Reading C by Tom McCarthy #8

Pylon at Luxor (Notre Dame Architecture Library)


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, and Part 3 here.

Part 4 – Call

There is a moment in part 3 of C when Serge, newly inducted into London’s drug culture and its arcane system of signs and passwords (including C for cocaine, of course), “starts seeing all of London’s surfaces and happenings as potentially encrypted: street signage, chalk-marks scrawled on walls, phrases on newspaper vendors’ stalls and sandwich boards, snatches of conversation heard in passing, the arrangements of flowers on window-sills or clothes on washing lines. (211)” Codes were Sophie’s thing, something that linked her to Widsun, but the marks on walls, the secret signs, made me think also of hieroglyphs, and that leads me, conveniently, to the final section of C, Call. (depending on how you pronounce ‘caul’, the title of the first section, you may notice a similarity in the names; I feel sure this is intentional).

Widsun, as we will recall, is now working in Communications, in North Africa, and has offered Serge a post in Egypt. (The irony of dealing with this section, set in post-war Egypt, at this particular moment, as the Egyptian government disintegrates in slow motion is not lost on me.) As ever, the reader is dropped right into the action, as Serge follows his new mentor, Petrou, around Alexandria. They are surrounded by destruction but, as Petrou explains, it’s not all as recent as it looks. As they gaze at a pile of “giant slabs toppled over one another”, Serge learns that some damage comes from recent riots but “these were probably torn down from some other edifice when the Persians sacked the place in the seventh century; and from another one before that too, when Octavian routed Antony. That’s the thing about Alexandria: these periods just kind of merge together … (242)”

In fact, much of this final section of the novel seems to be about things merging, or more often collapsing into one another, layer upon layer. All of Serge’s preoccupations from earlier parts of the novel will resurface here, in profligate detail, so much so that it’s difficult to keep a grip on the story one is so busy noting resonances from earlier. It is as though this is the place where all the traces of those earlier inerasable broadcasts Simeon was concerned about have become caught in the eddies of time and space.

Serge’s actual task, to write reports about the development of the Empire Wireless Chain, seems to be of little interest to anyone. It’s not clear who the report is even for, nor what kind of ‘appendix’ it is that Widsun requires from him. Serge was never a writer – during the war he was negligent about filing post-flight reports – and things have not changed. When told he is supposed to be providing a wider perspective, he notes once again that this was never his thing, but his concern is brushed aside. In truth, it doesn’t seem as if anyone knows what they’re doing. This is post-war Egypt, teetering on the brink of independence, and the various powers are jockeying for position. There is a sense of ineffectuality about everything, not least the fact that Britain, which had led the world in developing radio and telegraphy communication, has now fallen far behind, other countries having done deals with the much reviled Marconi. It is as though Simeon has become Britain, not that Simeon himself plays any further part in the story. On a more individual level, Serge is surrounded by people who are failing to communicate what it is that they want.

With no one really paying attention to him, Serge can once again drift aimlessly, accumulating experiences without doing much with them. He is once again a passive witness rather than an active observer. trying to make sense of what he sees but, without perspective, lacking the means to fully interpret. Alexandria suits Serge because, perhaps like him, it seems “just now […] roused, or half-roused, from its slumber. (245)” Or perhaps it is because here, he seems to find himself as the hub of his own world, even down to the discovery that the tram lines are designated by geometric figures, echoing hiss schoolroom perception of the world. Everything he has ever done, ever thought about, seems to be focused here. As Petrou notes, Alexander himself had a grand concept for the city:

He wanted it to be the great hub of the world, connecting everything to everywhere else. More than that: it would be Greece’s grand self-realisation, its ascent, beyond itself, into a universal condition, Über-Greece: a kind of simulation, better than the real thing ever was. His version would assimilate all other cultures, all their gods and figureheads and what you else, and conjoin these beneath the canopy of a transcendent, modern Hellenism in which reason, science and knowledge would all flourish. Alexander was a co-ordinator too. (246)

In some ways, this echoes, I think, Simeon’s perception of Versoie, as a hub, the point of connection; only the scale differed. History folded around it in the same way as it piles layer upon layer on Alexandria, and yet both failed, with both cut off from the current of the world. Only Serge remains as an imperfect conduit between the two, the communications apparatus that can’t communicate.

But his presence in Egypt opens up possibilities for other discussions, ones that haven’t so far been articulated fully. There is a first hint when Petrou talks about the Ptolemies taking over in Egypt and marrying their sisters. A few pages later, when Petrou describes Alexandria as a “city of sects and syncretism (253)”, Serge adds “And incest”, moments before they see the statue of Sophia. Taken in conjunction with a comment made by Serge’s superior, Macauley, about seeing his father in Serge, only it’s clear he doesn’t mean Simeon but Widsun (267), and one begins to wonder what it is that Serge does know and what it is he is looking for.

Serge is finally given a proper task of sorts, to survey an area to see if it is suitable to erect a second pylon for the Wireless Chain, a final, redundant attempt at stamping British authority on the entire wireless project. This requires Serge to join an archaeological dig at a place called Sedment, which he mishears as Sediment. Mishearing words is a theme of this entire section, as though Serge is beginning to go deaf or is no longer able to comprehend the language when it is spoken. His mishearing, however, often adds a second layer of meaning to the situation, though it also often topples over into frantic hand-waving, as though McCarthy is desperate to squeeze in all the resonances before the novel ends. Or, if we follow Simeon’s theory, the resonances are overwhelming the novel. Latterly, his mishearing become noticeably scatological, as though his bodily inhibitions are also starting to come undone. There is a sense that Serge is disintegrating, in more ways than one.

On the dig, he has become known as Pylon Man, because of his task, to find a suitable site for the new pylon, losing his name as well as his speech. While the pylon reminds us of his interest in radio, in ancient Egyptian architecture, a pylon is a monumental gateway in a temple, suggesting that Serge has somehow been transformed into a gatekeeper (and puts me in mind of the opening sequence of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: “Open are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts.”). The question, then, is what sort of gatekeeper might Serge be.

When Laura, one of the archaeologists, tells Serge about her dissertation it turns out to be about the myth of Osiris:

the god’s dismemberment, his sister Isis’s search for his parts, her conception of Horus from the one part of him she couldn’t find and so was forced to remake herself, and Osiris’s subsequent adoption as the deity of death and resurrection by the people of the Nile, who’d depict him in their art with a large phallus, rising to inseminate each day. (280)

She goes on to note that Osiris would “swallow [the sun] and pass it, bringing about the repetition of creation, the timeless present of eternity. the ancient Egyptian cosmology had no apocalypse, no end: time just went round and round … (281)” Osiris, as the god of death and rebirth is thus alive and dead simultaneously. I’ve already commented on the way that Serge seems to been reborn in Sections 2 and 3, and it would appear this was not a coincidence. More than that, Serge suddenly realises that Isis, gathering up her brother’s body parts, save for his phallus, is in radio terms a coherer, like an old-fashioned radio set that made particles move together, to cohere. Radio, as he puts it, is “a gathering-together too” (284).

The archaeologists’ voyage up the Nile to Luxor has a certain funereal quality about it. It is repetitious in the extreme, and Serge has a sense of himself as being part of a giant mechanism, transported through history. The view is a series of photographic negatives; Laura’s outpouring of information are like ‘a strip of punch-card paper emerging from her mouth – constant and regular, (283)’; forms of communication compete against one another for Serge’s attention and it is noticeable that the predominant form is something that would not have been known to Serge at all, the computer.

As Serge notes, Laura is inventorising the dig, entering each find in a ledger. At one point he finds her transcribing lines of text: “[t]he lines run in strips like flypaper or film, each frame a single picture: bird, scythe, foot, ankh, eye, a pair of hands …(293)” When she tells Serge that they are spells for executing functions, it’s difficult not to see them as a series of instructions to a computer. Later, she will be described as streaming information. Already Serge has seen scarabs bound with copper wire; a curious game he describes as Isis’s cohering set, and which is described as possessing a circuit board. Even the scarabs themselves, reminding us once again of Sophie’s dismemberment of insects, hold secrets, being, according to Laura, of “the deceased’s unreported deeds, clandestine history and guilty conscience”, devices that print and withhold information simultaneously. There is a strong sense that here, in Laura’s workshop, Serge is at a nexus of communication possibilities.

Likewise, Sedment (living up to Serge’s mishearing of it) seems to be the historical rubbish heap of the world. “Shards of broken pottery protrude from these [mounds of debris], alongside scraps of paper that he can’t, in passing, make out as either old papyri or contemporary news-pages, plus short lengths of what look like copper. beetles scurry up and down the surface of these mounds like mountaineers negotiating faces and approaches. (287)” Yet the layers have been so disturbed, it is impossible to create proper archaeological strata, an image that is picked up again later when Serge and Laura descend into the tomb that never seems to end, with room upon room filled with fragments of bone and ceramics, bodies that have collapsed in on themselves and one another. Here they make love; this seems to me to be the one sexual encounter Serge has in which he experiences some genuine passion and emotion and yet the setting is grotesque, a charnel house, an orgy of bones.

It is here, in the tomb, that Serge is bitten by an unspecified creature, which leads to the fever which in turn produces the hallucination of a mystical marriage, or coronation … it is an extraordinary culmination, a gathering together of images and thoughts from throughout the novel, muddled together in Serge’s fevered mind, shrinking away to nothing. Or, perhaps, Serge himself has become part of the background resonance of the world, to be received later.

I’ll end by going back to a point where Laura shows Serge a stele, a slab on which is painted the life of the person it commemorates.

All these figures; […] interact with one another, and seem to be exchanging words – but in a silent, gestural language only.
“It’s beautiful,” says Serge.
“The colours?”
“No, the flatness.”
“Stelae […] carried pictures of the deceased’s old life to the underworld, and conveyed back up from there ones of the new life he was living – which was, of course, a better, more refined version of the old one.”
“Two-way Crookes tubes, “ Serge murmurs; “death around the world. (294)”