Reading C by Tom McCarthy #7

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, Chapter 6 here and Part 2 here.

Part 3 – Crash

At the close of Part 2 of C, McCarthy says of Serge, who has narrowly avoided death by firing squad, and has just been abandoned by German soldiers, ‘For the first time in the course of the war, he feels scared.’ In the short term, one might read that as Serge being unsure what to do next, stuck somewhere in the German countryside, but the same holds true in the longer term. Without the war, which has finally given Serge’s life some structure if not any particular meaning, what will he do next. The war has inconveniently come to an end, Serge has not met an heroic death being shot while escaping, what will happen next.

It comes as no surprise to discover, when Serge returns, as he must, to Versoie, that it ‘seems smaller’ (193). The path through the garden becomes:

a passage each of whose sections used to comprise a world, expansive beyond comprehension, filled with organic density and volume, with the possibilities of what might take place in it, riven with enclaves and proclivities every one of which itself comprised a world within the world, on to infinity – now seems like a small, inconsequential circuit: a transceiver loop or well-worn route round a familiar parade ground. It’s as though, in Serge’s absence, the whole estate had, by some sleight of hand, been substituted by a model, one into which he’s now been reinserted, oversize, cumbersome and gauche … (193)

There are various ways of looking at this: we might think of Serge as an out-of-scale toy in a dolls house (and here one thinks back momentarily to Sophie’s abuse of the young Serge, whom she undressed and played with as though he were inanimate). Or, one might think of Serge as having come back to earth (and literally with a bump – how McCarthy seems to enjoy feeding the reader such lines and thoughts), with the picture of a world beyond Versoie still in his head, unable to reconcile it with the geographical constraints of the estate. He can no longer see Versoie as something flat and two-dimensional, from the air. As it acquires three-dimensionality once again, so he is imprisoned by it. There are further hints of that imprisonment in the routine of life at Versoie and in Masedown, the constant ritual of questions repeated, ‘so limited, so mapped out in advance, as to be predetermined’ 194), which resonates with the endless pageants of Serge’s earlier years, and Serge’s response, to walk out of shops, ‘to identify and breach the boundary of each situation […] to let it form a box around him which he could then step out of …’ (194). What Serge wants is ‘the sense of being a fixed point in a world of motion’ (194), as he was when he was flying.

Not only is the estate smaller but the corruption that has always seemed to lurk at its heart, unspoken, now visibly manifests itself in the mould that has attacked the mulberry trees, central to the silk production business, and perhaps too in his mother’s changed appearance, ‘depleted, like a silkworm that’s secreted all it can’ (199) and lurking behind this is the Spanish flu pandemic, barely mentioned but pervasive in the smell of quicklime, used in the mass graves on Salisbury Plain, which makes Serge feel ‘alive and good’ (195). . Simeon, needless to say, has a theory about the mould, an oddly progressive one in its way, claiming that it’s caused by electrical disturbances, outliving the moment of their generation. The static that interferes with radio, a step or two on from telegraphy, is, according to Simeon, or as he is referred to throughout this section ‘Serge’s father’, the residue of old broadcasts. I think Simeon has always teetered on the edge of rationality but here we begin to seriously question his sanity. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that a lot of the early pioneers of radio, telegraphy and other related areas also turned to the matter of communicating with the dead, generally to the detriment of their scientific reputations. To me, Simeon is clearly heading in the same direction, though given his track record for never quite keeping up, he’ll most likely distract himself en route.

His talent for digression has its reflection in Serge’s failure to settle on his return. He ends up, rootless, in London studying architecture. To a point, this makes sense. He can continue drawing ‘plan sketches of imaginary spaces’ (201), but his failure to engage with the post-war world is summed up in his continuing inability to draw perspective, to make the shift from two dimensions to three, from plan to section elevation, and even his claim to the school’s provost that he is working on memorials (something he really has no interest in) can’t quite get him off the hook.

At Versoie, the Crypt has always provided the reminder that ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ – death is always present – but London, as Serge sees is, is nothing more than a city of the living dead, and it really has little to do with the war. The provost assumes that Serge himself is experiencing shell-shock or some other post-war stress, whereas Serge wonders what’s happened to everyone else. They can’t all be shell-shocked nor can they all be drug addicts. For his own part, he knows he’s not shell-shocked either; during the war he was more alive than he’d ever been, and I think this is perhaps the key to what he thinks he sees around him: people who are similarly dissatisfied with post-war life whereas they are, of course, possibly more numbed by the experience than he ever was.

The drugs scene, filled with mostly young people looking for highs, is set against the scenes at the spiritualist meeting. Serge, the rationalist, is of course rightly suspicious of the veracity of the communications, but his own emotional numbness is such that he entirely misses what is important to all these people he sees as being deceived, namely that the medium, however bogus, offers a hope that the war, the deaths, weren’t entirely for nothing, that the soldiers who died have that better existence for which they were supposedly fighting. While the forces of rationality triumph when he disrupts the table-turning exercise, having worked out how it’s being done, we have to ask what he’s achieved in terms of shattering the faith of the desperate. This is clear in the description of Audrey, his lover, after the debacle:

[Her back] seems bulkier, as though the weight lent by her body to the world of spirits, loaned out through the twin agencies of love and conviction, had been returned unclaimed. Her hair, too, looks heavier, greased by sadness. […] All of her is downward-sagging, solid, heavy. If mass and gravity have been added to her, something’s been stripped away as well: despite her layers of clothes, she somehow looks more naked than she does even when undressed, as though a belief in which she’s clothed herself till [sic] now, a faith in her connectedness to a larger current, to a whole light and vibrant field of radiant transformation[…], had been peeled off, returning her denuded to the world – this world, the only world, in which a table is just a table, paintings and photographs just images made of matter […] and the dead dead. (235).

The section concludes with a car crash as Serge finally flees from London’s deadness, driving faster and faster, looking for some kind of meaningful experience. The world transforms itself from a tapestry into a screen, an image into which he can force himself, passing through the material of space, into a fantastic stream of images that recapitulate the images that constantly recur in the narrative, most of them words beginning with C. The car crash is the plane crash redone. The car becomes Serge’s carapace, reminding us once again of those disconnected pieces of insect that Sophie dissected, or possibly his crypt. He is buried in earth once again, like the tunnellers during the war, and the radio operators. He is in a coma, he is once again passive. Only when Widsun reappears is there a possibility of something beyond Versoie. This time, it’s Egypt. ‘What have they got there? (237)’ asks Serge, and one senses that he is once again looking outward.

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