C – Tom McCarthy


Carrefax; first name Serge (pronounced as the Latinate ‘Surge’, rather than the Russian equivalent ‘Ser-gei’, apparently), is born at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Conceived by a sound-obsessed father and a deaf mother, Serge is born in unison with the first amateur radio broadcast: these two strange siblings subsist together as Siamese twins joined in utero; inseparable and inter-dependent, for life.  C is the story of Serge and of signals, a quasi-character study that not only examines the early decades of the nineteen-hundreds, but the psychological nature of the individual and his relationship with technology.

Concordant with the theme of technology is that of grief; the death of Serge’s sister (unexplained but not unexplored) permeates the narrative as an aggressive, ever-present spectre that corrupts every experience of Serge’s life; from sex to séance and combat to cryptology.

Critics have variously defined C as ‘post-structuralist’, ‘French Nouveau Roman’ and ‘Lacanian’; but don’t be put-off by such lazy genre labelling – the novel isn’t nearly as pretentious as the critics would have you believe.  Confusion, rather than comprehension, is probably what’s fuelling the genre ticker-taping of such review writers; because ‘it’s Tom McCarthy’ they want to couch their reviews in the language of literary theory rather than criticism.  Creative and theoretical readings are possible (even encouraged), but aren’t necessary to enjoy the book; my very meagre understanding of post-structuralism was no impediment to a full appreciation of C’s aesthetic identity.


Compositionally, C is heavily influenced by modernism; it lacks traditional plot structure and celebrates the individual’s struggle to preserve autonomy in the face of overwhelming social upheaval – you could even describe the prose as ‘stream of consciousness-lite’, if you were so inclined. 

Converse to this modernist approach, however, is a celebration of literary tradition, expressed through constant and clever literary references.  Conventional sources of poetic expression (such as Renaissance lyric poetry, or revisionist drama) are re-shaped by McCarthy to symbolise the age of communication and broadcast.  Clogging the air of the novel are cryptic transmissions and poetic signals: the iambic rhythm of Shakespeare’s sonnets becomes the dots and dashes of Morse code, Rainer’s poetic trochees are re-imagined as German cannon fire, and Goethe’s theory of colour is bastardised into the camouflage of early aircraft.

Confession: while I recognised several of the coy and wry literary references, I’m sure that many more went beyond my immediate frame of reference and understanding; it would take a much more well-read and literate reader than I to fully appreciate the depth and multiplicity of McCarthy’s references. 

Compound-complex sentences define McCarthy’s prose style; but it’s a testament to his ability as a writer that C is never difficult to read, despite its penchant for long, twisting, winding sentences.  Complementing this is the novel’s imagery; Serge always describes the physical world using the esoteric terms of radio transmissions and broadcast paraphernalia.  C.f this description of soldiers dying in the First World War:

Coming there is a loud sound, the men’s deformed mouths seem to be either transmitting it or, if not, then at least shaping it, their twisted surfaces and turned-out membranes forming receptacles in which its frequencies and timbres are unravelled, recombined, then sent back into the air both transformed and augmented, relayed onwards.

Compare this with the more visceral description of, say, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, and it’s clear quite how original McCarthy’s writing is; he’s contrived a character who sees the world through a striking dualism; technology doesn’t dislocate Serge from everyday experience; it helps him to define it.


Comedy merges with cruelty to give birth to a deformed yet beautiful offspring; C’s sense of humour is the dark love-child of propriety and perversion.  Coquettish serving-girls are revealed to be sexual deviants; theatre performances are corrupted by Serge’s hilarious technological tampering; even the we-all-know-it’s-funny-really concept of friendly-fire is satirised by McCarthy’s narrator:

chewing on his omelette, [he] wonders if it’s really necessary to fight the Germans after all: they could just lounge around, each on their own side, dying in random accidents until nobody’s left and the war’s over by default.

Concomitant to all these positives are, inevitably, some negatives.  Copulation plays an important role in the story, but is somewhat over-played by the author.  Cringe-worthy sex scenes are commonplace – Serge manages to sleep with every female character he encounters (except, thankfully, his mother), and even when he’s not seducing ‘the help’, he’s working out some ‘surges’ of his own creation: on the battlefield, in an escape tunnel, flying a plane, while dreaming of his sister…

Complicated and specific terminology is also a problem: the prose is dense with archaic nomenclature used to depict the exact mechanisms of early signal transmission.  Carrying a dictionary with me wherever I settled to read soon became an inconvenience, so I was forced to let all the strange and unfamiliar words wash through me; like so many un-received radio waves.  Combine this with a protagonist who describes the world in terms of carrier signals and Morse code, and it’s easy to form the impression that C is a novel afraid to commit itself emotionally.  Crafting an emotional response to C is a task lying steadily in the hands of the individual reader, as you will get no help or hints to feeling from either the characters or the narrator.  Comfort reading, this book is not.


C is chimeric.  Constantly denying the reader what he wants and expects from a novel, McCarthy will not satisfy you with notions of plot, character, conflict or resolution.  Coming to the end of this review, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this novel has to offer; themes I haven’t even touched on include: entomology, drug addiction, theology, paternal lineage, cinema and tradition.  C challenged my pre-conceptions of what a novel should be; it made me question my own understanding of the world, and how everything is alarmingly inter-connected – and for that alone, I’m glad to have read it.   Calling for all writing to be so Avant-garde would be facile, but I do wish more writers were as daring, probing and creative as Tom McCarthy.  C contorts the common-place and alienates the mundane through its daring language and chaotic array of themes.  C is for complexity, C is for Cocaine, C is for Carrefax, C is for carbon, C is for cinema, C is for climax, C is for cryptology.  C is a different way of seeing the world.


4 responses to “C – Tom McCarthy

  1. I almost bought this solely because of the cover, as soon as I have some cash-money I think I’ll go ahead and do so. Thanks for the justification. I’d click the like button, but I think it goes against the idea of criticism.

  2. Pingback: Tom McCarthy’s “C” « @Number 71

  3. Pingback: Remainder – Tom McCarthy « tomcat in the red room

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