to remember and reconsider Serge's entire life, twining those separate threads of narrative together all at once and at long last seeing the forest, not the trees.
If you'd like to be dumbfounded by the myriad possibilities of the English language in the hands of a skilled conductor, I'd highly recommend giving C a chance.
Books mentioned in this post