C is a Bildungsroman telling the history of Serge Carrefax, an increasingly unlikable amoral antihero. The novel is divided into four sections covering Serge’s childhood, his adventures during the First World War as a member of the Royal Flying Corps, his misadventures in 1920s London with drugs and chorus-girls (all the bits Bertie Wooster left out), and finally a journey into the tombs of Egypt for the Ministry of Communications. Most Bildungsromans follow their protagonists on a journey of development towards self-knowledge. Serge, however, is on a journey to nowhere.
Born in 1898 along with the first experimental radio transmissions, he spends his whole life obsessed with transmission and networks of communication. As an adolescent he is a fanatical amateur radio enthusiast. In the RFC he is an observer and radio-operator. In Egypt he is ostensibly surveying a site for a new radio mast.
New technologies of communication instantly link Serge, as he learns early on, with the whole world. The young Serge surfs frequencies picking up increasingly exotic locations; “Bergen, Crookhaven, Tarifa, Malaga, Gibraltar. Serge pictures gardenias tucked behind girls’ ears, red dresses and the blood of bulls... More names process by: Isle of Perim, Zanzibar, Isle of Socotra, Persian Gulf. Parades of tents line themselves up for him: inside them, dancers serving sherbet, outside, camels saddled with rich carpets, deserts opening up beneath red skies”.
Instant connection comes at a price, though. As an older Serge, even more saturated in signals and messages, later recognises, “the world seems smaller, seems like a model of the world”. The more connected he becomes to global communication and the ubiquity of information, the more diminished he becomes as a person, and the less real his life as actually lived becomes. Serge’s story suggests that there is an inverse relationship between the volume of information available to us and the realness of life as we live it.
Serge can’t cope with people in consequence. When he has sex, it’s never face-to-face with his partner; he has an instinctive aversion to genuine communication and intimacy with other people as people, rather than as bodies or as transmitted information. This shortcoming is emblematic of his failure to understand the depths and irreducible complexities that make up what are, for most of us, the most important parts of life. A fellow airman falls to his death and blights the grass on the ground, his decaying body oozing acid. “All his memories, and everything he ever thought about or did, reduced to battery chemicals”, says a comrade. “Why not?” says Serge, “It’s what we are.” Well perhaps, but it’s not everything we are.
McCarthy has chosen the historical setting for his story wisely. A narrative that covers the emergence of communication technologies we now take for granted allows McCarthy, through his characters’ reactions to those technologies, to examine the implications of a type of life we are so used to a hundred years later that we think of it as inevitable or even natural. In Serge he creates an effective icon of the troubling moral implications of the detached, anaesthetised approach to life that media saturation (as we would now call it), can lead to. This danger is most forcibly presented in an incident during the war in which Serge’s pilot (Serge, as an observer, doesn’t actually fly the plane), is killed in a dog-fight at least partly as a consequence of the fact that Serge is so involved in contemplating the aesthetic implications of aerial warfare that he can’t be bothered to fire back at the German fighters.
Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn’t quite have the knack of writing an historical novel. He is too keen to flaunt his research. Needless references to, amongst other historical clichés, Amundsen, the flu pandemic, and Carter and Carnarvon’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, are annoyingly anachronistic in their knowingness. As is Serge’s comment on the establishment of the BBC as an imperial project: “Strange timing... That we start broadcasting central content Empire-wide just as we lose our Empire”, to which his addressee agrees. Many may indeed have felt and said this in the early 1920s, but as inserted by McCarthy, such comments feel too arch and post-imperial to ring true. And do we really need another novel suggesting that the First World War may have been pointless? Plain anachronisms include a nicely brought up girl on holiday with her parents describing a visit to the pyramids as “like a pornographic film”.
McCarthy also struggles with the comic episodes in C. Serge’s eccentric father feels more like an assemblage of caricatures than a fully formed character. Nor does McCarthy handle comic narrative better. In one scene, Serge disrupts a séance conducted by a fraudulent spiritualist. The sequence is component, but lacking energy and, to be honest, humour. To think what Dickens would have made of it!
These failings are indicative of C’s limitations. McCarthy offers some thought-provoking insights on a world of instant and unlimited communication, but his plotting and characterisation (in short, those things a novelist needs to turn interesting thoughts and arresting scenes into a living myth), are weak.