Reading C by Tom McCarthy #9

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, and Part 4 here.

Part 5 – Conclusion

Yesterday, I wondered if C might be a stele for Serge Carrefax, his life, the characters in it, the scribe in his own life. This morning, it occurred to me that C might be in fact be a scarab of some sort: “So the scarab withholds the vital information even as it records it? Even as it prints? (290)” says Serge at one point, and if that is not true of his life, of this novel, then I’m not sure what is.

And so I reach the end of my rather rambling journey through Tom McCarthy’s C, and it is time to try to pull together a few thoughts about it. As you may have noticed by now, it is a novel that resists an easy commentary. It is overflowing with words and ideas profligate with both, and it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to trace a straightforward path through it. Rather like the paths at Versoie, which twist and turn and fold in on themselves like a maze, the novel folds around itself, with images resurfacing time and again, the loops and repetitions that Serge so often notes.

Or maybe not a maze so much as a crossroads. The crossroads at the heart of my home city of Oxford, in England, is Carfax, which is a corruption of the French “carrefour”, or crossroads. I immediately thought of that when I first saw Serge’s name, and I wonder, given his family history, and given the novel is in four parts, or four turnings, whether this might be a useful way of thinking about what is going on. Serge takes four different journeys during the novel, through childhood, through treatment, through the First World War and through post-war Egypt, and each time he returns to a point where his life is or seems about to be remade. Even in the last section, the mystical marriage-cum-coronation is a remaking, though perhaps now in a different world, as if Serge has finally found a place where he belongs, in the radio waves themselves, a two-dimensional place (though a mischievous part of me wonders too if McCarthy isn’t drawing some sort of analogy between godhead and AIs; the movement towards computer imagery almost suggests that). Alternatively, one might think of the ka figures in the tomb, portraying its occupant at different points in his life, allowing his spirit to move from one to another.

If this is so, it perhaps addresses what might be perceived as a certain narrative … not aimlessness, precisely, though if ever there was a character without a direction, it is Serge, who seems not to have a clue what to do with himself in life … but, well, like Serge, the novel doesn’t really seem to have an ending. Though that, I suspect, is part of the point.

The profligacy of the book’s ideas seems to mirror the potential of the early twentieth century in terms of technological developments, the many strands of research, the possibilities but this is set against the increasing dehumanisation of the people. One is struck time and again how the people in the novel seem to be akin to automata, or to be human machines, repeating the same actions over and over – the women in the rearing sheds and weaving shops, the children learning to articulate sound, the learning by rote of the pageant speeches, even Sophie’s obsessive attention to code-breaking, to dissection. During the war Serge is bound by the lines on the map but simultaneously breaks free of them, but once the war is over, it’s back to learning by rote, surrounded by people who are caught in a daily routine of work and performance. The location may change but on one level is Alexandria any different to London when nothing seems to get done. The archaeological excavations are literally contained, in the box-like tombs, and their contents become yet more lists. The only escape open to Serge by this time is death or a crossing to another world for he is endlessly trapped by his own world, constantly returning to the beginning, to restart it.

I suppose what I love most about this novel is its layers of possibility. I’ve dug around in them for the last few weeks, but I know that I’ve by no means exhausted their potential, like the layers of tombs that will never be excavated. This is frustrating and exhilarating at the same time. I’m haunted by a sense of what I may have missed (lots) as much as I delight in the connections I’ve discovered so far. There are moments when I wonder if McCarthy hasn’t pushed it a little too far, whether the piling up of image and repetition isn’t just a little too knowing, but given McCarthy’s track record I assume this is an entirely conscious choice and it’s no less intriguing for that.

So, a novel that is ingenious and exciting and mysterious by turns. I have by no means made up my mind about it but I can’t deny that the power of the writing blows me away.


One thought on “Reading C by Tom McCarthy #9

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Ms. Kincaid Speller,I've just finished "C" and find myself submerged in its tantalizing references and associations – more reminiscent of music than the spun-out prose of more "conventional" authors. Your comments and responses to it have been a big help to my fully appreciating its richness and depth. Thank you.Harvey SollbergerStrawberry Point, IowaUSA

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