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.
McCarthy has described writing as being like a DJ or curator, plugging one set of material into another. But of course, this Joycean matrix of allusion is not exactly new. It is a strategy most famously deployed by the modernists, but also by later writers, such as Pynchon and Auster. What makes McCarthy’s approach original, however, is the way he grounds ambiguity in emerging technology: radio waves at the turn of the century, but also, implicitly, that other ubiquitous wireless of today. We are as intangible as the electric circuits around us, McCarthy implies. Like the “humming wires and buzzing switchboards, of communications”, being is a kind of technicity.
“The sound’s present too, material,” says the young Serge who, tapping into the night’s radio signals, “sees its ripples snaking through the sky.” C also grapples with life’s materiality – its sheer thingyness. Static radio is like a “bucketful of grain-rich gravy dashed against a wash-boiler.” With the vigilance of the insomniac who is riveted to existence, the young Serge spends his nights fastened to the airwaves: “wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear.” The language captures the palpability: the undulating o’s, Beckettian rocking “come and go”, fricative p’s and t’s that move and loop and weave, the staccato rhythm. And later, when Serge drops bombs from a fighter plane and watches the earth come alive:
'whole swathes of space becoming animated by the plumed trajectories of plans and orders metamorphosed into steel and cordite, speed and noise. Everything connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays.'
The repetition, the accelerated pace, the winding sentences and colon that connects and disconnects: language might be a barrier to reality, but it sure has spectacular effects. Some critics have wondered why McCarthy, whose main interest clearly lies in ideas (patterns not people), has chosen to write novels at all. Why not philosophy? But the passage above surely answers this. If he is interested in the materiality of existence, its interconnectedness, then the rich textuality of literature best captures it. After Blanchot, McCarthy calls literature’s vitality “the event”. His weirdly beautiful imagery certainly brings dead matter to life (“like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body”), bringing to mind Paul DeMan’s claim that the metaphor inherently vitalises, joining disparate elements to create anew.
But isn’t there something deeply romantic about all this? And isn’t it just a little distasteful - this Futurist orgiastic revelling in war, violence, and the machine? So some think. But McCarthy’s almost messianic drive for felt contact with objects, his way of making us see and feel differently, not only leavens a leaden time, but forms an imaginative violence within that protects from the violence without. Violence against violence, if you like. Which brings us to our protagonist Serge Carrefax – variously described by critics as “cold”, “mechanical”, a “bloodless” entity. As a boy, his inability to draw perspective gives us insight into his odd mentality: “He sees things flat; he paints things flat. Objects, figures, landscapes: flat.” Serge can’t do depth. But does this mean he has no psychology? Does it make him uninteresting? Some of the most compelling fictional characters are those who are not gushing with thoughts and feelings. And there is enough backstory to suggest why Serge is peculiarly affectless: a neglectful father, an emotionally vacant mother, his sister’s suicide. By its very nature, trauma is that which can’t be articulated, so to have our young hero spell out his inner demons would seem disingenuous. And yet...a constitutive part of being human is, surely, to feel. McCarthy’s contempt for “the illusion that there is a self who exists prior to anything who goes around emoting, experiencing, and developing”, his intellectual concern for the authentic, leads to an emotional thinness.
But finally, there is something unusually human about Serge’s relationship with death. For all its languishing in wartime disaster, the book avoids any heroics of death. The disturbed young Sophie believes life’s mysteries can be cracked, like code; her suicide in the children’s science lab suggests a desire to conquer death, as if its mysteries can be distilled, like an experiment from their chemistry set. Serge, on the other hand, displays a curious acquiescence in the face of death: “Serge alone remains unhaunted by the prospect of a fiery airborne end. He’s not unaware of it: just unbothered.” In the terms of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Serge has respect for alterity, humble passivity before the great unknown. On an archaeological dig in Alexandria, Serge stumbles through underground tunnels deep into Egyptian tombs. Treading on smashed pots, coffins, bones, and possible knee-joints, he becomes intoxicated by his companion Laura, but also by mortality itself. As “they continue endlessly” in this rubbish pit of death:
Serge murmurs; “death around the world.”
But “the excitement’s spreading in him, spurred on by the darkness, or the depth, or both.” Serge and Laura have sex, as if surrounded by “a thousand deaths”. Laura “drops the flashlight”, which “flickers against the wall.” This could be read as a modern day myth of Orpheus – the Greek god who, ascending the underworld, is warned not to look back at the woman he loves or she will be lost. In the darkness of the Egyptian chambers, Serge learns that death and desire must not be prised open, but left in all their mystery, as “Nothing” - neither seen nor said. This is the remaining resonance of McCarthy’s writing – the radical ambiguity which persists until well after the novel has been read.