C Tom McCarthy

Cape, pp.310, 16.99

‘C’ is for Caul, Chute, Crash and Call, the titles of the four sections of Tom McCarthy’s new novel; for Serge Carrefax, its protagonist; and for, among other things, coordinates, communication technology, crypts, cryptography, Ceres, carbon, cocaine and Cartesian space, motifs that trellis this book.

‘C’ is for Caul, Chute, Crash and Call, the titles of the four sections of Tom McCarthy’s new novel; for Serge Carrefax, its protagonist; and for, among other things, coordinates, communication technology, crypts, cryptography, Ceres, carbon, cocaine and Cartesian space, motifs that trellis this book.

Serge is born at the end of the 19th century on a comfortable country estate to a mother who manufactures silk and a father who runs a deaf school and devotes his remaining hours to the budding science of tele- graphy (the etymological origin of ‘Serge’ means ‘silk’, besides the more obvious pun on ‘surge’). His sister poisons herself when he is still young, though it is difficult to tell how much this contributes to his subsequent emotional frigidity and self-medication.

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Following a brief spell in a central European sanitorium, Serge joins the air force during the first world war, which allows him to continue his childhood passion for wireless technology. His geometric imagination delights in gridded trenches and the arcs formed by artillery shells. After demobilisation, Serge intermittently studies architecture in London, though he mostly consumes large quantites of coke and dope. With the intercession of his godfather, our hero is dispatched to Egypt to expand the imperial telegraph network and ends up joining an archaeological exploration.

As should be clear, the plot is episodic, and serves as a skeletal structure around which McCarthy’s themes entwine: electronic transmission, repetition, two-dimensional space, the relationship between death and esoteric knowledge, and the impossibility of communication. These derive — in large part — from McCarthy’s long-standing interest in French Theory, and he deploys them with great ingenuity. He is especially adept at describing the bursts of static and interference that invade everyday life, whether half-understood snatches of conversation or the silence at the end of a gramophone record ‘bursting . . . with a crackle and snap’.

There is a great deal else to admire. In his attempt to transmute ideas into narrative, McCarthy has cultivated a distinctive lexicon crammed with words like ‘matter’ and ‘residue’ that hover energetically on the cusp of abstraction and tangibility; and his deadpan humour is evidenced by a table-tilting seance that Serge hijacks when he realises it is directed by remote control (in this case the medium is indeed the message).

Yet, unlike the radios strewn across it, C is less than the sum of its parts. Many have heralded McCarthy as the standard bearer of the avant-garde, but he has written, in some ways, a conventional novel, with a linear plot following a central figure and bound by a number of themes. Ugly distortions, however, are caused by McCarthy’s philosophical predilections, especially his thinking about the effect of technological modernity on selfhood. If you want to reject psychological interiority as old-hat liberal humanism, then your characters will still be unengaging, even if they retain a theoretical purity. There may be interesting parallels between Ancient Egypt and 20th-century technology but lengthy disquisitions on the subject will soon sound like Wikipedia.

Mishearings remain unfunny, irrespective of the complexity of the theorising underpinning them. Too much of the book contorts itself into implausibly justifying the worldview of 20th-century continental philosophy. McCarthy wrote recently that ‘the more books I write, the more convinced I become that what we encounter in a novel is not selves, but networks’. This is a false dichotomy. In Jane Austen we encounter networks of families; Dickens refutes the defenders of class distinction by describing networks of dependency that stretch across society. But at the nodes of these networks are selves. It is why all novelists — including McCarthy — write books starring people rather than chain-link fences.

One of the great passages in literature about the transformative effects of technology on human feeling occurs in The Guermantes Way, when the narrator only realises his grandmother is dying when he hears her disembodied voice on the telephone. It is a passage brimming with emotion. McCarthy’s anti-psychology, which worked so well in his taut debut, Remainder — in which a traumatised narrator feels an urge for re-enactment — is beginning to seem wilful and unnecessarily arid. But he is so gifted that one hopes his next novel will fully demonstrate his lavish imaginative talents.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Egypt, Fiction, Historical fiction, Technology