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Some Thoughts on Tom McCarthy’s C, One Week Removed

It’s been a week since I finished our first book club book, Tom McCarthy’s C, and I’m glad I waited to write about it. Had I written upon it last week, I think my opinions would have been less generous.

Last week, upon finishing, I let myself read reviews of the book – something I seldom do before reading the book – I enjoy not knowing what to expect of a book even if I’ve gathered a small handful of information through just mentioning the book to friends or reading the jacket copy.  In short, I like to make my own decisions, but I can also be influenced easily by others’ opinions.

Spoiler alert!  Read no further if you haven’t finished.

I enjoyed reading parts of C. There are recurring images and themes that pop up in really satisfying ways throughout.  Morse code, scientific formulas, bodies in various states of disrepair, beetles and bees and silkworms.

I thought Serge’s sister was a terrific character.  Too bad she gets killed off early on.  I thought his relationship with his masseuse was delightful at Klonebrady.  She was also a complex character that it was nice to see the main character fall for the unlikely love interest.  I liked Audrey the actress with the drug problem.  I liked Laura the archaeologist in Egypt. Many of the female characters were well-drawn: smart and complicated.  Serge seemed rather one-dimensional to me, but I get that that might have been intentional. He’s almost a sounding board for the experiences of the book and the women he attaches himself to.

The way the book wraps up, with Serge hallucinating his last hours away on a train, having fallen victim to the bite of the scarab beetle in an Egyptian tomb, at first struck me as cheap – very “And then I woke up.”  The more I read though, the more it seemed like the perfect confluence of those images McCarthy had woven so intricately throughout, and so I accepted it.  I find myself thinking about endings often.  As a professor once said, “An ending is often the thumb in the photograph,” and I couldn’t agree more.  If your disbelief has been suspended for the whole book, neatly tying up the plot often feels fake and forced and you can see the hand of the creator plain and clear.  This ending ties up the book in a way that both allows the reader to feel that nothing ends cleanly and also shines a spotlight on the writer making it clear that every bit of it was orchestrated.

My beef comes with the reviews.  Every review (previously linked in the last C post) seems to think that C is some radical new direction for the novel.  Perhaps I’ve just been reading strange books for too long, but there is nothing except that ending that feels new or surprising or alternative to me.  It is basically a bildungsroman employing creative use of historical detail capped off by a David Lynch dream sequence.  Perhaps I’m missing something?  Who read it?  Who feels this is the answer to all our worries about the death of the novel? I need a hand.

7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Tom McCarthy’s C, One Week Removed

  1. Thanks for jumpstarting the conversation, Jac.

    I definitely enjoyed reading C, and have been anxious to talk about it. I actually took a lot of notes while reading the book, all of which have inexplicably vanished from my hard drive. So my thoughts about the book are going to be less ordered than I would have liked.

    Anyway, I was immediately drawn into the book, the title itself prodding me to approach this book as if it was a puzzle to crack, and I was happy to discover that in some ways it was and is. As with any book I’m about to read, I check out the first paragraph or first few pages, sometimes flipping around to get a feeling for the lay of the land, to use a hackneyed metaphor. From the first paragraph I suspected I was going to enjoy it and I was happy to find out that my first impressions only solidified into admiration for what McCarthy accomplished.

    Besides revivifying the Bildungsroman, an old genre, with numerous expected tropes, filling his narrative with indelibly drawn characters (and I agree with you, Jac, about how most of the other characters, especially the women, are even more detailed in their depictions than the “hero,” and I do think that Serge was deliberately left unformed, in service to one of the novel’s prevailing themes, that is, the dangers and pleasures of being an empty cipher), McCarthy also succeeded in using another formal constraint (the first being the genre choice), that is, the use of the letter “c” as a way of constructing his narrative. This isn’t a new device, by any means. The use of an abecedary to construct a narrative is well established (Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa and Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales immediately to mind), and the use of a single letter as a formal device is also prevalent, like Wallace Stevens’s use of the letter “c” in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” a poem which I think I’ll be studying for years to come. Like Stevens, McCarthy somehow gets away with using the letter, as a kind of organizing principle, and manages to do it unobtrusively. McCarthy signals the reader to this aspect of his project from the outset with the book’s title, and the four section titles: “Caul,” “Chute,” “Crash,” and “Call.” Seeing them lined like this, as I write this now, and hearing the homophonic chime of the first and last titles, I get the sense that McCarthy might have intended for the text to have a certain kind of circularity. I’d have to read it again to see if that is what actually happens. Once I realized how important the letter “c” was in this novel, how McCarthy uses c-words to propel the narrative, I found myself enjoying the novel even more, especially because it’s so subtly done. My original notes included a listing of keywords, each of those words beginning with “c,” found in every chapter. I’m tempted to scour the book again to demonstrate what I mean, but this would take me some time, I would think, for something that might be of little interest to most people. I enjoy this kind of minutiae, and can understand why others might not, this aspect of the book, though, demonstrating that McCarthy is able to satisfy on many levels.

    Another thing that I enjoyed about the novel is McCarthy’s exploration of the collision of new technologies with the body, with the mind, with new ways of seeing, inspired by the Industrial Revolution, that collision inspiring many odd and evocative passages, like the following from page 29, where Serge examines moths:

    Their markings, seen from closeup, look like anaemic reproductions of the ones on mulberry leaves. Thin, brown skeins run in lines through softer white tissue—straight, parallel lines all leading to a jagged, perpendicular main skein like spokes joining a central axis, breaking the creamy white into compartments. The pattern reminds Serge of the stained-glass windows of St. Alfege’s in Lydium—only these windows are without colour, void of scenes or characters: a set of empty, white, elongated boxes. He holds one right up to his eye, a moth-wing monocle: the Hatching Room, its wooden beams and kneeling women all sink behind gauze. They look like a daguerreotype, pale and sepiad. Serge, seven and splenetic, thinks: this is how this scene would look in years from now, if someone were to see it printed onto photographic paper—anaemic, faded, halfway dead.

    In this passage, we see what is organic being compared to what is inorganic, the natural world invaded by technology, and while this is certainly intrusive, McCarthy offers a beautifully lyrical passage, offering the idea that not only must technology inevitably be negotiated, absorbed in some way, by the natural world, but that there also might be even some beauty to it. Here the moth is compared to the inner workings of some machine, to aspects of architecture, to boxes; and then the room itself, with everything it contains, is transformed by his monocle, and ends up looking like a daguerreotype. And that final sentence, with its linguistic patterning, its repetitions of sounds, especially in its first third (“Serge, seven and splenetic, thinks: this is how this scene…”); and also with the way it once again conveys the theme of the ways in which technology transforms reality, that is, with the way memory is metaphorized as a print on photographic paper, makes for a commanding sentence, in what is a commanding paragraph, among many such paragraphs, all of which makes for a commanding book.

    Another prevalent theme is noise, how it intrudes everything, and is, of course, underneath the larger theme of technology and its discontents. We’re signaled to it in the first paragraph:

    The rattle of glass bottles and the fricative rasp of copper wire against more copper wire rise from the trap’s back and, mixing with the click and shuffle of the horse’s hooves on gravel, hang undisturbed in the still September air. Above the vehicle tall conifers rise straight and inert as columns. Higher, much further out, black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky.

    There’s the section where Serge and Sophie mistakenly make a massive explosion, and trying to replicate the chemical mixture that will “reproduce the blast,” only end up failing: “All they ever get are small-fry phutts and phizzes, unsatisfying placebos” (37).

    Here’s another evocative paragraphing showing the collision between the organic and the inorganic, from page 63:

    The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad—and always mute. It’s not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he’s riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words start forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop…

    Here Serge is merging almost symbiotically with these signals, these telegraphic clicks, showing McCarthy managing to merge a kind of mechanistic sensibility with lyricism.

    I’ll stop there, with hope that others will share their thoughts about this C, a book I would certainly have loved to see win some awards.

  2. I wish we had more time to discuss the mighty C. The Maureen Kincaid Speller posts are splendid as she picks up on the recurring imagery and the echoes of the book’s networks of symbols, which are many and seem to be at the core of the book’s strengths. What I have are some random, scattered thoughts picking up on John’s observations about the collisions of nature and technology, organic and inorganic, human and machine in the book, insofar as these manifest themselves stylistically and formally. From its opening, we are kept at what appears to be a carefully-wrought distance from Serge; the caul around him, the “veil around his head: a kind of web” is, among other things, a description of the degree to which we are kept outside of his thoughts and consciousness. We are given a meticulous rendition of Serge’s perceptions of the world around him:

    They spill out of the trenches, flecking the circles and mandalas of the ruined roads and pathways. In some places Serge can make out subdivisions in their mass, semi-discrete clusters; in others the clusters are so large that they’ve run together and eclipsed the ground entirely.


    Occasionally we get emotions–“he feels better than he’s ever felt before,” but this surfaces in the midst of pages of imagery, shortly after an amazing depiction of Serge likened to the Eiffel Tower, i.e. merged with the inanimate in “the zero hour of a new age of metal and explosive, geometry and connectedness.” (159-60).

    The sex in the book, what there is of it, is profoundly mechanical as well, and when Serge watches his friends and companions die, he is utterly removed from emotion–an obituarist without pangs:

    “Serge turns around. Gibbs is dead: stuff from his chest is spattered about the cockpit. Serge unclips his own harness, levers himself from his seat and drops to the silk-coated ground.”


    What to do with all this? To ask the character to be empathetic and easily empathized with seems precisely to miss the point of this style and aesthetic, of course, and Serge’s cipherhood, as pointed out by Jac above, is clearly crafted by McCarthy as a commentary on something–the twentieth century, the rise of the information age, the way history and human behavior can play themselves out as codes and signals and wiring. To this day we speak of how someone is “hard-wired.” And in several ways the book speaks less to the twentieth century than the twenty-first. The prototype of the webcam is developed in early chapters, and there’s the feeling of a steampunkish internet just waiting to be invented, a historical inevitability. As with any historical fiction, it reveals as much if not more about our present anxieties and concerns than about those of the time period.

    I get a sense in reading C that Darwin might as well have never happened, that information science and cybernetics provides an explanatory framework par excellence, that the selfish gene isn’t significant because it’s the carbon molecule or code that determines behavior, individual and group. I’m not sure where to run with this intuition, but it struck me.

    1. I meant to throw in Robbe-Grillet’s name, wondering if anyone thought of him at all in reading. McCarthy’s style is much lusher and more narrative than anything I’ve read of R-G, but I felt that in the preoccupations with shape, geometry, and perception there was some common ground and possibly even influence at work.

    2. Hey Tim,

      I found myself consistently impressed with how McCarthy wove his web of allusions, what you’re calling, the book’s “recurring imagery” and “networks of symbols,” particularly his lexicon of c-words, which I’d imagine would make for an interesting full-length study, and it’s interesting that even with McCarthy’s overt hinting at how over-determined his book’s codes are (like the moment where Pacorie says, on page 292, that “the C is everywhere, that is, “The letter C,” for “Carbon: basic element of life”) that this overt signaling still strikes me as unobtrusive, that confluence of c-words offering a kind of response to your observation about “the carbon molecule or code that determines behavior, individual and group.”

      Speaking of webs, the web is a recurring image in the book, and while the image of the web is an ancient one (spiders having been around longer than humans have been around, and likely to be around long after we’re gone), and while I think of the internet less as a web but more a morass, more ever-unspooling threads knotting together with all of its glut, something disordered and diseased, the frequency of the web as an image in C may further corroborate your observation that McCarthy is at times using the earlier historical context, in which the narrative is set, as a way of looking “back to the future” on the twenty-first century.

      Here are some more references to webs:
      “She juts her finger at a stalk two or three inches from the ground, where a small spider clings almost vertically to its web” (40);

      “…and they rig up, with the help of poles that feed them over garden walls and around hedges, a primitive web of strings and soup-can mouth- and earpieces through which they can communicate their positions and report the outcomes of each sycamore-throw, for some reason trusting each other to tell the truth when being overheard live” (42);

      “These clippings seem to be caught up in her strange associative web…” (70);

      “…looking at the wall whose web of lines and vectors has grown still larger and more complex since this afternoon: they’d look at it and know immediately what the letters meant, the links, all the associations” (72);

      “Her eyes are open: it seems that she’s trying to show him something among the sprawling web—some new word, or figure, or associative line” (75);

      The lyrics to “Stand Your Glasses” seem to be altered to replace “world of lies” with “web of lies” (135);

      “The sun’s not up yet; dew still hangs about the long grass; the odd strand of spider-web filament floats just above this: it’s not cold” 138);

      “…a web of grey cigarette smoke…” (145);

      To his mind, held in a web of strings and arcs above a darkness lit up by distracted flashes…” (155);

      “…the web of streets…” (201).

  3. Pingback: In C « BIG OTHER

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