It’s fitting that Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C, should concern itself primarily with the unseen connections and entanglements that define our digital age. Except this novel, a bildungsroman that ranks among the best of the genre, reveals our wireless past and in so doing illuminates a good deal of how much, despite our superior technology, we might be missing. The recurrence of themes and motifs that McCarthy has used to so animate C with the crackling intimacy of a single consciousness are a departure from the metier the author employed in his first novel, Remainder. In that far more abstracted novel, the protagonist was a victim of an accident that permanently damaged his memory. Nearly the entire novel was then spent in a desperate attempt by the protagonist trying to recreate a feeling of authenticity that his accident prevented him from experiencing.
Serge Carrefax, the hero of C, is all too real to us, from the moment the book opens with his birth, on the English country estate Versoie. If in Versoie you immediately recognize an allusion to the French royal palace Versailles then this book will capture you and hold you for however many days, or more likely hours, you spend with it. But that is not the only thing that will grip you about C, and in fact, even the visual design of the novel by Peter Mendelsund, a wonderfully subversive and haunting image of a young boy, jolts you awake. The young boy’s face is threatened with being overtaken by the dots and dashes that we’ll soon learn speak to the heart of young Serge’s journey. As Mendelsund remarked in a recent interview:
“The book’s complexity is, at least when compared to Remainder, Joycean really—in the sense in which meaning must be unpacked, not just at the narrative level, but at the linguistic level as well.
So, where to start with C? We have the name, Carrefax, the fax, the facsimile, the carbon copy. And each of the books four parts all begin with the letter C. We have Serge’s name, which alludes to pulsations of electric current. Simeon, Serge’s father, runs a school for the deaf at Versoie while not tutoring his children in scientific discovery. Serge becomes interested in the emerging technology of wireless sound and communication, and while his older sister, Sophie, masters chemistry and the natural sciences, Serge spends endless adolescent hours tapping out signals in Morse code to the disparate masts that the world is just now beginning to erect. And which will, in many ways, shape the entire 20th century, and cast a long shadow into our own time.
From the very beginnings of Serge’s life we are made aware that he’s special, that there’s something peculiar about this boy, some destiny he’s been entrusted, or encrusted with. Encrusted because Serge is born with a caul around him, a sack of sorts that, later in life, will cloud his vision. Serge finds himself sent to the Egyptian city of Sedment, along the Nile, with its muddy, sediment-filled water the color of earth and soot. When Serge serves as an aerial cartographer in the First World War, he fashions a mask out of a stolen pair of pantyhose, gauzing his vision and causing him to inhale “the rich and honeyed smell of cunt,” as he strafes the German lines, at one point masturbating above the enemy.
These spasms of sexuality occur out of nowhere, yet when they do arrive, they are incredibly vivid. The still-adolescent Serge is traumatized when he witnesses a particular sexual act, so the reader understands how Serge’s own sexuality is forever marked by that trauma. In fact, Serge can only perform in the position that marked his sexual awakening, recalling Freud’s infamous Wolfman patient. Serge’s first orgasm marks the conclusion of one section of the book that saw Serge taking treatments at a German spa town for an inability to defecate, indicating the link between physical and sexual health. Freudian theories loom large in this narrative.
But the heart of the book lies in its long and romantic discourses on the unseen entanglements and leitmotifs that run through all of our lives, the way that certain symbols and languages, numbers and codes, ciphers and glyphs manifest to us almost constantly, as if some unknown and unseen entity was communicating with us. Of course, according to McCarthy it isn’t the spiritual world, as he very clearly debunks early 20th-century fascination with the Madam Sosotris’ of the world in a wonderful scene. And Serge’s flirtations with heroin and cocaine seem like nothing more than him tuning his own internal dial trying to locate the proper frequency so he can tune in to what his perception apparatus is telling him.
Serge is described at various times both as a transmitter and as a receiver. Listening to the earliest bursts of sea communication, Serge sits in his room transcribing the electric utterances of a world just learning to communicate with itself. “There’s a fluency to them, a rhythm that’s spontaneous, as though the clicks were somehow speaking on their own and didn’t need the detectors…The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sounds of though itself, its hum and rush.”
The concluding section of the novel takes place in Egypt as the British deal with the loss of their colony, indeed their whole empire. And yet Serge is sent as a kind of spy to determine the best location for communication masts to be erected so as to ensure the uninterrupted communication of an empire on the wane. It’s the protuberance of communication lines that mirrors the recession of an empire.
Words, letters, symbols, images, motifs. These constitute the essence of McCarthy’s novel, and as he has chosen to set this novel amid the turn of the century, Serge’s life parallels the birth and development of wireless communications. McCarthy must have known this theme would resonate with today’s audience, beset as we are from all angles by instant, real-time communication technology. We must know that many of our messages simply get lost in the ether. One gets the sense reading C that McCarthy wanted to illustrate how even the most scientific and reasonable of pursuits contains elements that defy our understanding. There is, even in the most progressive of technologies, magic at hand. And this magic is buried deep within the novel, often so full and thick of thematic sorcery, that it threatens to overwhelm the reader.
And Mendelsund, the jacket cover designer, is right, this book is Joycean in its inclusiveness. As if every wayward assumption or secret belief that Serge ever has about himself, that every connection ever forged in his mind was hardwired into the world around him, shuffling in and out of his receptors, reminding him who he is, who he was, what made and makes him. This is McCarthy’s brilliance at work, that ability to deliver the feeling that what was true for Serge is also true for each of us. Do we not all feel certain themes compelling themselves upon us throughout our lives, urging us to take note of them, to receive and transmit on certain frequencies that were designed just for us, to communicate with ourselves, our pasts and our futures? Whether or not we decide to engage these themes is another story but Tom McCarthy’s C, a book thick with meaning and import, reminds us that whether we are listening and receiving, there is a conversation we should be having with ourselves at all times.
Tom McCarthy’s C will be released on September 7 by Knopf. To purchase it, click here.