Tom McCarthy: C

Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder has achieved the status of a minor classic since its first publication just five years ago. Zadie Smith commended it at length in her essay ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ (“one of the great English novels of the past ten years”). I read Remainder with mixed feelings, but the ending was so strong and sticky that it has grown in my estimation since, so that I would now nod dumbly in agreement at all the praise heaped on it. (Though also because my reading since then has gravitated toward similar stuff.) I missed his second, Men in Space, but pre-publication praise for his new novel had me giddy with anticipation.

C is described by its US cover designer as “an extremely complex narrative … the negation of everything conventional one might mistake it to be.” Yet if this is a modernist text in disguise (which it isn’t, quite), it is a very good disguise. It is perfectly possible – and I expect will be a common experience – to read it as a rich, detailed, sometimes frustrating report of a life in the early 20th century. It has everything that might appeal to certain literary prize juries [and so it has proved since I wrote this, with the book being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010]: it’s stuffed with cannily-drawn characters, historical verisimilitude, and normally big subjects like war and death. Is that enough?

The life story is that of Serge Carrefax – a satisfying crackle of a name which immediately me think, I am in good hands here – who was born near the turn of the 20th century to a father obsessed with communication. Simeon Carrefax (“speech is divine”) runs a complex network of interests (and is modelled on Alexander Graham Bell’s father) – a school for the deaf, a silk production plant, and an attempt to create radio communication by electrical means: “a web around the world … to send signals down.” In the grounds of Versoie, the Carrefax home, all is bathed in a “mechanical buzzing,” the “hum and rush” of static, “like the sound of thinking,” as Simeon plots his advances. “I’m working on a patent way for using radio to sense the weather in advance. The waves travel through it, after all.” He proposes the free flow of information, and dislikes the codes and encrypted messages his children Serge and Sophie use to keep secrets from others. “Goes against the whole principle of communication.”

Communication comes in many forms, from within as well as without, and Sophie Carrefax, Serge’s sister, receives signals that no-one else does. She can “see things. What’s coming. … It’s all connected. I feel it inside me.” Meanwhile, Serge takes to amateur radio, listening with fascination to the sounds coming through the sky to reach his speaker. Once, he hears helplessly as a ship in the Atlantic gives a distress signal. He loses the signal, but

listened to the whine and crackle … right through till morning – and heard, or thought he heard, among its breaks and flecks, the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into the waves that had come to bury them.

Elements like this elegant prose, or the set piece showing two types of birth which opens the book, seem to represent McCarthy flexing his muscle to show what he can do if he wishes – because the book does not follow these traditional literary indicators. C has plenty of pieces to satisfy and is brimming with cleverness, but there is an affectless and static quality to the rush of activity which persists almost to the end. This foxing of the reader’s expectations is deliberate on McCarthy’s part: he is engaged in the business of, on the one hand, providing a story as full of life and rich in detail and variety as one could wish (“a dummy chamber,” to adopt one of the multiplicity of symbols in C); and, on the other hand, of never letting the reader forget that they are reading a book, experiencing a work of art. He wants the reader to be immersed and to stand back at the same time, interpreting the signal but also part of it.

This is partly achieved by the relentless dash of cross-references and correspondences which litters the text. Serge’s name is pronounded surge by his electrically-obsessed father, but serge by his mother (like the fabric, contrasting with the fine silks made at the family home). He is born with a caul, a traditional symbol of luck, and in literary terms shared by David Copperfield – and while Serge is being born, his father is taking delivery of coils of copper wire with which to improve his experiments with electrical fields (copper fields). At times, communication seems to rule everything in Serge’s world (as it does in our world): when he is in a train, it “comes to a stop. It’s not a station: they’re just waiting for a signal to change, or a point to switch, or an instruction to be shouted from the track-side in a foreign language.”

These notes to the reader remind us that this is a novel, artificial like the web of noise and information Carrefax was born into and celebrates. It reminds us too that the novel itself is one of the most complex forms of communication: every copy is identical, but every reading is different. It is a sort of perfect unbreakable code, where the key is the recipient.

Serge’s journey continues: to a health spa where his constipation and the gauze-like haze which blurs his vision will be treated; to the Great War, where he breaks the trend of literary habit by finding the experience not traumatic but enlivening, and later considers what is called shell-shock to be an echo of something “deeper, older, more embedded”. At war he sees communication via art, though a war artist complains about the impossibility of capturing the action (“The stuff won’t stay still to be painted!”). “Maybe that’s the art,” Serge observes. “I mean all the action, all the mess…” He takes time out – McCarthy speaking? – to knock non-modernist art such as Housman’s poetry, instead recommending to his fellow fighter pilots the work of Hölderlin. (“This is a German book!” “He was a German poet. … You should read it. Learn some phrases: help you if you get shot down behind enemy lines and they don’t understand what Shropshire hedgerows are…”) After the war, Serge returns to Versoie.

The restlessness, he comes to realise, is in truth an attempt to achieve its opposite: stasis. It’s as though if he moves about enough, the world will fall into place around him.

But once things start moving – and once technology begins to interrupt our lives – there is no going back. Serge feels like “a fixed point in a world of motion”, and the hiss of static and interference surrounding him grows as electrical communication continues to develop. Serge rushes on, to drug-crazed 1920s London, and then to Egypt, where people are continuing the work of hundreds of years, in trying to interpret the lives of the ancients, while forging their own technologies of the future.

C is for communication, complexity, and cleverness; for cocaine, correspondences and carbon (“the basic element of life”); for many more things besides (most of the central devices in the book begin with the letter). It teems with relevance and reference (I was forever scribbling in the margins of my copy, and I don’t pretend to have unpacked more than a fraction of its significance). Like Remainder, it resists easy interpretation but sticks around afterwards, challenging you to pick apart signal from noise. It celebrates flatness and depicts a time which foresees our suffocating web of worldwide information. But in the middle of it, inside all the cleverness, is a sad sketch of a man “transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him.” His fate is to be outlived by the remnants of signals he listens to crossing the skies, as they echo and decline indefinitely while he – like everyone who reads this book, like the book itself – “breaks down into grains and runs away.”


  1. No, on my Mac. The ad appears at the end of the review. But now it has gone. Weird or what. But it was a very tasteful black and white ad and it said Ads by Google above it.

  2. It occurs to me now (waiting for bus and on iPhone) that this ad is unique to me because I have been googling beds a lot lately.

  3. I found Remainder painfully forced and postured and couldn’t understand the hoohaa attributed to it (though Zadie Smith is no arbiter I implicitly trust in any case) despite being excited by the idea and concept et al. I will give this a go on the basis of this review and your assertion that it differs somewhat from that grandly overpraised work.

  4. As we mentioned on Twitter yesterday this book is not easy to review without getting caught up in the buzz and static yourself. I think you’ve done a great job here and reminded me of several aspects of the novel which I’d overlooked in writing my own review. It’ll go up next Monday. With so much going on in the book perhaps the only way to cover all of it is through a network of blog reviews!

  5. “Serge’s name is pronounded surge by his electrically-obsessed father, but serge by his mother (like the fabric, contrasting with the fine silks made at the family home).”

    Have I got cloth (serge) ears? I can’t hear the difference…

      1. I pronounce the fabric the same way you do. And of course Serge as a French name is also prounounced with the longer vowel and softer “g”. I haven’t read the book but I wonder if the continental influence might be what his mother was after.

  6. I already wanted to read this book, but I’m even more intrigued after reading your review. I’m in the mood for a big book – in scope, anyway. For some reason I’m attracted to the idea of a narrative whose characters don’t stay in the same country for the whole story.

      1. Indeed. I’m in the midst of that – it’s a serious undertaking. But more than worthwhile.

  7. You needn’t have worried; this is a great review. I am also relieved that you share similar views to me. Phew.

  8. John, great review – I particularly like “the novel itself is one of the most complex forms of communication: every copy is identical, but every reading is different”.

    I loved Remainder. It was my favourite book of 2006 (?). I have Men in Space but not yet read it. C is definitely on my to-read list, especially after some of your observations.

    From what I’ve read, most fighter pilots find the wars they find themselves in more exhilerating than terrifying (for a near-definitive examination of this, see Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff). Good to see McCarthy has done his research on these things.

    One question though – you didn’t mention the internet in your review, although with all this talk of webs and communication, this must be the future end point of many of the themes in the book. However, I haven’t read it yet so might have this completely wrong! Would be interested in your thoughts.

    1. Yes, the internet is definitely (to my reading) represented silently in the book, Ben, and I suppose I thought the reference to “a web around the world … to send signals down” might make that point for me. I probably should have been more explicit though.

      2006 is probably right for the year you read Remainder (as it was for me): that’s when Alma Books published it in the UK. I said five years in the intro simply because it was previously published in France (but in English) in 2005 by Metronome Press. Copies of that edition are now pretty rare.

  9. Wonderful review, perhaps even better than usual (which is quite a feat).

    I had been tempted before to get a Tom McCarthy book but for some reason had not so far. Which one should I start with (knowing that I do not buy hardbacks for transportation reasons)?

    1. Well Nick, I have only read this one and Remainder, so let that decide the issue for you! (And thanks for your kind comments. As Will says, I’m not the only blogger to have fretted about capturing the book effectively, and it may be that the only way of getting a global view of it is to read everyone’s thoughts…)

  10. Sold! Excellent review – I knew nothing about McCarthy until I read a piece about him in the Telegraph at the weekend. This book sounds amazing, and I love all the electrical buzz in the background – the science bit instantly makes me interested.

  11. I ve yet to read this john so just glance ,know this is describe as complexed but can’ t imagine it being much harder than Johnson or burroughs ,Like that something slightly edgy made booker longlist for a change ,all the best stu

  12. Hi Stu, no it’s definitely easier than Burroughs or (some of) BS Johnson – it’s not written in an experimental style at all, really – the complexity is more in the structure and themes, but on a sentence by sentence level it’s not ‘difficult’ at all. I agree it’s nice to see something other than ‘the well-made novel’ make the Booker list.

  13. As someone who loves modernism much more than post-modernism, I nevertheless have to concede that there is not much that the contemporary novelist can do to stretch the form much further without alienating readers who come to novel for that age-old hunger for human stories. Robbe-Grillet’s attempts at ‘white writing’ in the early Fifties are numbingly dull. I suppose the question is whether you come to the novel in search of ideas or in search of human life in all its tragedy and ridiculousness. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you get exactly that. And one of the great novelists of ideas was Dickens (see Bleak House). Only James Joyce has achieved both, in Ulysses.

  14. Of contemporary writers, I think David Markson might(‘ve) had something to say about that, Linda. And I’m pretty sure Ben Marcus, Joshua Cohen and Lydia Davis, to name three, manage to encapsulate both ‘human life in all its tragedy and ridiculousness’ and a fair bit of formal innovation. Mind you, most attempts at such are indeed dire.

  15. Lee, the fact that I don’t recognise their names, let alone know their work is testimony to the extremely low public profile experimental fiction has in this (anti-intellectual) country. Let alone our low tolerance for the short story.

  16. Absolutely. The Observer piece last week was most welcome (if, dare I say it, a bit tokenish) but I suppose these writers are doomed to oblivion unless they gear themselves up for Richard and Judy. The situation re: short stories is a travesty. A common rebuttal to my suggestion to friends that they might like to try the new Maile Meloy or the collected Alice Munro runs along these lines: ‘Nah. I’d rather immerse myself in a larger story. I read a short story and find it terrible to have to leave a character I have invested in so suddenly and with such poor reward.’ Never, ever understood that. And I think it’s prevalent.

  17. I completely disagree about the Richard and Judy remark. I have heard of or have read all but two of the names on the Booker longlist and I don’t think many of them are obvious candidates for R&J. Coetzee, who has won twice is, in the literary world a household name.

    Part of the difficulty of getting people to read short stories in this country is that there are no magazine markets for short fiction. There is no New Yorker. So experimental short fiction in Britain has a massive problem attracting an audience.

  18. The R&J comment wasn’t a Booker reference. It was more a comment on the pressures on a writer to get something out that will attract an audience.

    Indeed. And I can’t see a New Yorker-type magazine starting up any time soon, unfortunately.

  19. On the short story – there are surely more opportunities to publish than there have been for decades. Magazines, both print and online; publishers, both small (Comma) and large (the most recent Guardian First Book winner was a Faber story collection); and some heavyweight prizes (£15K for the BBC prize, £25K for the Sunday Times/EFG). (And Chris Power’s Brief Survey of the Short Story on the Guardian website, started in 2007 and still going, is wonderful.) Whether people READ the things is another matter. It would help if the media were not so exclusively fixated on the Booker and the Orange; also if those prizes opened themselves up to story collections.

  20. Short stories are considerably harder to write than the novel, there’s nowhere to hide your mistakes and inadequacies. It’s a pleasure to read the great short story writers, Chekov, Tolstoy, Joyce, Joseph Roth, not so much the so-so ones.

    From my point of the view, my inability to write short stories is that I don’t know what I’m going to write until I start writing it. With the short form you need a single idea from the outset. A novel is an exploration beyond yourself, into the world, the short story a single intense understanding of one known thing.

      1. Oh well now, great short story writers would be a whole post in itself. What about Cheever, Malamud, William Maxwell – to name just three from one country in one period? Thanks for the Vlad tip, Tomcat. I have his collected stories so will look that one out.

  21. Pingback: The Second Pass
  22. Thanks Tomcat. I read your own review which I thought very comprehensive, and I’d recommend it to anyone passing by here. Certainly of the half dozen longlisted Booker books I’ve read so far, C is my favourite because, while not perfect, it does provide food for thought more than any of the others, and what else is literature for?

    1. That’s remarkably kind of you; mostly my reviews are just accused of being messy and non-sensical. Writing a review in which every sentence begins with ‘C’ was quite challenging though – if only intended as a wry little joke.

      I’ve read 5 of the booker nominess so far; and ‘C’ is my favourite as well; but I have a sneaky suspiscion that either ‘Room’ or ‘The Slap’ is going to win.

  23. Hi loved this book. Came to it by way of the buzz & clamor external of the book, partially fell in love with it for the same reasons in the,book. But on the whole just loved the writing, the visions from the cockpit of the enemy planes bearing down on him was fantastic. One of my favourite books of 2010.
    Enjoyed your post

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s