C: A Novel by Tom McCarthy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 320 pp)
Tom McCarthy was born in London and raised in Greenwich. Educated at Dulwich College and New College, Oxford, McCarthy worked as a literary editor for Time Out. In 2005, his debut novel, Remainder, received critical acclaim. He has published numerous essays, articles, and stories in The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books, Artforum, and The New York Times. McCarthy’s latest novel, C, was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
The thorax is an interesting part of an insect’s body; it connects the head to the abdomen and provides the insect with it sectionalized look. Each section of the body is critical to the life of the organism and connects to each part. Tom McCarthy’s avant-garde novel, C, utilizes this insect imagery in order to link four completely different stories into one cohesive whole.
C begins with the birth of the protagonist, Serge Carrefax. Serge grows up in a well-off family with an eccentric father who experiments with wireless technology and runs a school for deaf children. In his early years, Serge follows his older sister, Sophie, around the property feeding off of her eccentricities as she develops into a brilliant scientist. Under these curious circumstances, Serge develops his own oddities.
McCarthy poetically elaborates on these Serge’s strange developments in writing:
“Serge pictures minute dung-flecks being deposited on this man’s mouth, the even tinier bacteria inside them turning inwards from his lips, swimming against his phlegm through crashing rocks of teeth, past lashing tongue and gurgling epiglottis down towards his stomach…” (81).
The Great War
The book continues to trace Serge’s life as World War I dawns on the European horizon. In this section of C, McCarthy’s prose shines in its brightest hues. While in the war, Serge develops into an advanced flight operator in the British Air Force. Through brilliant explanations of dogfights and battles of attrition, Serge engages in some of the bloodiest battles in European history.
Observing the horrors of war, McCarthy pens,
“Serge, chewing on his omelette, wonders if it’s really necessary to fight the Germans after all: they could all just lounge around, each on their own side, dying in random accidents until nobody’s left and the war’s over by default” (131).
Current Events in a Mirror
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Ultimately, C is a novel about repetition. From Serge’s sexual habits and substance abuse to his obsession with germs, insects, the letter “C” and the rhythms of Morse code, each section of the book narrates a similar story in a different setting.
Summing these ideas artfully, McCarthy envisions Serge sleeping. He
“dreams of insects moving around a chessboard that may or may not be the sea. At times it seems more like a gridded carpet than a chessboard. The insects stagger about ponderously, stupidly, reacting with aggression towards other insects when these cross their paths: rearing up, waving their tentacles threateningly as antennae quiver and contract, and so on. Despite the unintelligent, blind nature of the creatures’ movement, there’s a will at work behind them, calculating and announcing moves, dictating their trajectories across the board. The presence of this will gives the whole scene an air of ritual” (300).
McCarthy’s second novel is a difficult read. The narrative flows into long passages of abstract illustrations of the plot. Through repetition, the story materializes. If you are unwilling to navigate McCarthy’s abstract style, this book is not for you. However, if you persevere through the difficult sections, C as a whole becomes an impeccable work of fiction. If you are a fan of literary fiction, I recommend this book.