C by Tom McCarthy

Book Quote:

“The steward leaves. As he passes the kitchen door on his way back to the stairs a Sudanese cook comes out and tips the scraps from a bucket over the Borromeo’s stern. The steward pauses and watches the scraps bobbing in the churned-up water for a while. The moon’s gone: only the ship’s electric glow illuminates the wake, two white lines running backwards into darkness. When the stretch in which the scraps are bobbing fades from view, the steward turns away towards the staircase. The wake itself remains, etched out across the water’s surface; then it fades as well, although no one is there to see it go.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd (SEP 26, 2010)

Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, C, is a strange book that, without the draw of a gripping plot or the pathos of interesting, well-rounded characters, somehow manages to intrigue all the same. Perhaps the appeal lies in McCarthy’s haunting prose. Or, perhaps it’s the unshakeable feeling that underneath it all – underneath the layered ideas – there’s a message of sorts, a message as profound as it is ephemeral: just as you think you’ve figured it all out, it escapes you. Whatever the reason, C, while far from perfect, is a bizarrely captivating book.

The novel, in four sections – Caul, Chute, Crash, Call – follows the life, birth to death, of Serge Carrefax. Serge is born in the English countryside, at the turn of the 20th century, on his family’s estate, Versoie. The first section, Caul, deals with Serge’s charmingly tragic childhood. Serge’s mother floats around the grounds – and the warehouses of her silk factory — in an opium-induced fog. Serge’s father is equally preoccupied: when not tending to his school for deaf children, he holes himself up in his workshop, devoted to developing various wireless transmitters. Fortunately, Serge is saved from unbearable loneliness by his older sister, Sophie. However, an incestuous shadow hangs over their relationship, and when she commits suicide over a bizarre (and disastrous) love affair, Serge’s unpurged grief leaves him ill enough to be sent to a restorative spa in Central Europe. Wonderfully strange, the charm of this section lies in the details: silk-production, Serge and Sophie’s Realty Game, the mechanics behind a school production of Seduction and Marriage of Persephone, Sophie’s taxidermy, Sophie’s rigged grave.

The second section, Chute, tells of Serge’s experience as an aerial observer in World War I. Aerial observers accompanied pilots on reconnaissance flights. Their job was to sketch, and later to photograph, an area, as well as signal, via wireless transmitters, the location of enemy artillery or soldiers. Although intricately detailed, and wonderfully written, the horrors of war – death, destruction, destitution — as experienced by Serge, are rendered flat, superficial, and narrative drive slackens to a halt.

But perhaps that’s the point: it’s during the war that Serge develops his penchant for cocaine and heroin. Narcotically numbed to the horrors around him, Serge’s observations, while inappropriately cold, are also strangely beautiful:

“In states such as this, he finds himself captivated by the German kite balloons. . .He fires on the airbourne ones that come into his range, not out of hatred or a sense of duty, but to see what happens when the bullets touch their surface, in the way that a child might poke at an insect. When flame-tendrils push outwards from inside the balloons and climb up their surface before bursting into bloom, he watches the men in their baskets throw their parachutes over the side and jump. Often they get stuck halfway down, tangled in the ropes and netting. Seeing them wriggling as the flame crawls down the twine towards them, he thinks of flies caught in spiders’ webs; when they roast they look like dead flies, round and blackened.”


“As they sink through the smoke-cloud, Serge sounds his klaxon again, then looks down. The battlefield’s now strewn with fragments: of machine parts, mirrors, men. Legs, wedged in by earth, stand upright in athletic postures, crooked at the knee as though to sprint or straightened into sprightly leaps but, lacking bodies to direct and complement their action, remain still; detached arms semaphore quite randomly across the ground; torsos, cut off at the waist, mimic the statues of antiquity.”

Unfortunately, drug addiction follows Serge home from the war, and it’s the third section, Crash, that chronicles (rather disappointingly) Serge’s descent into the drug-fuelled London underworld. After the eponymous crash of this section, it’s decided that Serge should be sent away, far from the temptations of London. In the fourth and final section of the book, Call, Serge tags along on an archaeological dig to Sedment, Egypt.

Actually, the failure of the last two sections is instructive as to what is wrong with this book: while the novel is a brilliant (dare I say, genius) exploration of ideas, Serge has all the depth of a paper-doll. There’s so little at stake – so little emotional investment – that as his addiction worsens, or as he falls ill in Egypt, there’s little to compel the reader to turn the page.

C , much like McCarthy’s celebrated debut, Remainder, isn’t for everyone. What it lacks in rounded, interesting characters, or any semblance of a traditional plot, it makes up for in its exploration of ideas such as the subjectivity of experience, our need to force meaning onto meaninglessness, communication and connectedness, cycles of birth, death, rebirth. This isn’t a novel to lose yourself in. It isn’t even a well-told story. It is, however, a complex mesh of themes that, for those so inclined, will provide some bulk to chew on.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 52 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (September 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Tom McCarthy
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another book structured much the same, from birth to death of the main character:

Spooner by Pete Dexter



September 26, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Literary, Reading Guide, United Kingdom

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