It is the summer of 1911, young Serge and his sister Sophie roam around their English country estate, learning the names of insects, painting landscapes, putting on pageants. Tom McCarthy’s C opens like a typical turn of the century realist novel. The setting is the perfect childhood idyll. But things are slightly askew. The children’s father is a madcap inventor obsessed with radio hamming. Their deaf mother, high on opiates, runs a silk loom in the family grounds: moths lay eggs in Hatching Rooms; butterflies copulate in Rearing Houses; a courtyard is lined with cocoons. A family friend teaches Sophie how to crack coded newspaper messages and has inappropriate relations with her. Set in the emergent years of electrical communication and of high modernism, the novel’s characters are preoccupied with meaning. By night, Sophie stalks the gardens, convinced that insects are sending her signals, while Serge tunes into radio transmissions. When “riding the dial’s highest reaches”, Serge “occasionally intuits but never quite pins down” certain scenes: “vague impressions of bodies hovering just beyond the threshold of the visible, and corresponding signals not quite separable from the noise around them.”
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, McCarthy’s C has been talked about as a “philosophical novel”. But what does this mean? As McCarthy’s previous novels Remainder and Men in Space reveal, the author is interested in a particular orientation of Continental philosophy; his writing bears the stamp of Heidegger, Blanchot, Derrida, Deleuze. He is the general secretary of the Necronautical Society, a “semi-fictitious avant-garde network” co-mastermined by the deconstructionist philosopher Simon Critchley. C is about the meaning of meaning. The novel recasts a fundamental concern of philosophy – the relation between thought and meaning, mind and world – by effectively casting it away. Just as Serge has “vague impressions of something” but never quite pins it down, so the novel shows that the mind cannot grasp the ultimate nature of reality, but that language can disclose its ambiguities. McCarthy’s language is always lucid, but his words are often so flat, so underdetermined, that their precise meaning recedes.
The novel is driven less by plot than by desire for what can’t be comprehended. This has exasperated and exhilarated in turn (“I cannot even half-heartedly recommend a book that on occasions left me close to tears of boredom”, writes Theo Tait in the Times; “this strange, original book is – to its credit – a code too nuanced and alive to fully crack”, says Jennifer Egan, in the New York Times). McCarthy has no interest in writing what he disdainfully calls a “liberal humanist novel”: the form of ‘realist’ representation which has its roots in the 19th century and supposedly holds up a mirror to reality. Following the life and perspective of Serge Carrefax, the novel is broken down into four sections: his childhood on the country estate; his experience as a spotter over enemy lines in World War One; post-war London in the 1920s – a hedonistic malaise of sex, drugs and the supernatural; and Egypt, working at an imperial broadcasting organisation named “the Empire Wireless Chain”. In place of pacey storyline are repetitions, echoes, associative links. Labyrinthian silk looms lead into wartime trenches which twist into Egyptian tombs. The disturbed Sophie is on the hunt for “the Balkan beetle,” anticipating the war, but also punning on incest-insect; in Egypt, Serge discovers secret scarabs and is mysteriously bitten by one. The title C evokes Carrefax, but also the chapters of the book (Caul, Chute, Crash, Call); it resounds in the place Cairo, but also in the cocaine Serge takes a liking for, and in cocoons. The letter C forms a kind of remainder (invoking the title of McCarthy’s first book), which persists throughout the narrative, unassimilated to the dominant systems of rational order and military strategy.