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 .