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by Tom McCarthy

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


C by Tom McCarthy
© Knopf
Knopf, September 2010

C by Tom McCarthy came as a big lesson to me as a reviewer: a great book is not always one that caters to my personal tastes or that's in my personal comfort zone. For instance, I have never had a head for science and don't enjoy reading scientific material. C is chock-full of scientific experiments and analyses of the technological advances (telegraph, gramophone, phonograph, telephone) of the early 20th century. I also relish literature that brims with catharsis and plumbs its characters' depths. C is coldly clinical in its phenomenological examinations and its characters are pointedly detached and soulless. I prefer symbolism that is packed with archetypal nuances. C is a book that invites readers to decipher the codes embedded in the emerging communication systems of the early twentieth century and the ways in which these systems helped facilitate war and modern alienation. Where I admire the modernist tendency toward personal retreat and introspection in the face of radically changing times, McCarthy plies a stilted Victorian style to obviate modernist emotionalism. Yet I grudgingly admit that the brainy expertise with which McCarthy delivers his narrative is uncanny and C deserves its place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist.
We join C's protagonist Serge Carrefax on the day of his birth in pre-World War I England, where his father runs an experimental school for deaf children that takes a curious hard line against teaching sign language and instead boasts its success in schooling children in lip-reading. While his wife is giving birth, Serge's father is in his lab, experimenting with machines and chemicals. Serge's birth is no more than an afterthought to the father, although his father is somewhat intrigued to learn that Serge was born with a caul, which the doctor informs him is a sign of good luck.

Serge then grows up to be molested and manhandled by his sister Sophie while his mother is off making tapestries from homegrown silkworms, a process to which Carrefax gives replete scientific description. Serge is somewhat in his sister's shadow as she is a gifted student who is almost monomaniacally focused on her chemistry experiments. She poisons the family cat, just to see how hazardous arsenic is, and in reparation for her premeditated murder, takes delight in performing taxidermy on the family pet, which she'll add to the family's collection of stuffed creatures. Later, as a college student, she'll poison herself and the family will give her a formal funeral, where there are dry eyes all around coffin.
Coming up in such an environment, it's not hard to see why Serge would be emotionally barren and take stock of the world, not without interest but still without feeling. In his late teens, he goes to a Bohemian spa (cf. Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain) to be relieved of chronic constipation, only to lose his virginity to his husky nurse whom he leaves behind without ceremony before volunteering to become one of many high-flying, cocaine-snorting air-fighters for the British army in World War I. The Germans capture Serge after shooting down his plane, but with his innate perspicacity, he is able to escape from the prison camp and return to civilian life in London, where he is soon recruited into an espionage mission in Cairo where the book comes to a momentous climax.

Despite the deliberate lack of depth in its characters, C has vast sweep and intelligence, not to mention highly accomplished prose. There are no definitive answers as to why McCarthy decided to call the book C. Maybe it stands for Cairo, carbon (the lab), cocaine (something Serge has in common with his contemporary, Sigmund Freud), or, perhaps most plausibly, communications (the many media that emerged at the dawn of the twentieth century). In any event, in its study of technology and alienation, C is a post-modern odyssey and a feast for the mind.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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