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Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy

Review: Fiction

The code warrior Add to ...

Man Booker short-listed C, by English novelist Tom McCarthy, is a spiralling reiteration of history, both minute and gross, where the banal transforms and is reinvented at each manifestation, where space is as tangible as the code defining it - that is to say, tangible enough. Death is at once ritualized and mocked, the dead piling and layering into a complex of information that may or may not mean anything beyond the mere resonance, shimmer and collective beauty of their endless accumulation.

Infinity is gorgeous in the hands of Tom McCarthy, gorgeous and fearsome. Like god without god.

Serge Carrefax is born, in spite of the altered state of his deaf, be-chloroformed mother, born with a caul; the veil pulled from his eyes, the good doctor declares later that "the caul is meant to bring good luck - especially to sailors." Serge's sister, young Sophie, is shielded too late from seeing this birthing, the new boy child, her own reiteration. His father is both an amateur technology inventor and a teacher of speech to the deaf. Communication is his métier just as communication is the means to McCarthy's end. C is a Babel of encodings, puzzles, disentanglements.



C, by Tom McCarthy, Knopf, 310 pages. $29.95



Serge struggles early with letters, words and perspective. He hasn't a strong take on vantage points. For him, the world is flat, plain, bird's-eye. His emotional palate is near non-existent, and so judgment flies out too. Things happen in this novel, and they take their co-ordinates at the indices of whatever space Serge occupies: He is fascinated with wireless transmission; he finds his sister raving in the garden and later dead; time passes; he is brought to a spa for a cure to the bile that has blackened his colon, where he loses his virginity, is cured thus; time passes; he becomes an officer and goes to war as an observer; he is shot down, becomes a prisoner and is released; time passes, and on.

McCarthy's prose coruscates, constructing the novelistic equivalent to the strangely compelling refresh on a computer screen. We witness Serge's witnessing without much regret - we ought perhaps to feel his emotional ineptness, but instead we bear up, sensing the grief, shock, the feelings of others around him, just as queerly as he does. Seen from above, with Serge, the drama, or proposed narrative arc of a life lived, is just pageantry - a kind of mock-up of what, from a flattened-out, map view, becomes wholly other.

There is a great deal of mockery in the novel. There are deaf children speaking lines they cannot hear, for the amusement of those whose applause they cannot hear. There is the falseness of the tourist spa town, and much interstitial discussion of authenticity. There is the theatre of war, and there is heroin, which becomes Serge's "sister," another skewed iteration. There are mock Egyptian tombs - dummy chambers the Egyptians forged to misguide grave robbers.

The mockery, forgery, theatre and pageantry, these imposed narratives of what man creates out of his existence are, incidentally, a recurring reverberation in all McCarthy's work to date, so that the books can be seen in some way as reenactments of each other.

What happens in a McCarthy novel is almost always less interesting than what is witnessed and noted. Recall that Serge is an observer. His "things happen" loop and scroll round again. The caul reiterates as a miasmic veil, a parachute through which his plane crashes, a heroin-steamed car accident, a toxin-induced fever dream, and within the loop comes each necessary rebirth.

Over and over, there is coupling, anti-erotic even in its eroticism, with Serge re-enacting his first sexual encounter - seeing, yes, as shadow play through a screen, his brilliant sister being taken from behind by his father's friend, a decoder, whom she has essentially seduced. Or perhaps this is his second sexual encounter; the first involved Sophie tapping out a message in Morse code on his tiny penis (thrusting us and, surely, the aptly named Serge, back and forth between the electric and the erotic).

But does C accumulate into something meaningful? Serge himself is unable to provide even flight narrative to his recording officer: "We went up; we saw stuff; it was good." And at his sister's funeral:

"The charts, the lines, the letter-clusters and the fragments Sophie was pronouncing as she wandered round the Mosaic Garden - and beyond these, or perhaps behind them, the vague, hovering bodies and muffled signals he's been half-seeing and -hearing at the dial's far end, among the crashing and erupting discharges of meteoric events, galactic emanations: these he's more and more convinced, mean something and are issuing from somewhere, from a place he hasn't managed to track down…"

The iterations accrete, shift, return transformed, in order to be reenacted. Memory, certainly Serge's, seems to desire this accumulation of sameness, not nostalgia, but a scaffold of returning and repeating motif upon which to hang narrative.

McCarthy gives us in C this urge toward finding meaning, toward decoding, and understanding, but without the relief of an answer or resolution. The resolution is the infinite permutation of story fragment, or, life. And like life, C is fascinating, uncanny, sometimes hilarious, pageantry.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's most recent novel is Perfecting.

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