“C” by Tom McCarthy

Well, that was a bit different. Don’t come to this book expecting plot, character development or anything like that. The main character, Serge, is like a conduit for signals from the radio that his father is experimenting with when he’s born and that he himself develops a fascination with as he gets older. He’s not so much a character as a symbol of the effect of technology on the individual at the dawn of the radio age. The plot is episodic, and Serge cares so little about the outcome that as a reader it’s hard to muster much interest either.

Having said all that, I did find myself weirdly enjoying this book as I read it. It’s clear that Serge’s blankness as a character is intentional. He drifts through some quite amazing experiences, and yet never seems to be fully participating in them. He likes to see the world as flat, not three-dimensional, and so as an artist can never master perspective; it’s only when he’s in a World War One aeroplane looking down on the landscape that he feels things to be “just right, …  just how things should be.” He watches as it “falls away, it flattens, it voids itself of depth. Hills lose their height, roads lose their camber, bounce, the texture of their paving, and turn into marks across a map… Now the land’s surface starts to tip, its horizontal line rotating round the Farman’s nose as though the vegetation, soil and brick that formed it were all one big front propeller…”  He feels the machine to be controlling the landscape, as if “all displacement and acceleration, all shifts and realignment must proceed from the machine…”

Serge feels that such a flat world controlled by machinery is “just right”. His obsession with technology, drugs and sex prefigures many of the developments of the twentieth century, while remnants of the old, such as his Huguenot silk-weaving mother, seem to fade away, to be already a part of the past. It’s a poignant view of a time of great transition, comparable to the current transition to an increasingly digitised, hyper-connected world. Serge is a great observer of the world around him (in the war that’s even his role, not pilot but “observer”), and this extends even into his own life, so that he appears not to be creating the events of his life but merely drifting along observing them along with the reader.

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Serge is born with a caul, traditionally a sign of good luck and safety from drowning, but also in this book the start of recurring symbols of obscured vision, such as the strange gauzy film that descends across Serge’s eyes after the death of his sister and necessitates a trip to a European spa town. The luck comes mainly in his inability to die amid the carnage of the war, despite being hooked on heroin as he’s flying and despite almost everyone around him getting killed, including the pilot of his plane (Serge survives by having his fall cushioned by someone else’s parachute – the parachutist also dies, but Serge is unharmed). The unbelievable luck even extends to him being captured as a spy and lined up in front of a firing squad, only for news of the armistice to come through just before the order to fire is given. The soldiers turn around to go home, and Serge calls out “Hey! You can’t do that. Wait!”

There’s a lot to chew on here, too much probably for one blog post. Parts of the novel reminded me of JG Ballard, particularly when Serge is in the aeroplane and the metal, technology and violence get fused with sexual excitement, making him ejaculate over the tail. Crash, too, was a novel that I enjoyed for its writing and its ideas, even though the plot and characters were scarcely believable. Almost every woman Serge meets inexplicably wants to have sex with him – maybe it’s that caul giving him luck, but it struck me as weird and unbelievable on the level of individual character. Much of the book was the same, and at times I became frustrated with the lack of traditional plot and character development. But it’s a novel about ideas, not so much about characters and their motivations. If read purely on that level, it’s an interesting and at times beautifully written book with plenty of thought-provoking ideas. I’m certainly glad I read it. If you’re looking for a plot that draws you in and characters you can root for, though, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.

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There are 12 comments

  1. This sounds so absolutely not like I would have expected this book to be. No idea why I thought it would be different. I wonder if the fact that every woman wants to have sex with Serge isn’t a fanatsy of the author. I wonder what McCarthy’s intention was with that novel. It sounds interesting but at the same time odd. I like the expression “weirdly enjoying the book”. I think I know exactly what you mean.

  2. I wish I could remember the title of the book he published before this one – anyway. THAT was the Tom McCarthy novel I intended to read one day. I’m not great with books where the characters don’t feel real. That need to make the MC sort of plastic elastic, often emotionless or else just frantic, which is so often the favourite province of satire, is not something I get along with. This is the kind of novel that all those debates about readability would focus on, yes?

    Oh and having just reread my comment, I don’t mean that C is necessarily satire, only that satire is one place where character bows down before the ideas of the novel. I did like your review, though; it gave me a very clear view of the book.

  3. Ah, Caroline, you could probably write a whole book on male fantasy in literature! It does bother me when women all want to have sex with the main character, particularly when the character is not established as being outstandingly attractive or charming. And it rarely (never?) seems to happen the other way round, with men falling at the feet of the not-particularly-attractive female character. In this particular book I’d probably say the author was trying to say something about modernism, but I couldn’t swear to it.

    Hi litlove, do you mean Remainder? That’s been on my list for a long time too. Don’t worry, I understood what you meant about satire, and agree that in that form it works to have the character subject to the ideas. Yes, this is definitely one for the famous readability argument 😉 It did at least make the Booker shortlist last year, but lost out to The Finkler Question, which I haven’t read, but sounds more ‘readable’ from what I’ve heard about it.

  4. I remember I truffle with this a bit when I read it , was my choice for booker last year I think he is a adventurous writer I did find serge a little annoying by end of the book thou great review all the best stu

  5. His previous one was Men in Space. Remainder (which I reviewed here: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/remainder-by-tom-mccarthy/) was his first novel.

    Nice review. The flatness of perspective is interesting, making him a mode of transmission (to us) also. Cauls I think were also a sign of second sight, which may be relevant here.

    The links to Ballard and Crash do seem very clear from what you say, though it’s somehow not a surprise that McCarthy would reference Ballard. The lack of character development is I suspect intentional. As you say it’s a novel of ideas, almost SF in that sense, and McCarthy isn’t a realist writer so I expect he’s pretty indifferent to the realism or otherwise of his characters.

    This is already on my TBR pile, but I expect to read Men in Space as my next by him since it’s already sitting at home.

  6. Nice review, Andrew! I read an essay called ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith sometime back in which Smith compared ‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill and ‘Remainder’ by Tom McCarthy. I remember thinking, while reading that essay, that McCarthy’s novels must be tough to read. ‘C’ looks like an interesting novel, starting from the title. It looks like it also covers a lot of important historical moments of the 20th century. Glad to know that you liked the book.

  7. Hi Stu, yes I know what you mean about Serge! He’s not really a character you root for, is he?

    Hi Max, I seem to have missed Men in Space altogether – Remainder is the only other one I knew. Good to know there’s more for me to read! He is an interesting writer, and I think you’re right about the realism. I felt that all of Serge’s actions were designed to say something about modernism or to illustrate some of McCarthy’s other ideas rather than to be true to the character. I found this quite difficult, but it’s good to read someone doing something different.

    Thanks Vishy, I hadn’t come across that essay – will have to look it up. I’ve read Netherland too, so it would be an interesting comparison. They’re quite different books!

  8. Men in Space isn’t on Kindle, which Remainder and C both are. No idea why but you may not be the only one who’s overlooked it. It doesn’t seem to get the same promotion.

    I have a pet theory that the role of experimental fiction is in part to revitalise more mainstream fiction (I’m not using mainstream as an insult there, Madame Bovary is mainstream fiction after all in that it’s not at all experimental). The novel remains relevant (whatever that means) because it’s challenged from the borders. The idea needs development though.

  9. Your theory certainly makes sense to me, Max. I see a similar process in art, music and other creative fields too. You don’t love every experiment, but you need it, to keep things fresh and moving forward. Otherwise we’d still be looking at heavy oil paintings of idyllic rural landscapes!

  10. This book is on my wishlist. Your review makes it even more appealing. Serge sounds oddly interesting but also a bit annoying. Thanks for the review

  11. Yes, that’s a pretty good description of Serge! I would read the book for the ideas in it, not so much for Serge’s character. Hope you enjoy it if you do!

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