Sunday, 12 September 2010

C by Tom McCarthy

C by Tom McCarthy (Knopf Canada 2010)

C is for Serge Carrefax who is, I guess, what passes for the hero in this tale of the son of a wealthy family whose patriarch runs a school that teaches deaf children how to speak. Set in the early 1900s the book is split into four sections that deal with his adolescence and his intense relationship with his sister, his teenage years at a spa in Central Europe to treat his unexplained build up of what historically would have been called black bile, his young adulthood as a spotter/navigator in the budding air force of the First World War and finally his life in Egypt as the representative of the murky Empire Wireless Chain scrambling to deal with an country in the throes of a struggle for independence.

If C is for Carrefax then it is also for communication as a strong theme that runs through the novel. As a child Serge is fascinated by CB radio, tracking the beeps and background noises he picks up on the waves. His father is also interested in communications and as he experiments with an ammeter he believes that the world reverberates to the echoes of past conversations and thoughts, what he believes makes up white noise and that if it was possible to isolate the individual strands of thought and expression then one might be able to listen to the words Jesus said on the cross.

Tom McCarthy is an unusual author whose own pretensions to avant-gardism and involvement in the semi-fictional (whatever that might mean) group the International Necronautical Society makes me think he is either an interesting and boundary pushing author or someone whose head has been sucked in by the vortex created in the general area of his backside. This is certainly not a book without flaws as the plotting is patchy and the last quarter is disappointing, ending on more of a whimper than a bang. However there are some interesting scenes such as one early on where Serge and his sister start playing an early version of Monopoly then take to making it a physical game played around their estate and finally one of the imagination directed from their bird's eye view of their grounds up in the attic of the house.

McCarthy has previously written about Tintin and aspects of C hearken back to Herge's creation but given the post-modern treatment. Serge's character whilst at school studying architecture has troubles drawing buildings with any perspective and so creates a portfolio made entirely of top-down plans and that is very reflective of a character who has little depth. As booker prize prospects go I would be tempted to put my money on this one to win (although my previous selection didn't even make it into the shortlist) as the strongest of the picks I've read so far despite the problems I've found with the book but there is the chance that the judges might think it too inaccessible generally to be a suitable pick.

Interesting if not flawed:


Paul McQuiston said...

Actually really enjoyed your review for this and am so intrigued by McCarthy's work that I've reserved everything he's written.

Paolo said...

Thanks, I'm glad you liked the review! McCarthy is an interesting author, definitely one to watch for the future but I still need to work out what I think of him. I also don't think it's by mistake that I find him so difficult to pin down.