It's difficult to resist hyperbole when discussing a book like C. Astoundingly bold and unabashedly sophisticated, Tom McCarthy's third novel—a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize—is one of those rare works that occasion healthy and heated literary debate (e.g. Michiko Kakutani nay; Jennifer Egan yea) and assertively demand obsessive rereads. Beyond his writing, McCarthy is a respected conceptual artist and a champion of the British avant-garde, and his pet themes of networks, repetition, technology, and death imbue C with an almost disorienting depth.
On its surface, C is a turn-of-the-century pastiche and a curious bildungsroman, following its protagonist (some would call him an anti-hero) quite literally from womb to tomb. But the iceberg is beneath the surface narrative, and the realism is like a Trojan horse for the novel's undercurrents of signs, signals, and significance. The book opens with something of a con: the impression of a Victorian idyll. Serge Carrefax is born in 1898 in a British country estate called Versoie (a possible reference to Derrida's "Un Ver á soie," or "A Silkworm of One's Own"), which houses the senior Carrefax's school for deaf children and his wife's silk production operations. It is also a buzzing hub of scientific experimentation. Simeon Carrefax, Serge's father, is a contemporary and competitor of Marconi, and it is not insignificant that the doctor who delivers Serge arrives with coils of copper wire for his forays into wireless technology.
Serge, a conglomeration modeled largely on Alexander Graham Bell and Howard Carter (discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun), is awash in historical, cultural, and technological detritus— a code-breaker and coherer detecting Morse patterns breaking through the static of the early 20th century. He grows up at the arcadian Versoie with his sister, Sophie, and their intense sibling relationship— in which incestuous overtones intersect with a deep yearning to bridge gaps both physical and figurative— becomes central to Serge's (and, by proxy, McCarthy's) ensuing investigations. The incest leitmotif, with a heavy nod toward Nabokov's Ada, is enmeshed with death and buried into the narrative along with Sophie after her untimely demise, imprinted upon Serge's psyche in all sorts of Freudian ways. (Freud's case study, Sergei Pankejeff, or the "Wolf Man," is another clear antecedent.)
Above all, C is an unsentimental love story and a ghost story without ghosts. The lost sister haunts Serge as he visits an eastern European, Mann-esque sanatorium to treat constipation (he is full of "mela chole," "morbid matter"), flies as an observer in a Marinetti-hued World War I (facing backwards like Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History"), spends time in a P.O.W. camp, gallivants around a drug-addled London, and eventually travels as a civil servant to Alexandria and Cairo, the land of crypts and inscription. The novel is about Serge, certainly, but it expands far beyond him, using the character as a conduit of more distant dispatches. But, like his name implies (at least the way his father pronounces it), all the currents and transmissions “surge” through him (what McCarthy calls his "magnetic thought-poles"), blowing the narrative circuit and transcending the surface plot.
Readers may struggle with the perceived flatness of Serge, a character with an admitted preference for art rendering reality flat. They may see him as a detached and indecipherable cipher, a passive, anesthetized observer of life and not a participant or player in it. In fact, Serge is not detached; he is too deeply engaged and entangled in the onslaught of signals, melancholically swept up in the sea of perpetual transmissions of longing and loss. Ironically, his acute associative receptivity stems from a sort of dissociative state following his vague childhood traumas. He isn't numb, but is overwhelmed and overcome with desire for the impossible, eventually succumbing to the enveloping hum, the static interference of memory. McCarthy tempts the narrative to rip apart at its silken seams, and ultimately, it does.
C is a book that merits otherwise gratuitous references, since it weaves its influences and sources into its very fabric. Literary allusions are fundamental to the novel's structural conceit. This is literature written upon the contextual history of modernism, like the palimpsestic engravings and ancient graffiti Serge encounters in Egypt. Just as Serge's father considers rigging Sophie's coffin with a transmitter, should she reawaken, C captures transmissions from modernism's dead heroes, notably Joyce and Eliot, whose seminal works—Ulysses and The Waste Land—happen to have been published in 1922, the very year the novel ends (and the year in which Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered). McCarthy isn't shy about his influences—continental philosophy is all over this book, as are allusions to everyone from Mann to Pynchon, Beckett to Burroughs—and he presents in C a collage of convergences, sampling from literary history like a remix DJ.
In one early scene, a board game is transmuted into physical space and, ultimately, through a rudimentary telecom system, into virtual space. A similar technological evolution happens when Serge tunes into wireless signals on his homemade receiver: from sound (language) into writing (literature) into visualized projections (cinema). The novel is set at the dawn of wireless technology, but it is about the whole history of human invention and discovery. It's something like historical fiction about the roots and threads of the looming future; the tendrils tugging toward some unforeseen nascent reality, full of all its technological "advances" moving us toward and away from our humanity. It is set in the past, about the present, and inspired by the future. It is also about how technology lets us project our yearning and mourning into eternal wavelengths.
Of course, the whole puzzle begins with the title of this encoded and encrypted novel. That solitary letter (one of many Pynchonian echoes, this one to V.) insinuates itself upon one's reading of the book, making salient all manner of codes and clues. “C” is for Carrefax, clearly, but it is also for caul (with which Serge's head is encased at birth, like David Copperfield), cocaine (with which he becomes addicted, along with heroin, which is known as "sister"), carbon (the "basic element of life"), cyanide (the cause of Sophie's death), and Cairo (where we get the closest thing to closure that the book offers). It is for cysteine, codes, crypts, cysts, CC, and cartography. The four sections of the book are titled "Caul," "Chute," "Crash," and "Call." But 'C' is ultimately for what all art is about: connectedness and communication.