Book review: ‘C’ by Tom McCarthy

Special to the Los Angeles Times


A Novel

Tom McCarthy

Alfred A. Knopf: 310 pp., $25.95

With “C,” Tom McCarthy has written an avant-garde masterpiece — a sprawling cryptogram — in the guise of an epic, coming-of-age period piece. The novel (which is on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist announced this week) chronicles the life of Serge Carrefax, starting with his birth on the English country estate of Versoie, where his father runs a school for deaf children. We follow him through a healing-water treatment for melancholia, architecture studies in London, his service as an airborne radio operator in World War I, his drug-addled return from the front and, finally, on a civil-service mission to Egypt, where he is bitten by an insect and dies. To offer plot summary, however, is like saying Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” is just a book about a woman interested in the postal system.

Fascinated by communications technology, the adolescent Serge becomes a wireless radio operator: “The static’s like the sound of thinking.” Meanwhile, his older sister Sophie — with whom he has an uncomfortably sexual relationship — displays budding scientific acumen. On the wall of her homegrown lab, “texts, charts and diagrams are growing, spreading,” criss-crossed by a complex geometry of lines and arrows, as if tracing an encrypted message. As the reader moves deeper into the novel, it seems more and more like Sophie’s wall. At his sister’s funeral, Serge has a sense of “things being unresolved or, more precisely, undivulged. The charts, the lines, the letter-clusters … and, beyond these, or perhaps behind them, the vague, hovering bodies and muffled signals he’s been half-seeing and -hearing at the dial’s far end … these, he’s more and more convinced, mean something and are issuing from somewhere.…”

Like Serge, we think we’re seeing veiled revelations in the text; like Sophie, we begin to draw lines and arrows.

Communication is constantly thwarted, sometimes on purpose, as in the spy-riddled Babel of post-colonial Egypt, but often by accident. People mishear words, leading to rhyming wordplay, which models the associative thinking that is the key to understanding this novel. The reverberations of the name Versoie, for instance, are mind-boggling: Versailles, the Sun King, the Egyptian Sun God Ra, radium, periodic table, Verey gun, vers/towards, ver/see, soie/silk, veils — all of which matter. And this is just one word.

“C” just doesn’t behave like a typical coming-of-age story. Although Sophie’s death prompts the lifelong and inarticulate mourning buried at the heart of the novel, Serge also doesn’t respond in emotionally familiar ways — to his sister’s death, to the war, to women — moving through life with an Asperger’s-like detachment akin to the narrator’s of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s experimental novel “The Bathroom.” He’s flummoxed by classical perspective in painting and soothed by the world flattening-out beneath his airplane. He goes to Egypt as a “détaché” and admires an Egyptian stele for its “flatness.” A research assistant explains that it is “the autobiography of one of the people buried in the complex … his life, the characters in it, the world around them.… Here the scribe has put himself in, in the bottom corner. See that figure writing?” In this, as in so much else, McCarthy’s book argues that the novel need not remain shackled to the realist imperative of a rounded self engaged in “feeling”: The novel should explore alternative paths like those laid down by Toussaint, Joyce and Robbe-Grillet.

“C” also argues for a destroying-to-create sort of writing. “The decorators — artists, scribes — had more freedom, more leeway to mix and match old texts, thereby creating new ones,” the research assistant explains. McCarthy orchestrates an almost incestuous intimacy among older texts and writers including “Oedipus Rex,” Cocteau’s “Orphée,” Nabokov’s “Ada,” the Bible, Joyce, Heidegger and Freud. The deaf children recite Chaucer and Ovid; Serge becomes obsessed with Hölderlin, firing his Verey gun in rhythmic patterns that match the poet’s syntax.

Death bizarrely excites in Serge the primal urges most associated with life. At Sophie’s funeral, he is preoccupied with an inopportune erection; in an Egyptian crypt he has sex that feels “like an orgy: as though the two of them, their bodies, had become multiplied into a mass of limbs, discarded wrappings and excreta of a thousand couplings, a thousand deaths.” According to McCarthy, death makes life — and art — beautiful, and “C” exalts the materialism of both life and art over false promises of transcendence.

Perhaps the most important associations arise from Serge’s name. The letter C — which stands for Carrefax, copper, communication, cachectic, cysteine, crypt, cryptogram, Cypriot, Cairo, communion, Christ, canopic, Comintern, Corona, Cupid, the final “call” — is also the symbol for carbon, the chemical basis of life (not to mention that graphite — from the Greek, “to write” — is a common allotrope of carbon). In Egypt, Serge discovers an endless maze of crypts: Death is endless at the birthplace of human civilization, history repeats itself (copy, CC, carbonisé, carbon). Soon after, he falls ill and experiences his own material nature with fantastic clarity:

“He’s merging with the void: seared, shot through, carbonisé, he’s become the sea of ink, the distance between planets, the space across which signals travel. Like time itself, he’s flattening, turning into carbon paper: the black smear between the sheets, the surface through which things repeat, CC themselves, but that will itself always remain black, and blank.”

“C” is coming-of-age as philosophy, philosophy as fiction, fiction as “dummy-chamber” (“the real thing’s beyond”) — the novel as encrypted code for life.

Crist is reviews editor at the Believer and the author of the forthcoming book “Everything After.”