C – by Tom McCarthy

The steward leaves.  As he passes the kitchen door on his way back to the stairs a Sudanese cook comes out and tips scraps from a bucket over the Borromeo’s stern.  The steward pauses and watches the scraps bobbing in the churned-up water for a while.  The moon’s gone: only the ship’s electric glow illuminates the wake, two white lines running backwards into darkness.  When the stretch in which the scraps are bobbing fades from view, the steward turns away towards the staircase.  The wake itself remains, etched out across the water’s surface; then it fades as well, although no one is there to see it go (C, 310).

I guess that gives away the ending – it’s the last paragraph of C, the 2010 offering of British novelist tom McCarthy.  I must say – this book took me totally by surprise.

I stumbled upon it from when I used to listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast.  The host said it was strange and well-reviewed.  This more or less echoed the review I remember skimming around that time.  The review made it sound DeLillo or Pynchonesque, and also a little like Neal Stephenson.  I figured since this author had named his books C and Remainder, there would be some math-inspired adventure story historical fiction, like Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.  I loved those books, so I decided I might give this a try.

I wouldn’t have bought it, except that my relatives give me, it seems, hundreds of dollars in Barnes and Noble gift cards every Christmas.  I was trying to burn some of that money, so I bought the brand new $25.95 hardcover.  It’s got a stern-faced turn-of-the-20th-century portrait of a ten-year-old British boy, covered over by Morse code dots and dashes.  One of the dots covers his right eye with “C,” the title of the book.  Perfect – Morse code as a metaphor for something, a means with which to unravel plots, heighten suspense, work in some past-tense science fiction, keep my mind occupied while I ride the train home.

C turns out to be all of those things, but, at least once I finished it, I’ve started to think, it’s a bit more than that.  Let me try to explain, hopefully by not starting another paragraph with “I.”

Coming for me on the heels of thousands of pages of Dostoevsky reading, my first experience of this book, its initial chapters, was underwhelming.  In all fairness, considering some of the most recent fictional pages I’ve read include Ivan Karamazov’s psychotic encounter with the devil, the sense of underwhelmed-ness was sort of inevitable.  C’s opening reads like standard historical fiction, maybe a little bit like a BBC miniseries set in the 1890’s.  There are descriptions of a large estate with many strange corridors, gardens and stone walls, and several scenes involving its eccentric owner Mr. Carrefax, and his two children, Serge and Sophie.  Yes.  Historical fiction about math and science with a mad-scientist character and a daughter named Sophie.  You almost don’t need to know the rest of her character’s description: brilliant, unstable, intense, cryptic, the object of all the other male scienstists’ aim-inhibited desires.  All of these novels have one of these – what I’ve come to see, especially in Stephenson, as the “dork-friendly hottie.”  The historical period’s equivalent of the girl who plays video games and can talk about transcendental numbers but is still pretty enough to hypnotize her male dork peers.

Which is not to say that the opening chapters weren’t appealing in another way.  Historical fiction of this sort of usually pleasing to read, in the same way that I find the introduction to the 1980’s Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series just as pleasing.  You get the sense of a past you’d like to be in, where people are tinkering with early transistor radios and telegraph keys, about to discover some of the things we take for granted, and there’s the satisfying crunch of the gravel as a carriage or a new “motorcar” turns up the driveway.

This period-piece stuff is never entirely left behind in C.  The book does have a Forrest Gump sort of quality, where Serge Carrefax (who turns out to be the protagonist) tours through the early 20th century’s most important events and cultural trends.  He attends a European health spa and drinks the waters (the sequence isn’t so different from Dostoevsky’s own foray into this genre in The Gambler).  He fights in World War One, flying in the RAF and getting taken as a POW just before the armistice.  He attends séances in London in the 20s, goes on an archaeological dig in Egypt (shades if DeLillo’s The Names), listens to someone ramble on about the Book of the Dead.

That Forrest Gump quality, though, is also not the whole story.  It’s really much more of the historical fiction of Pynchon’s Against the Day (no – I didn’t read the whole thing – really only the first 150 pages or so I think).  It’s borrowing from the historical-fiction “you were there” genre to get to something else.  But what else?

I’ll continue with more literary references.  The book bears a lot of structural similarities with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (that said, there’s not the clear architectonic of Portrait of the Artist’s memorable five chapter division).  It’s episodic (written relentlessly in the present tense), repeating patterns in each episode, first in Serge’s earliest childhood – the opening chapter is about his birth – then younger Serge, then teenage Serge, mid-twenties, and so on.  And Serge is definitely not an artist.  He’s unable to draw anything but the crudest drawing – that’s one of the recurring patterns.  This is more like Portrait of the Obsessive Engineer as a Young Man.

There are a ton of motifs that continually re-manifest themselves: insects (young Serge is a “radio bug,” older Serge finds scarab beetle canoptic jars (is that what they’re called?) in Egypt, he is bit by a bug that creates a major health emergency.  There is also “incest” (simple transposition of letters gets you from one to the other) – his relationship with his sister is extremely sexualized and problematic, something that manifests itself throughout the story.  There is continuity in his sexual habits.  There is the recurrence of the idea of “dark matter,” most prominently as “melancholia” with which the doctor at the spa says “in an earlier era” he would have been said to have – and then later its reappearance as ink, and, by implication, writing and literature.  There’s radio waves, a preoccupation with their dispersal and also collection.  Memorably, Serge’s father has a pet theory that if he had the right instruments, he could recollect all the radio energy ever transmitted, work it backwards and reconstruct the start of the world: a sort of electro-magnetic Archimedean point that would overcome information entropy.

One thing Serge almost never does is read or write.  He tinkers and learns how systems work.  He is at first nearly obsessed with working out the systematic details of each new situation in which he finds himself, and then later, becomes a bit depressed and lethargic when he recognizes these patterns and sees them start to fade.  For this reason, I suppose (or maybe it’s the early, problematic relationship with his sister) he develops the twin drug habits of heroin and cocaine.

This was one of those books that didn’t really “click” for me until right as I finished it.  So much of it seemed obvious and genre-restricted until I read the book’s final pages.  As trite as the quotation with which I began this post might sound, when I read it, coming at the end of 310 pages, it was actually extremely moving, arresting and numbing I guess.  This image of the ripples in a sea dissipating, and ultimately becoming lost in the chaotic field of the entropic seas is something that, understood at a certain level of abstraction, is really very depressing.  It’s a feeling I got in the last episode of each season of The Wire, probably most notably as we watch Hamsterdam bulldozed, Colvin demoted, and Stringer Bell’s parliamentary procedure project receded into the background, soon to be forgotten.  Those alternative social spaces crop up and disappear, overrun by the force of normalization.

So too with Serge’s existence: there’s a moment somewhere in the middle of a book where Serge thinks about how, every time he walks by a certain fountain, he is temporarily transfixed by its jets and obsessed with determining the pattern by which they shoot spurts of water.  He’s obsessed only for as long as it takes for him to walk by, and then he instantly forgets the obsession until the next time he passes the fountain.

Dummy chamber… everywhere… what’s not?”  These are some of  Serge’s last audible words aboard the ship.  The implication being – all these attempts to recover history (ours or our culture’s) and preserve them for eternity against would latter-day-Pharaonic (word?) grave robbers – they’re all dummy chambers.  Everything’s an attempt to keep order amidst its inevitable chaotic overrunning.  I’m reminded of the final sequence of the really spectacular Summer Hours, a French movie of a few years ago.  It tells the story of an estate of a matriarch who has passed away and whose three children fight over the estate’s disposition.  After some resolution is reached – I don’t remember what – one of those children’s high-school aged daughters throws a party.  Teenagers re-appropriate the estate’s space, though with no sense of self-consciousness at all, listening to pop music out of the speakers of a stereo someone has brought, oblivious to the previous history.  It sounds cumbersome to describe, but the on-screen effect is breathtaking.

Still, all of this, at times, feels like warmed-over 1920’s modernism.  There’s nothing here as affecting as Marcel’s “madeleine” moment, nor anything as problematic, unwieldy or hilarious as any of the  pages of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.  But there is a thematic resonance, and I will say, McCarthy has something Joyce, Proust, or, for that matter, DeLillo or Pynchon don’t really have: the ability to take all these preoccupations with the past, memory, history, language, information, the self, etc. and wrap them into a deceptively simple piece of genre fiction.  That may be the neatest trick of all to C.

[I’m in the middle of Remainder, McCarthy’s first novel, right now; I’ll write about that when I’m done.]

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