I didn’t know what to expect with Tom McCarthy’s new novel C, and was a little nervous to read it because I had heard it was so full of science and technical terms. Also, I avoid historical novels. This is not one, as it turns out. Or, at least, yes, it’s a fascinating bildungsroman told against the backdrop of WWI. But even with a lot of history, geography, and extended discussions of technology, you’d have to be a pretty simplistic reader to find anything in C boring.
In C, our protagonist is Serge Carrefax, whose name, the book instructs, is pronounced like ‘surge,’ though when I first saw it, I assumed it was ‘Ser-gey.’ C stays with Serge from birth to death. See Serge emerge from the womb in a caul, that oh-so-portentous of omens (it’s meant to be good luck, but it’s also pretty grotesque). See Serge grow up at his father’s school for the deaf (he is not deaf, but his mother is) and act in elaborate plays that his father orchestrates. See Serge’s strange, creepy relationship with his older sister Sophie. See Serge go to war, and to Egypt, and to London, and become addicted to heroin.
But above all else, Serge is addicted to technology. His chief interest, beginning at a young age thanks to his father, and heightened by his sister’s shared interest, is in radio— in signals, wires, and the noise of the world. This, when he’s young, also creates an obsession with insects, which are of course a source of organic buzzing, as opposed to man-made hums and whirs. His strategy when playing a Monopoly-like real estate game with his sister sets a strong foundation: “He’s always keen to buy the Ting-a-Ling Telephone Company, despite its poor yield, sold on visions of humming wires and buzzing switchboards, of connections.”
As a child, Serge also plays incessantly with short-wave radio and stays up listening to ship’s communications. Then, as a young adult, he goes and does it for real, helping to scout out locations for radio pylons in Egypt.
The word choice, throughout the novel, stresses Serge’s interests over and over and over, but it’s not annoying or overbearing. You merely accept this as the story’s language; it’s the lexicon of non-living things. McCarthy even sticks to the diction of machinery and mechanics for a pivotal scene in which Serge, an army pilot at this point, gets gunned down and falls out of the sky:
The plane hits something, but it’s not the ground: it feels more like a buffer, a soft boundary… He can feel this texture all around him too—see it as well: it’s silken, swirling about his shoulders and enveloping the whole machine, thin fibres at its rear expanding and contracting… Within its canopy, the humming of the plane’s struts and wires is amplified and softened… the sound fades out and there’s nothing.
Look at the words there: machine, fibres, humming, wires, amplified. These are the same words that filled the opening stretch of the novel, which takes place at Serge’s father’s school and narrates the arrival of a doctor at the house, called in order to deliver baby Serge (an opening that may sound boring but hooks you right away, thanks to the quirky conversation between the doc and Serge’s father). And these are the same words that fill a later section in which Serge goes to Egypt to work on setting up communication towers and networks.
In his description of that crash, McCarthy never even says that the plane falls, or crashes, or anything overt. Instead he describes this major, dramatic moment of violence with the same diction he has embraced throughout. That speaks volumes. In the next chapter (which begins on the very same page) we learn that Gibbs, Serge’s co-pilot, has died in the crash. His guts are everywhere, and as Serge unclips his harness, there’s a parachute caught up in the refuse. The entire scene would be very reminiscent of Catch-22 (when Yossarian sits with a dying Snowden after a plane crash) but it isn’t. It’s completely different, because McCarthy won’t allow us to see the scene from anywhere but Serge’s mind, and in there the only sound is of buzzing/ticking/humming. His brain is like a radio transmitter (in fact, in the final scene of the book, it quite literally becomes one).
The concept of Serge’s brain, or at least, more generally, his psyche, is worth investigating further. In fact, this book presents a character so ripe for Freudian analysis that I wouldn’t be surprised if C becomes, in a few decades, a classic choice for school assignments. I can just picture high school lit students writing essays about what exactly is wrong with Serge. He has many issues, stemming from: his father (who in the opening pages exhibits a self-involved obliviousness to what other people are saying, one that we later see in his son); his mother (deaf, Opium-addicted, possibly sexually involved with the gardener, Bodner); and most of all from his sister Sophie, with whom he is in love (this is only implied) and who kills herself after having an affair with a friend/colleague of her father’s. The loss of Sophie, his only confidante, leaves Serge with serious sexual hangups (most notably, he will only have sex from behind, grabbing whatever girl gives him the chance and roughly positioning them the way he wants).
He also shows a complete lack of emotion throughout the novel at major moments. Many of the reviews of C that I’ve seen note, correctly, that Serge’s emotions are never clear (some reviews make that a criticism), but others go on to suggest (or so it seems to me) that this was a strategic decision by McCarthy, as though Serge is not meant to be unemotional, we are simply not allowed to see. I disagree; I think the point is indeed that Serge is emotionless, consumed only with scientific discovery, adventure, combat, and purely animal sexual needs.
The moment that best reflects this is when Serge and a fellow prisoner of war are told in German, by a barking commander, that he knows they are British spies. Serge translates for his peer, Hodge, who then asks, “What does that mean?” Serge answers glibly, “I imagine we’ll be shot.” He might as well have added, “No biggie, dude.” The next morning, they are indeed led outside and brought to a clearing. Serge comments casually, “A pleasant location.” It’s like his mind is in a completely different world. At last, after a page of his meandering thoughts about the self, and his own concept of “me,” (Freud again) the firing soldiers, literally at the eleventh hour, are told to halt the execution. This sounds predictable but in the novel it doesn’t read that way, though yes, the reader can basically bet that Serge isn’t going to die here because we’re only halfway through. The reason it’s called off is that the war has ended. Nice timing. Hodge is elated, of course, but Serge seems indignant: “What do you mean it’s over? It hasn’t even started yet! […] Hey! You can’t do that!” Now, it’s not that he wanted to die, I don’t think, but the suggestion is that Serge had been so mentally prepared and unafraid for the prospect of dying that the jarring interruption has annoyed him.
C is by no means a perfect novel. Like any author hammering home a theme, McCarthy can go a bit overboard at times, like here: “He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils: it, too, carries signals, odour-messages from distant, unseen bowels.” To say a fart cloud carries signals akin to the signals of wireless radio is a bit of a stretch. In addition, much of the book’s strength is on what is implied, rather than what is made overt. But the same does not hold true for the question of whether Serge’s sister, Sophie, is pregnant when she dies. The dialogue makes that abundantly clear, even too much so: “I’ve got a lover,” she tells Serge. Then:
“He’s done stuff to me… When the bodies meet and separate, and more bodies come out, the parts all lie around in segments… It’s all connected. I feel it inside me. Look.” She takes his hand and lays it on her stomach. Her skin, through the cotton of her thin white dress, is soft and pliant. Serge can feel a rumbling beneath it. She must feel it too, because she adds: “It’s not the same as hunger.”
Gee, well, bingo. This isn’t to say the moment isn’t extremely exciting; it is. The scene is so well described and eerie that it plays out before you, vividly, and gave me goosebumps when I read it. I’m merely pointing out that it’s a bit too obvious what’s going on, whereas elsewhere in the book, subtlety is McCarthy’s sharpest tool.
There’s occasionally great humor in the novel, too: one absolutely hilarious scene involves Serge exposing (a bit cruelly) to his pseudo-girlfriend Audrey the fact that a psychic she believes in is a fraud. He does it using, what else, wireless technology and radio signals. The way it works is that the psychic speaks letters aloud, one by one, kind of like reading from a Ouija board, and an assistant writes them on a big board for all too see, and then they form messages from the dead. But when Serge takes over from the audience, he chooses the letters, and the way McCarthy reveals what happens is pitch-perfect:
“I’ve got ‘DOBAI IS FRAUD,'” the secretary says, taken aback. “Who’s saying this? Where are you?”
UPMISSDOBAISCUNT, Serge dictates… AUDREYITSMESERGE.
My scribbled margin note at this point just says: “hehehe.”
The humor is dark, to say the least. But ‘dark humor’ is too easy, not the most apt phrase here. It’s closer to absurdist, bizarro humor. There is a definite absurdist element to C, but it’s always caused by Serge himself, and his own perception of reality. At one point, Serge races around in his car, high on heroin, and crashes. He lands upside down in the road with the vehicle on top of him, trapping him. As people gather around and try to help, he declares bizarre things like: “My own crypt,” and, when people attempt to pry him free: “It won’t come off… it’s my carapace.” (Another insect reference.)
After reading C, I immediately bought and read Remainder, McCarthy’s first novel, about a man—a lonely, confused automaton that could be Serge’s slightly more chatty cousin—who wins a ton of money in a settlement over an accident that left him with significant memory loss. After some meandering, he decides to spend the money on staging re-enactments of bits and pieces that he recalls from his past. Eventually, inevitably, it gets out of control and he begins staging re-enactments of interactions he sees or experiences, rather than just moments from his past. Then he begins re-enacting re-enactments, and that’s when it goes from weird to fucking nuts. It’s a very strange novel, brilliantly original, and gripping. It’s recursive, in a dreamlike and hypnotic way. But I liked C better.
In Remainder, I saw so much evidence of what laid the foundation for C. Then I went back and reread C a second time and realized the similarities go the other way, too. Take this passage from C, which seems to recall Remainder‘s trope of doubling back and repetition, the layers upon layers of re-enactments the protagonist commands:
Serge becomes fascinated with these tunnellers, these moles. He pictures their noses twitching as… pressing to the ground, they listen through 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.
The reference is so overt it’s almost like a DVD easter egg for fans, a nudge from the author, like, “Hey! Remember my book Remainder?”
Classical music is another element that appears in both. In Remainder, it’s an integral part of the original reenactment; the protagonist recalls a pianist, or thinks he does, living in the apartment below his before the accident. So he includes a pianist in his re-enactment of that apartment building. He describes the final choice of music they make him play all day: “We’d chosen something by Rachmaninov for him to play… It was called Second or Third Concerto or Sonata in A Major or B Flat, Minor, Major—something along those lines.” He doesn’t even see a difference between the various songs, because it’s all just noise to him. The noise of the classical music, the noise of sizzling meat coming from the old woman he thinks lived beneath him. Similarly, in the period of C when Serge becomes hugely reliant on heroin, the password sequence (again: sequence, code) involves composers:
It consists of the visitor enquiring whether there’ll be a piano recital today, and the servant… asking whether they’ve come to hear the Chopin or the Liszt, to which the visitor must answer “Liszt.” There is a piano in the main room, as it happens; from time to time, one of the guests will play it for a while, but their recitals never get completed…
Also akin to Remainder—specifically the point at which the protagonist hires re-enactors to re-enact his previous re-enactments—is a part when Serge meets a tourist in Egypt who tells him: “I looked at the Pyramids, and tried to revere them, and photographed a little. Then I looked at the others looking at the Pyramids, and photographed these people too.” Again we say the layers upon layers, the multiple levels of watching, being watched, and duplication of perspective.
Like C, there are brief moments of dark humor in Remainder. The best example I can find is when a hired actor, as he and the protagonist and a group of others robs a bank and someone gets shot, yells “Stop the re-enactment!” In context, this line is extremely funny and you laugh very hard, because the man is unaware that it’s no longer a re-enactment.
Also like C, Remainder has its moments of obviousness, like when the protagonist is in the bathroom of a friend’s house and sees a crack in the wall that makes him remember his previous apartment, in some past life he forgot about. He says: “Then it happened: the event that, the accident aside, was the most significant of my whole life.” I had written in the margins “Ugh so overt,” but then again, it’s kind of excusable because that is how the character talks in his narration: stilted, grand-standing, hyperbole. Another moment that beats you over the head a bit: The protagonist asks what song is playing over the speaker, and his associate says that it’s “History Repeating” by The Propellerheads. “It’s quite nice,” our man says. And that, folks, is quite overt. If we had any doubt as to where the story was going with the reenactments and theme of memory loss and reconstruction, there you have your signal. It’s all repeating.
That idea is continually touched on, but another, not explored in as much depth, is the concept of wiring and machinery that McCarthy would later explore fully for C. From Remainder: “I came across some men laying wires beneath the street and stopped to watch them for a while… for me, they were… gods, laying down the wiring of the world, then covering it up—its routes, its joins.” This is so strongly tied to the entire network feel of C that it almost seems possible the idea for the novel came from this sentence; like you could imagine McCarthy writing this and thinking, ‘Hey!’ and grabbing scrap paper to begin writing down the skeleton of what his next novel would be like.
There are similar moments throughout Remainder, for which, each time, I simply wrote in the margins of my book: “precursor C.” Here were a couple:
For some reason I thought of scarab beetles.
…the humming in our ears was constant, a cacophony of modems and drilling and arpeggios and perpetually ringing phones.
Meanwhile, the narrator complains at least five times about smelling cordite (no one else around him ever notices the scent). And from C: “Whole swathes of space… animated by the plumed trajectories of plans and orders metamorphosed into steel and cordite, speed and noise.”
On a side note, there is one exchange, the one that sparks the additional, very meta layer of re-enactments, that I read and then had a mini-epiphany based on another pop culture artifact:
“I’d like you to organize another re-enactment,” I said.
“I wasn’t aware there’d been another shooting,” he said.
“I should like one,” I explained, “of that moment just before we re-enacted the first shooting, when we stood in the road, me and them, and I told them where to stand. I want to re-enact that moment.”
It suddenly occurred to me after this conversation that Remainder had to have been the inspiration for the film Synecdoche, New York (a miserable, self-indulgent, ludicrous movie but if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean).
Bottom line: C was fantastic, and it’s a book everyone seems to be talking about. But its value and meaning doubles and grows richer when you’ve also read Remainder. McCarthy is an author that, like Irving (bears, prostitution, absent fathers, New Hampshire, incest, abortion, gender politics) or Palahniuk (fame, drugs, sex addiction) or Dickens (physical deformities, vague acquaintances returning from the past, old houses, male rivalry), has his favorite themes and tropes and returns to them gracefully. Both of these are great reads, and though Remainder came first, I’m glad I read them out of order. One informs the other, and vice-versa, doubling back, repeating in on themselves, duplicating and circling, endlessly, again and again, like Serge’s wires and radio calls….