Reading C by Tom McCarthy #6

I continue my reading of Tom McCarthy’s C.

Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here, and Chapter 6 here

Part 2 – Chute (Chapters 7–9)

I took a fairly detailed chapter-by-chapter approach with Part 1 – Caul but will be switching tactics for the rest of the novel, not least because what quickly becomes apparent in Chute is how the same tropes and images are resurfacing. For example, my note on the title of the section is ‘another covering’, and sure enough, late in the section, Serge finds himself and his crashed plane shrouded in the silk of a parachute, echoing the circumstances of his birth, still covered in a caul. And, as he tears away the silk of the parachute, it marks another birth into a new life his second in this section. However, let’s retrace our steps to the beginning of this section of the narrative.

As has become customary, McCarthy throws the reader straight into the situation. It takes a moment to establish that war has finally broken out and that Serge has somehow ended up at the School of Military Aeronautics, having presumably conquered his disbelief ‘that all his weight could possibly get airborne’ (103). We see him first as he takes their exams, and it is striking how he solves the maths and mechanical questions through visualising them. For Serge, it is clearly still all about networks, only now it’s not telegraphy or water pipes, so much as a more theoretical, abstract sense of a huge, all-encompassing network, generator of its own inevitable collision. Serge employs the imagery of the railway to portray this:

in a ‘storm of steel rods, axels [sic], crankshafts and combustion chambers, all impacting: pistons plunging through sheet metal, ripping seats from gangways, gangways from their chassis; valves screaming ecstatically and flying loose; pure-molten brake shoes splashing streaks of light; track lifted and contorted beyond recognition, as though space itself were crumpling under the weight and force of the demands being made of it, the sheer insistence of machinery breaking its bonds as it comes into its own … (119)

The network achieves a form of sentience but at the same moment it is constrained by the technology available to it. For the contemporary reader there is inevitably a sense of nostalgia for old technology tied in with this modernistic vision of some kind of machine intelligence. Serge himself has moved a long way from  childhood games with cans and string and adolescent experiments with radio; it is as though, finally, at SOMA, he can use his more intuitive approach to mathematics: ‘I just see space: surfaces and lines … and the odd blind spot’ (121). It is a return, yet again, to the classroom of childhood and the flat world without perspective, but a return that is finally productive for Serge. At the time, he enjoys the ‘clockwork choreography’ of disassembling and reassembling machine guns, which feels like the ‘mechanical command of landscape and its boundaries’ (127) that he feels in the air. He can control the components of the landscape – ‘He liked to move these things around from his nacelle, take them apart and reassemble them like pieces of a jigsaw’ (125) – and in the air he is more than any time previously in his element.

Having finally broken out of his cocoon and found a purpose in life, he takes flight, figuratively and in reality. He is translated from impotent witness to active observer, in effect assuming Sophie’s role, and his perception of the world as flat, like a map, is at last an advantage. The only uncertainty comes perhaps in the fact that his insignia is one wing rather than the two of the pilot. Although he can fly he is most often flown, and though he is doing better than the flightless silk moths that crawled around helplessly, there is still a sense that he is not entirely in control, not least in that he almost invariably travels backwards, looking at where he has come from rather than seeing where he is going.

The superficial details may change but the deeper images remain the same. Serge may be moving outwards and away from Versoie but simultaneously he is forever moving inwards. There are reminders of Versoie in his association with Widsun, who seems to be his self-appointed guardian, a fact which impresses a lot of people. There are other reminders in the way he constantly encounters new technology, new ways of using wire to detect things (Simeon), the silk of parachutes (his mother), men and machinery on the battle field reduced to broken segments of insects as he soars high above them, and the moments of retreat where he burrows underground or retreats to his lodging.

Serge’s flight of freedom is a brief and hectic one, like that of a drone, though he is busy, capable, good at what he does. All too soon he is again reborn, this time into a prisoner-of-war camp, where the indolent rhythms of daily life are all too alluring, and reminiscent of life at the sanatorium. In the same way, Serge doesn’t want it to end. Having escaped and been captured he and a companion face a firing squad, only to find themselves spared and abandoned at the last moment, as war ends. When he calls after the retreating Germans, ‘you can’t do that!’, we sense once again his feeling of being abandoned and also jolted out of a pleasant routine he had come to enjoy and perhaps rely on.  We have been here before, and it begins to see as though we might arrive here again.

What is noticeable too is the final scene in Chapter 9, as the German soldiers prepare to execute Serge, the way in which time seems to stretch out endlessly though only a few minutes must surely have passed. It reminds me strongly of the journey Serge made through the silk factory when he was a boy, when a short journey to find his mother was transformed into something dreamlike, and there is perhaps a certain similarity too with Learmount’s first encounter with Versoie, the estate he couldn’t quite find his way into. This suggests that the contracting and dilating of time is important to Serge’s story (and I can’t resist linking it to the long and short ‘notes’ of Morse code). And yet time seems to be circular too. No matter what Serge does, and if truth be known, he doesn’t do very much, he seems to be trapped in an endless repetition of certain tropes, with the same recurring images, with his time in the air force as a brief, wild interlude, at the midpoint of the novel, when he could be said to have lived fully, exploiting his talents. His second rebirth is a retreat rather than a release, and one begins to suspect that the rest of the novel will bring yet more retreats.