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Tom McCarthy: C

The blurb on my copy compares McCarthy to Bolaño, Beckett and Pynchon. I don’t see it myself, except, perhaps, for Pynchon, for the common love and use of technology, though a comparison with Thomas McMahon would be more valid though, I suspect, blurb writers don’t read McMahon, which is a pity. The point, of course, is that McCarthy is (post-)modernist and undertaking something that is not often found in the contemporary English novel. Of course, on that point, they are correct but however revolutionary McCarthy may be by English standards, he does not compare with the above three, either in terms of modernity or soaring imagination.

So let’s start with the C. Of course, pomo writers love playing with language and McCarthy is no exception, with language jokes and even discussions of the Rosetta Stone as well as other languages, including human languages and machine ones (Morse). Firstly, the book is divided into four sections, each one entitled with one word beginning with the letter C, namely Caul, Chute, Crash, Call. Note the play of words here (chute refers to both parachute and the French word for fall). C is also for Cocaine as our hero uses cocaine before gravitating for heroine. It is also the first letter for the surname of our hero – Carrefax. (Carfax is a street in Oxford where McCarthy went to university and comes from carrefour, i.e. the French for crossroads). C is also for communication and this book, as a good post-modernist book, is about communication. (It is also about death, technology, fakery, codes (another C word), casual sex and perspective, all worthy post-modernist topics.) The communication, as well as about the conventional meaning, is about the sophisticated technological form, i.e. wireless (and wired) telecommunication which is an issue throughout this book, as Carrefax Senior, at the start of the book, is developing a telecommunications system which his son and daughter both take an interest in and get involved in. Our hero, son of Carrefax senior, Serge by name (allowing for little jokes about how it is pronounced) gets involved in the technical side of communication during the book, including using radio to send signals from his World War I plane to the ground to later helping setting up an Empire Communications System while in Egypt.

C also has another meaning as it is, of course, pronounced see. And seeing is also what this book is about. During the war, Serge is an observer in a plane, looking at German armaments and formations. But despite his skills here (enhanced by cocaine) he has trouble with perspective through the book, both in the literal sense of the word, i.e. as an artist and (trainee) architect but also in the figurative sense, as he himself admits. As well as C, the book is about technology – from telecommunications to biology, from archaeology (as a science) to aeronautical engineering, and many others besides. Part of the pleasure of the book is McCarthy’s obvious enjoyment of and interest in these technologies, how they evolved and how they were used in the early part of the twentieth century.

The story concerns Serge Carrefax, born at the end of the nineteenth century. He is the son of Simeon and brother of Sophie (note that all their first names beginning with S, rather than C. Their mother – first name Frieda – plays a very small role, though she produces silk from silkworms.) Simeon is keen on developing telecommunications but he plays a rather shadowy role after the opening section. He also runs a school for the deaf, another aspect of the communication theme. Sophie is the smartest one but, after interesting experiments in both telecommunications and biology, she dies (from another C – cyanide), passing the mantle to Serge. He, however, seems to be ill and is sent for a cure in some fictitious East European Kursaal, reminiscent of Kellogg’s sanatorium in The Road to Wellville. He recovers and studies aeronautical engineering before going off to World War I as an observer where we follow his life in a plane till he is captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. From there it is the study of architecture and the use of cocaine and heroine (with a bit of spiritual communication, with a medium) and the bright life before off to Egypt to help with the Empire communications system.

Does it work? Where Bolaño, Beckett and Pynchon succeed is the flowing imagination which McCarthy, firmly English, tries for but cannot achieve. The technology is fascinating but without the concern for his characters (deliberately, I assume, from what he says) and a random plot, it really does not grip the reader nor succeed as a great work of imagination.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Jonathan Cape