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2.8 out of 5 stars
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Showing 1-7 of 7 reviews(4 star). See all 45 reviews
on 4 September 2011
I have a very wide range of taste in literature - and this was a very different book. I have finished reading it and I have been left with the same feeling I get after looking at a Jackson Pollock painting(seriously)- there are patterns and colours and multiple structural layers within it - and it is impossible to take it all in - and therefore you concentrate on the overall impact - which is emotional as well as intellectual.

(Question - is it a spoiler to tell something if it is printed on the cover?)

As other reviewers point out, the book concerns the short and very intense life of Serge Carefax born at the end of the 19th centuary. It starts with his birth at a country house to a deaf mother (with an interest in mood altering drugs) and an eccentric inventor father who runs a school for the deaf. The family contains a rather brilliant but slightly disturbed elder sister Sophie who adds a very significant dimension to his childhood. The book looks at Serge at different times in his bizarre childhood, through a surreal health farm (reminiscent of Wellville), the horror of being a radio operator during the first world war (although he enjoyed it), a drug-fueled college period and an expedition to Egypt.

The book is very definitely dark and full of black humour. The writing is superb, but it is impossible to appreciate everything in one read - I think the book will be better at a second reading. So what strikes after a first reading is the patterns that are wound throughout it and the way they repeat and are pulled together in a fantastic workspace. The idea of a crowded space, full of the trace of transmissions from the very first one, a sense of connection, codes, patterns and repetition builds constantly through the book.

If you want a well formed story, or need to 'like' the characters in a novel, don't waste your time. But if you want to read a contemporary book that is challenging and leaves an overall and lasting impression, then this is to be recommended.
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on 4 May 2015
The C of the title ostensibly refers to the novel’s central character Serge Carrefax but late in this novel we discover it also refers to carbon, the basic element of life. The fax in Serge’s surname provides a clue to the novel’s central theme. Communication in all its proliferating forms during the early part of the 20th century. In C we find ourselves in a world of coded transmissions. The establishing and plotting of networks pervades the novel. The continual extending outwards of technology.

The central character Serge barely changes at all during the course of the novel. He’s much the same at twelve as he is in his thirties. Little more than a conduit for knowledge, for the scientific discoveries of the first quarter of the twentieth century, “the source signal” as McCarthy puts it. Serge gathers rather than alchemises information, like a data base. Not that this means his life journey isn’t compelling. On the contrary parts of this novel are genuinely exciting, especially when he’s flying above German trenches as an observer/navigator during World War 1 or when he visits the excavations of Egyptian tombs.

As a boy Serge is fascinated with charting radio waves – “the static is like the sound of thinking.” His father teaches deaf mutes to speak and his sister, with whom he shares a near incestuous relationship, is studying natural history and is especially fascinated by insects. Each in their own way establishing a connection, a network with a mute or invisible world. We then see Serge in a sanatorium seeking a cure for “black bile” when the novel calls to mind Mann’s the Magic Mountain (McCarthy writes as though post-modernism never happened, reminded me at times of Cowper Powys with his hermetically sealed imagination, eccentricity and free range vitality). Then Serge, at the behest of his cryptographer godfather, learns to become a pilot at the advent of World war one. Unlike the usual template of world war one fiction Serge relishes the experience and never wants the war to end. He remains essentially adolescent. He has a fling with a French prostitute. In fact Serge has a casual affair in every section of the novel. This is a more mysterious motif in the novel. There’s a sense Serge has no interest in heredity, in procreation, in love, in reaching out beyond himself. He craves the sexual act in and for itself, disinterested in all its ramifications, a paradox for someone who is obsessed with plotting and connecting networks of communication. We learn from his drawing teacher that Serge is uncomfortable with perspective and depth. He likes flying because it flattens everything out, conceals depth, makes of the world a map.
After the war Serge attends college. By now he is addicted to cocaine. He meets Audrey, an actress who takes him to a séance. Again we find ourselves in the plotting of an invisible kingdom. Serge is determined to find the trick. Finally Serge is sent to Egypt to help set up a worldwide communications network. Here he is shown around the excavations of tombs and the honeycomb nature of the adjoining chambers with all their cryptic significance. Much of the novel’s symbolism is clarified here. All communication is coded.

McCarthy is super intelligent. This doesn’t always work in his favour as a novelist. He perhaps over indulges in his obvious fascination for analysis at times which renders certain sections of the novel hard work, if not plain boring. On the whole though this was a high flying novel with many exciting depth charges. Brilliantly researched and imagined. In many ways C resembles a road novel. A character who never lingers, both physically but more pointedly emotionally, long enough anywhere to forge binding ties with the world around him but who, paradoxically, learns more about how the world communicates. Also, in many ways, it’s a novel about the internet long before the internet existed.
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on 5 October 2012
"C" is a strange and unique book, unlike anything else I've read.

I'm not sure how best to describe it - maybe a "life and times" of the main player, Serge Carrefax, a child of the modern age. The book covers a number of stages of Serge's life:birth and boyhood amongst gardens and insects, deaf children, transmitters and codes, then a interlude in a mid-European spa during his adolescence. Serge becomes a wireless operator and observer in the RFC and sees service in the 1st WW, after which he attempts to study architecture in London, amid distractions of drugs, chorus girls and generally louche characters. In 1922, he's posted to Egypt to help set up Empire Wireless Communications, a thinly-disguised BBC.

This book is less a story and more a fascinating tangle of themes and references, from connection and communication, signals and transmission, perhaps with carbon at its core. The emphasis is on brain and body - indeed, Serge does not seem to have a barrier between himself and the world. He fantasises about merging with machines, such as his aircraft, or is referred to as "Pylon Man" in his Egyptian stint.

There's a lot of information in "C" - some processed, some raw, with some beautiful and startling descriptions. The 1st World War section and Serge's final delirium on the boat come to mind here. Or there's this beautiful evocation of 1920s women and cars - very Tamara Lempicka: "The bold, confident women sitting around tables, painted in stylised geometries of black, white and scarlet, the stark angles of their bare spines, stockinged legs and forearms that extend and retract triangular cocktail glasses or long, straight cigarette holders, summon up the image of new, shining engines, the sleek machinery of luxurious, expensive cars, their brazen pistons, rods and cylinders."

The author has chosen to write in the present tense, which necessitates the use of countless apostrophes (it's, he's...). These apostrophes gave me the impression of yet more insects crawling around the text. I'm not sure if this was intentional, but it made me itch!

As I've mentioned, and others have commented, there is something deliberately missing from this book - maybe best expressed as soul - I may be old-fashioned, but I did feel the lack of humanity and empathy from the main characters did leave me a little unsatisfied.
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on 24 January 2013
I mostly enjoyed this book. Unlike many reviewers I was not put off by the 'emotional coldness' of the main character. This was at least consistent from the outset, and tied in with his inability to comprehend perspective in the normal way suggested a mild and particularly english variant of asperger's syndrome. His father was equally afflicted, it seems. No; what discouraged me were the many very obvious linguistic anachronisms in the dialogue. "Wow!" for example; or "downsizing" or "cutting edge" - terms which have entered the vernacular only in the last thirty years or so. For some reason these so unsettled me as to make me almost want to stop reading.

The effect of this was to make all the period detail seem fabricated. Or as if the book had been written by a computer-gamer.

In my opinion writers of historical fiction would be well advised to read a considerable quantity of period literature before they embark on their project, or at least get it thoroughly checked over by someone who has.

However, I DID enjoy the book, especially the dreamlike death sequence at the end and actually the way in whcih the main character's detachment from things gives him a unique perspective on the events as they unfold.
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on 8 September 2010
C begins in 1898 with the birth of Serge Carrefax on an estate in Southern England. Serge's father runs a school for deaf children, but also has a passion for radio communication. This leads Serge to become a wireless radio operator, initially working on spotter planes in WWI and after the war on an archaeological dig in Egypt.

The book initially felt like a piece of historical fiction, but it quickly became much more than that. The text contained layers of philosophy and symbolism that added to the richness of the story, but also left me feeling as though I was constantly missing out on relevant snippets of information.

The book was packed with fascinating details about everything from radio communication to silk production.I loved most of these details, but there were times when I felt that too many were included and the book lost its emotional connection to me.

The plot was quite simple and easy to read on a sentence-by-sentence level, but there were points when I completely lost interest - it was a real chore to read some of the chapters. Luckily the book always seemed to pick up again and I was especially impressed by the WWI section - the descriptions of life in a spotter plane were particularly vivid.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but I think fans of literary fiction who like re-reading/studying books will love discovering all those extra layers of symbolism.
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on 5 March 2011
This is cerebral , to say the least.
A text of three to four fractions, each one with it's own character, feel and dimensions. Unforgettable.
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on 29 September 2010
It is rare that a book shortlisted for a literary prize divides readers so, and C is one such novel. I have only read two reviews of it, from sister broadsheets. One enthused about it, the other loathed it. The latter attacked it on many fronts, one of which was the lack of experimentation or of honing new styles of story-telling that he was expecting, which begs the question why were these claims made for it in the first place? C is not unconventional in structure or chronology but this is irrelevent. What it is is a tightly crafted novel which takes in a panoply of ideas, developments and places that were forming during the course of the Twentieth Century and applies them to the life of one man, Serge Carrefax. Whether the wealth of detail about the technological, aerodynamic and archeological discoveries of the century is too much of an intellectual load for one story is another matter.

The novel's title may derive from the book's division into four sections, each entitled with a single word starting with C: Caul (the membrane covering which had to be torn from Serge's face before he could take his first breath), Chute, Crash and Call. Caul and call are homophones and bring us full circle from the start to the end of Serge's relatively short life. C also stands for Communications and Century, and the novel can also be seen as a trip seen through one man's eyes of the seminal inventions of the century such as radio, TV, cars, planes and so on, though it's an irony that the lack of development of another, antibiotics, is ultimately responsible for Serge's untimely death.

Serge Carrefax is born at the tail end of the nineteenth century to a wealthy family ensconsed in a stunningly verdant country estate, Versoie, near Lydium. The estate comes from Serge's mother's side of the family who are of French descent, and passed to his mother on her marriage, bringing with it the mute gardener, Bodner, who has been with Serge's mother all her life. Serge has an older sister Sophie who is immensely intelligent. His mother is deaf and she met her husband, Simeon Carrefax, a teacher of phonetics to deaf children, when he was summoned to teach her speech; he subsequently set up a school for deaf children at the site. Serge and Sophie lead a life largely independent of their parents when children - their father, kindly but somewhat of a wittering pedant and buffoon, is too tied up with his teaching and his attempts to invent radio and television at both of which he's pipped to the post by others. Serge and Sophie's mother drifts around overseeing the family silk-making business which is effected entirely manually by servants. It is largely the devoted maid Maureen who serves as a mother figure to Serge and Sophie, saving Serge's life when, as a toddler, he falls into a pond and generally taking care of them.

Serge and Sophie are tutored privately by Mr Clair, a mild-mannered socialist. Sophie excels at all his classes. Serge shines less, in particular he is annoyed by his own inability to capture perspective. Lacking perspective may here be a hint of Serge's future life to come - although his privileged background and family contacts enable him to slot into the highest echelons of society workwise during and after the war, there is a curious flatness to his affect. His moments of spontaneous euphoria come in the oddest places - ejaculating when flying as observer in two-seater plane in WW1, for example. It is speed and action he finds exhilarating; he is curiously unfettered by emotional ties. There are hints of this in his early childhood when he dissects live insects with no concern for his cruelty. He could be seen as a high-achieving autistic, capable of loving only inanimate objects and not humans. Sophie too has psychological problems; her tragic early breakdown carries hallmarks of schizophrenia - delusions, chaotic thought, conviction of others' ideas being tramsitted through her.

There is also one early dark shadow on their childhood - aftera Pageant acted by the children from the deaf school and organised by Serge and Sophie's father , the very young Serge happens upon a shadow seen through a screen of which he can make little sense but to the adult reader carries forebodings of ugly secrets under the idyllic surface. We never find out definitively who this involves but the uncertainty together with Sophie's subsequent breakdown leaves a sense of disquiet that lingers throughout the novel. For me, this section with its combination of charming childish performance, proud parents and undercurrent of dark sexual currents between an esteemed middle-aged adult and a vulnerable minor was very reminiscent of Atonement by Ian McEwan. Perhaps McCarthy meant this as a homage because his tight writing, muscular style and almost intimidating intellect would make conscious or subconscious plagiarism very unlikely.

Even during Serge's childhood, technological advances are imprinting themselves on his mind. His father Simeon's interest in the elemental development of wireless radio sparks intrigue in Serge's mind. The friend of the family, Widsun, descends on them at the pageant with early cinema apparatus, which fascinates Serge, and Widsun also drives a car, rarely seen in those parts.

Serge spends time at Kolebrady, a European spa, in an attempt to improve his health - he is beset by constipation and reduced visual acuity. Here he is subjected to an x-ray, another technological development of the time which was to kill one of its early pioneers, Marie Curie. Since World War 1 is approaching, when Serge's time at the spa is over he moves back to the UK and to the School of Military Aeronautics where he learns to fly and observe and joins the war effort as an observer in twin-seater planes flying over the enemy's frontline to ascertain their positions. This information is relayed back by Serge to staff on the ground. Flying is exhilarating for Serge and he seems numb to both the danger and to the thousands deaths of German civilians caused by his work, even when he directly guns down the enemy, although the indifference is partially caused by cocaine and heroin to which Serge becomes partial. Still, even when the drugs are out of his system Serges seems to have no periods of turmoil about the deaths all around him, again highlighting his emotional distance from others.

Serge's love for his war role as a flying observer and gunner carries echoes of A.L. Kennedy's Day in which her protagonist was similarly exuberant during his time as a WW2 tailgunner. The similarities are only superficial though - Kennedy's character loved the sense of belonging to a team, the camaraderie which he'd lacked up until then, and his seeming coldness towards the dead was protective, a defence formation for self survival; whereas Serge is in love with flight, speed, the merging of flesh and machinery - in his portrayal McCarthy has truly produced a child of JG Ballard's Crash - and his stoicism about the dead is more of an emotional void in him which has always been there.

As the story continues, Serge is caught up in many different worlds. He enrols at a school of architecture in London and becomes a part of the swinging '20s, many of his female companions enjoying freedoms won by the early suffragettes - loose clothing, freedom to go out at night without accompanying men, smoking and other recreational drugs. Serge revels in this louche, decadent world. McCarthy's descriptions of 1920s Soho are vivid and alive, the optimism and excitement of the new time - women's interest in the arts, parties, bright bars, bobs and Clara Bow lips - contrasting with the murkier distortions of the heroin salons with their convoluted secret codes for entrance and the disingenuous smiles of their patrons. As Serge's involvement in each scene ends in ways that might have been catastrophic for others without the luck, family money and contacts, a new door opens. Serge travels to Alexandria, he joins an expedition to Egypt. All along the way, he has a sponge-like ability to take in new facts, learn new roles.

Perhaps the action is at times too frenetic and the volumes of new information fed to Serge - and the reader - too much to assimilate. At times it feels the characters telling Serge facts about technological advances, ancient towns or archaeology are also lecturing the reader and a sort of learning fatigue sets in - my brain is full now. Still, whenever I felt overwhelmed by details of unfamiliar subjects, I would pause then go back and never failed to find the information interesting on one level. Certainly McCarthy has woven his research in seamlessly - there is none of the clunky imparting of knowledge characteristic of some historical authors who list contemporaneous developments whether or not they're involved in the story. Here, every detail - from the burial site of those who died in the flu epidemic of the early twentieth century to the myriads of devlopments in technology, are knitted into the story.

There are light moments too. Julian Barnes's book Arthur and George showed the openness of the middle class to hoaxes wrought by `spiritualists expoliting the recently bereaved in the 1920 (in that book, Arthur Conan Doyle's belief in it was examined). In C there is a very funny scene in which Serge is initally sucked in by and then sees through and subsequently reveals the deceit of a spiritualist meeting.

In many ways Serge's life is a fulfilling one and yet his inability to form lasting friendships or relationships comes across as being as superficial as James Bond's. Interestingly, his sexual conquests are all taken from behind, possibly a flashback to the episode he witnessed at the pageant as a child, and perhaps suggesting a degree of trauma that may be responsible for his emotional aloofness. For all the privilege which enables Serge to be at the forefront of action and technology, to land fascinating jobs and travel the world and to even spend war imprisonment in relative luxury at officer class, his tale is strangely incomplete. It's as if his lack of ability to grasp perspective as a child in his drawing lessons has led to a life half lived, concentrating on one perspective at the expense of others.

Because of Serge's emotional deadness, C was for me not as magical a journey as, say, William Boyd's Any Human Heart, which also told the tale of a man living through the twentieth century, battered by its wars and transfixed by its delights. It would have been useful to have more shown of Serge's character, with perhaps some more hints as to why he was so strangely flattened in his affect.

C left me with several questions. There were glimpses of intrigue that weren't followed up - the protagonists involved in the glanced sex act after the pageant; the reason why a senior boss of Serge's once assumed Serge was the son of Widsun - was he? -, the thinking that caused the mute gardener Bodner's name to be among the first muttered by the toddler Serge, why Bodner was the only person looking sad when Serge left Versoie after recuperating there: was this because Bodner, like Maureen, was one of the only caring people in Serge's family home or did Bodner's closeness to Serge's mother carry other implications? There were also a few minor details that McCarthy stumbles on - cocaine wouldn't be rubbed into the retina (which is the inside back of the eye) but the cornea; a doctor would clear a caul from a baby's mouth before snipping the umbilical cord but wouldn't wipe the baby down before the cut because of potentially fatal mother-to-baby blood transfusion if cutting is delayed beyond a minute or two; the cold Dr Filip at the spa wouldn't swing immediately from questions about constipation to eye-sight as there's no link between the two.

Still, C is very nearly a great novel, rich in detail about the last century's advances and flawlessly written. It is an intellectually rigorous read at times but, like most demanding work, immensely rewarding .
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