Reading C by Tom McCarthy #3

I continue my reading of Tom McCarthy’s C. Commentary on Chapter 1 is here and on Chapter 2, here

Chapter 3

Chapter 2 began with Simeon’s restatement of the opening words of Genesis, appropriated to promulgate his theories on the importance of speech for the deaf, this chapter offers a different kind of foundational myth, concerning the creation of the estate of Versoie.

The similarity between Versoie and Versailles ought not to be ignored. It perhaps points up the pretensions of the estate’s founder but more importantly, I think it also emphasises the sense of the place as some sort of mysterious playground. No Marie Antoinette playing at being a shepherdess this time. Instead, alongside Simeon Carrefax’s curious school for the deaf, there is a fully-fledged silk industry, from the breeding of the silkworm to the weaving of fabric. It is even echoed in the name of the estate, with ‘soie’ being French for silk. (McCarthy’s well-developed taste for wordplay goes further, with Surin’s name echoing the Latin – Serinus canaria domestica – for the canaries he brought with him, to drown out the noise of the silk looms, and perhaps also the serin finch – Serinus serinus – an uncommon summer visitor to the south of England, not unlike Surin and his descendants, the Carrefax family.)

What also to make of Surin’s styling himself as a latter-day Noah, the ultimate patriarch, though the dynasty he founds is apparently entirely female, which indicates that Versoie is not Simeon’s but his wife’s. Indeed, as Sections i and ii reveal, it is she who runs the silk-weaving business, and it is not clear whether Simeon’s school is anything more than the whim of a dilettante working out his theories to their ultimate extent.

Sections i and ii focus exclusively with the silk industry, this time with Serge as guide, as he tours the rooms, looking for his mother. Again, there is an emphasis on sound, or rather, the lack of it. ‘Serge was loud and panting when he cleared the threshold but, after adjusting both his pace and breathing to the room’s quiet, steady rhythm […]’. (28) The sounds are small – ‘A kind of click sound pervades the air: a fidgety, unsatisfying, low-level chafe’ (29), the sound of the silk moths mating in a pit – but again they dominate.

This is a highly sexualised encounter, not just because Serge is witnessing the organised breeding of creatures. He watches the women kneeling, bent over the egg-laying trays, all bottom, their faces barely visible. The larvae are composed of ‘greyish-brown flesh soft and wrinkled, the trunks of miniature elephants’. (29) The contrasts between sexual availability and immaturity keep on multiplying. Sex is a mechanism, fecundity is industrialised; there is no love present in this place, although there is a strange tenderness in the way they lay out the hatching larvae in rows, like babies in a hospital nursery.

And make no mistake, the women are in control here. All the silk workers are female; the silk buyer is male and there is Bodner the deaf gardener, and of course, Serge as the reader’s guide, but it is the women who run the place. However, it is Serge who leans in to pick up a pair of coupling moths out of the pit, throws them into the air, calling them Orville and Wilbur (clearly we are at a point where powered human flight is the newest thing). What is not said is that the moths fall to the ground not so much because they are coupled but because they can’t fly anyway – silk moths do not have the power. When Serge removes the wings from one of them his cruelty is set against the fact that the wings are entirely useless to begin with.

The images of stacking, of mating moths piled up on one another, of rows of hatching larvae being laid out, are echoed when Serge, now accompanied by Sophie, moves from the breeding area to the processing section, where the silk cocoons are unwound and the thread. Here there are more trellises, frames, grids, the indoors echoing the outdoors of Chapter 1, although in this instance it is about structure and containment, reflecting the tightly wound cocoons rather than the overflowing vegetal abundance of the garden. Sophie, untidily wound in strips of silk, part of her costume in the forthcoming pageant, is the antithesis of the silkworms, neatly swathed.

In section ii, there are so many images of death: cocoons boiled to kill the caterpillars within. Too-wise Sophie, who has clearly spied not only on Serge’s birth but on something else as well, likens the dead caterpillars to an aborted baby. In the Dyeing Room, a mass of thread in a vat is poked ‘as though trying to drown a kitten’. (31) Berries become ‘medicine’. The rural idyll is rapidly coming undone as we come closer and closer to the commercial heart of the estate, the room where the fabric is woven. There is an increasing rhythmic intensity too, as the children pass by the pounding loom, ‘its piston-levers shoving a huge comb through warp into which weft-silk is fed from a bobbin that unwinds jerkily at the loom’s edge.’ (32) And in the Store Room, the folded and pleated fabrics seem to resonate with the folded and pleated landscape outside, falling in on themselves, over and over.

Finally, Serge and Sophie, accompanied by the silent Bodner, reach the heart of the enterprise, the room where Mrs Carrefax is doing business. Again, there is an emphasis on her exoticism; she sits comfortably on cushions at a low table; the cloth dealer kneels awkwardly. She is in control. But note too her reaction when she sees her children. ‘Her face drops – though the look she gives them isn’t unkind.’ (33) Like the women tending the moths, Mrs Carrefax is entirely detached. Her children are like moth larvae to her; this does not bode well for the future. Here too we learn that they are to play Rhea and Cronus in the pageant, brother and sister who became king and queen of the gods, producing children in an incestuous relationship, with Cronus devouring his own offspring. One thinks back to the berries.

The nature of Mrs Carrefax’s relationship with Bodner also comes to the fore, for the reader if not the children, when Sophie announces that he is signing the word ‘poppies’. Serge is sceptical but again one wonders just how much Sophie, unnoticed, sees around her.

Section iii moves from their mother’s domain to their father’s, the workshop, and here Sophie is clearly much more at home. She reminds one constantly of her father, loud on the page, inquisitive, engaged with the world, experimenting. The chemistry set is Serge’s, but she has already appropriated it and the children experiment with making coloured sparks until something goes terribly wrong and they produce a huge explosion which, somehow, they survive. A simple chemical experiment perhaps, yet it’s difficult to avoid seeing this, in the light of the rest of the chapter, as anything other than one more sexual encounter, an alchemical marriage between Sophie and Serge, Rhea and Cronus, the uncontrollable chemical reaction, the metaphysical orgasm.

And already we know this will be as good as it will ever get: they experiment to recreate the effect, but ‘[a]ll they ever get are small-fry phutts and phizzes, unsatisfying placebos.’ (37)

Three chapters in, McCarthy’s approach seems clear enough: each chapter jumping forward in time, linear but unpredictable; each section focusing in intense detail on a particular incident in Serge’s young life. We construct a strange and confusing picture of Versoie, a place which makes no topographical sense, a place in which the parents leave the children to their own devices while in turn pursuing their own interests. There is a sharp contrast between a male technological world and a female world of animal husbandry and textile processing, though birth and death have become industrialised. Yet Serge seems more in tune with his mother’s world while Sophie is attracted to her father’s. There is an obvious dichotomy in play.

And it is this obviousness that bothers me. McCarthy isn’t so much laying his cards on the table as inviting the reader to inspect them in great detail. The delight in wordplay, the obvious resonance of images, it all seems just a little too easy. The novel is filled with complexity, yes, but it is … well, yes, why not, ‘telegraphed’. I find myself wondering constantly what it is I am missing, because I do have the feeling I am being deliberately misdirected with this abundance and obvious confusion.