book review – C – Tom McCarthy

“Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-like gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould…”

There is a moment in the book when the C in the title is defined to the leading character, as standing for Carbon the stuff of life, but by then you have already made up your own mind what it stands for.

Although having said that it would be too easy to talk about Communication which is the big theme of the book. Communication via the wireless and radio waves is a theme from start to finish but there are also ideas about communication between the living and dead and the present and the past. Could you hear Christ’s last words on the cross in static form stretching back from time? asks one character as he muses on the static that crowds the fringes of the radio airwaves.

C is also the initial for the Carrefax family who dominate the story and from where the lead character Serge (often confused for Surge another technical communication reference) comes from. He starts the story as a baby being born but increasingly comes to dominate the story as it goes along.

Carrefax senior runs a school for the deaf and uses technology in the form of wax recordings to encourage the children to speak and puts them through performances to show off how his techniques are succeeding. His wife is also deaf, Serge’s mother, and she has a ghostly presence in the book never emerging beyond giving an impression in a couple of scenes.

But the C also stands for cocaine and the drug abuse that Serge inflicts on himself as he goes through the First World War as an observer in a plane with the RAF. He comes back to London and the drugs continue to be part of his life as he hangs out with the theatrical scene and tries to find a role for himself in a world that is far too normal for a man who has lived through and witnessed the things he has on the battlefield.

There is a cleverness to this book that means that even when the main character becomes difficult to empathise with you want to see how it ends. Technology changed the world shaping communication not just in peace but also in war and throughout the book Serge’s father is constantly looking to push the boundaries. The pressure he puts on himself is transmitted to his children with his daughter taking her own life as the madness of being constantly brilliant takes a vicious hold.

Serge himself seems to be looking for something. The teenager who listened in on radio stations and static is lost himself in the noise of normal life after he returns from the war and struggles to relate to the sort of life that his contemporaries are getting on with.

There are some big themes being discussed here and you sense that one day someone could do something similar with the web and its impact on the way people live. Just because you can communicate with people across continents and use technology to push what’s possible doesn’t always bode well for the individuals using it.


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