The hero of Tom McCarthy’s new novel moves through a broken world in which technology is both a wonder and a threat.
Avant-garde art elicits a range of reactions, but delight is rarely one of them. Even for interested audiences, making sense of experimental art often feels like more work than it’s worth. But Tom McCarthy—the General Secretary of the semi-fictitious avant-garde troupe known as the International Necronautical Society—avoids all that in his latest novel, C, recently short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Instead of a complex, enigmatic chore, McCarthy gives readers a wholly accessible, fun trip through a buzzing, deeply textured world.
The story begins with the birth of the novel’s hero, Serge Carrefax. Born in the caul, Serge inherits the traits of others associated with the phenomenon: David Copperfield’s perseverance and optimism; Holden Caulfield’s protective affection for his sister, which shades toward the latent desire for incest—as theorized by Freud, also born in the caul. As a boy, Serge narrowly avoids drowning, fulfilling the promise of the caul, a legendary talisman against drowning.
As a character, Serge is simply the lens through which we view his world. His emotions are never on display. When Serge discovers his beloved sister dead of accidental poisoning, McCarthy tells us all that Serge sees, but none of what he feels. The effect of this is wonderful, as McCarthy leaves room in Serge for us to occupy him. An active man, though not quite a “man of action,” Serge tumbles from his childhood estate to a spa in Germany, to flight school and bombing raids over Europe, to London’s seedy underbelly, and finally to Egypt. But the motivations for all this movement remain hidden.
C’s landscape is vivid and McCarthy is at his best when describing the world of Serge’s youth, which he treats in a thoroughly English way. No amber waves of grain, or purple mountain’s majesty here. This is beauty in the micro, a celebration of plants, flowers and insects. Serge wanders through maze gardens, through woodland paths and clearings. The lens widens as the novel continues, but the landscape never achieves that marked American sense of space. Even while flying, the ground beneath him appears gridded.
The technology of World War I pervades the novel, especially communication technology, which is alternately celebrated and mistrusted. Serge adores the telegraph, but his father’s idea for something like TV unnerves him:
Lying back now on the bed trying to picture his father’s putative invention, he sees skinless bodies moving through empty space… all Serge can see is death—death broadcast out of Poldhu, Malin, Cleethorpes, flung across the seas, pulsed out on the hour from Paris, relayed from mast to mast and station to station, from Abyssinia to Suez to Crookhaven and on to homes in Europe and across the world.
In a few instances, McCarthy’s writing is a bit contrived. After Sophie’s death, Serge walks by a religious festival while recovering at the spa. He’s losing his figurative innocence, and on the brink of losing his sexual innocence. But McCarthy goes too far in describing how the “water that’s gushed through the Mir since its inception would never purify him, wash his dark bile away, because the water is dark as well.” Got it—ours is a broken world. But McCarthy clearly means business here, and pounds the notion home over another six lines or so. In the end, though, these rare overwrites never bog down the story—Serge, and his novel, C, are too buoyant for that.