British writer Tom McCarthy’s novel C provided me with my most ecstatic book experience of the past year. This ecstasy didn’t come from reading the book but from buying it. I purchased my copy at a very fine independent bookstore in Boston, where the young, cerebral-looking woman behind the counter nodded knowingly. “This,” she said in a quiet voice meant only for me, “is supposed to be really good. Really good.” I nodded and we smiled at each other, and I suspect she was thinking what I was thinking. Why join hordes of plebian bookworms reading a new Jonathan Franzen novel about the foibles of ordinary, recognizable people, when we could instead be among the few initiates able to appreciate the vertiginous and mysterious mind-world of Tom McCarthy’s fiction, a place where everything is connected and nothing matters?
C has commanded serious critical attention, if not uniform praise, and it was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It tells the story of a globetrotting radio operator named Serge Carrefax, from his auspicious birth in 1899 to his bleakly mystical death a few decades later. If you think I’ve ruined the novel for you by telling you how it ends, you’re definitely not McCarthy’s intended reader. This is a novel that blithely disavows standard conventions of modern fiction such as plot-driven storytelling and well-developed characters. To be sure, there are some compelling, even brilliant narrative sequences in the book, but McCarthy is very much a novelist of ideas and densely packed details. He’s not particularly interested in human beings, except as ciphers for his aphoristic observations and verbal flourishes.
Ostensibly concerned with how the taciturn son of an English inventor becomes involved in the emergence of wireless communications and code work before, during, and after World War I, the novel is stuffed with pointillist evocations of diverse locales, out-of-the-way historical episodes, and various elaborate devices dedicated either to making contact with others or to breaking the codes that prevent us from making contact with others. Yet all this learning and evocative power serves to reveal, in every instance, the apparently nihilistic entropy of life itself, and the pointlessness of any effort at meaningful experience with another person.
Early in the book, Serge’s brainy, blustery father dedicates endless hours to experiments with wireless communications—including a weather predictor that operates on radio waves and a primitive form of live-action film. Simultaneously he is running a school whose principal mission is to teach otherwise mute children to express themselves by reciting passages from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Not surprisingly, Serge and his far more vital sister Sophie are also drawn to scientific experimentation, but their ambitions and abilities do not always align well. When Sophie poisons herself to death, her father reacts by trying to use technology to summon back his daughter, with pathetic, even degrading results. With the death of Sophie, Serge becomes even more detached from everything and everyone around him. This detachment continues into the novel’s next section, which concerns Serge’s recuperative stay in a Bohemian spa where various maladies are treated with all manner of abstruse, moralizing quackery involving the spa’s waters.
Uncured, Serge becomes involved in the English war effort, as a reconnaissance photographer and communications coder. His duties afford McCarthy the opportunity for some fine writing. He describes Serge in the turret of a fighter converted into a spy plane “careen[ing] around the Kent coast photo-strafing castles, churches, train stations, and gasworks.” We learn thereafter that Serge “feels an almost sacred tingling” from his war work,
as though he himself had become godlike, elevated by machinery and signal code to a higher post within the overall structure of things, a vantage point from which the vectors and control lines linking earth and heaven, the hermetic language of the invocations, its very lettering and script, have become visible, tangible even, all concentrated at a spot just underneath the index finger of his right hand which is tapping out, right now, the sequence C3E MX12 G.
McCarthy’s novel often brings its protagonist to such modern-made epiphanies, occasioned by war or (in later sections) by cocaine and heroin use among dissipated, bored cosmopolitans, and by unscrupulous moneymaking in postwar London. The problem is that these epiphanies never seem to have any measurable moral or even experiential effect on Serge himself. For example, Serge puts his knowledge of radio to good use by debunking a London séance con preying on the desperate and grieving parents of recently killed soldiers. But Serge’s epiphany, in this case, isn’t that he can use his learning and skill to help others, but merely that his learning and skill give him a momentarily godlike power of revelation.
In the novel’s closing segment, Serge finds his final opportunity for such an elevated experience: he travels to Egypt, where he becomes involved in an archaeological expedition of suspicious backing and ominous purpose. McCarthy suffuses these last pages with detailed evocations of early-twentieth-century Western encounters with Middle Eastern life (for example, the specific trains and trams one took from Alexandria to Anfoushi, Karmouz, and Shatby) that tell us nothing about the felt experience of this world and a great deal about the writer’s impressive historical research into it. In the novel’s climactic sequence, which takes place in an ancient tomb, McCarthy attempts to reveal Serge as a seeker not just of rare secrets but also of rare human contact: he experiences something of both mystery and love among old bones and broken stones, but he’s fatally wounded for his efforts and falls into a delirious black state in which he tries to conceive of the emptiness of his life as somehow sacred. This effort fails and he dies soon afterward, with no one to lament his passing—the reader included. As a cold-blooded literary exercise, C is admirable. As anything more, it’s a disappointment.