Review: C

C Book Cover

By Tom McCarthy
Knopf Doubleday
September 2010

The Short of It:

As if written in code, C is a novel that needs to be interpreted before it can be appreciated.

The Rest of It:

The cover should have warned me. It depicts a lovely chap covered in Morse Code. The blips, the dashes…all serve as a warning for what is contained within the pages but I plowed forth and pushed through the first half and what a first half it was!

The story begins around the turn of the 20th century at Versoie House, a school for the deaf.  This is a deaf school like no other. Here, the students are not taught to sign. Instead, they are encouraged to vocalize their wants via an abbreviated language focusing on long and short sounds. Mr. Carrefax, the founder of the school is also a scientist. He’s fascinated with the idea of wireless communication and spends much of his time out in his workshop.

While puttering around his shop, his wife is in the midst of delivering their son. He sort of leaves her to her business and their son is born. In an environment focusing on communication, Serge Carrefax is born into silence as his mother is deaf, and to top it off, he greets the world with a caul over his head. For those who are superstitious, a caul usually means that the child will be gifted in some way, or that he will be able to predict the future. This led me to believe that Serge would become a very important person later in life. Not so.

Serge ends up poisoned. He begins to leach blackness out of his body (think carbon) and his vision is covered by a dark veil. Now, I read this part carefully and I do believe the poisoning was done by his sister Sophie. She fed him poisoned berries. Whether intentional or not, it doesn’t really matter because Sophie kills herself when she finds herself impregnanted by her father’s close friend. Serge, grief-stricken over Sophie’s death and leaching out this horrible blackness, heads to a spa that specializes in such things. The doctor, though very odd in his ways, manages to cure Serge.

It’s at this point that things get very weird. Things happen. I say things because the writing was so disjointed in places that I had a hard time figuring out what was going on.

McCarthy manages to create Serge without any admirable qualities. He’s not wretched, at least not in an obvious way, but he’s composed of cells and matter and that’s about it. Oh, and of course Carbon which is the element of life and what the title of the book represents.

As for the rest of the story, Serge meets people, has a great deal of sex, becomes addicted to cocaine and heroin and fights in the Great War. I wouldn’t say that he stumbles through life because he doesn’t. He does everything with a purpose but one wonders about the end result.

I’ve never met a character like Serge. I know virtually nothing about him and it seems that McCarthy did this intentionally. I mean, why follow a man through life if you care nothing about him? After thinking about it a bit and considering the meaning of the title, I’ve come to the conclusion that the entire book is about the components of life, but not life itself. Therefore, Serge is just one of many pawns inhabiting the planet.

After figuring this out, I went back through the novel and things that I had overlooked before or only glanced at briefly, began to make sense.

This was not an easy book to read. It had to be decoded  and picked apart and since there is so little in the way of character development, many will find it difficult to read.  I, on the other hand, sort of enjoyed it by the time I finished. As humans, we are just another form of life. No different from the insects or animals that we share space with. It’s quite humbling to be reduced to nothingness in a world as vast as ours.

2010 Indie Lit Awards Lit Fic Finalist

I read this for the 2010 Indie Lit Awards and it was also shortlisted in 2010 for the Man Booker Prize.

Source: Purchased

22 thoughts on “Review: C”

    1. It’s a tad dark but it’s written in such a fleeting way. It’s hard to describe but the author will take something dark, like shooting up with heroin and make it sort of unremarkable. The entire novel is written that way.

  1. Would you say it’s original and that McCarthy pulled it off? Or did he tried to make something original and wasn’t quite there?

    I’ve read several reviews of this and almost all seem to be of the love-or-hate kind.

    1.   It’s hard to say. It’s definitely original, but did he pull it off? It took several re-reads for it to make sense to me. I don’t think a reader should have to put that much energy into understanding a novel’s purpose, so I hesitate in saying it but no, I don’t think he pulled it off, but he was close.  

  2. Very interesting review, Ti. I started this one last fall but was distracted by the other books I was reading. I really do wants to get back to it and am pleased it made it on to the Indie Lit Awards list.

  3. Have to admit to being drawn to this one but am wondering if you felt the disjointed nature of the text served a higher purpose or did it come across as gimmicky?

    1. It definitely wasn’t gimmicky. I do feel there was a higher purpose to his writing but it took half the book for me to feel that way. The second half was almost a completely different book and I found that most interesting because that’s when Serge is the most inebriated by drug.

  4. I like to think of myself as fairly open-minded, but I’m not sure I can do this one. Perhaps if I was in a more scholarly state of mind, I might put in the effort, but I have been feeling lazy and require my literature to reach out to me, not the other way around.

  5. Your review has made me look at it in a different way. Thank you. I read it and felt, well felt nothing really. Like you mentioned, Serge was just sort of a blob, traveling through life. There was nothing to grab onto.

    Because of that nothingness, my review was not positive. I still think that it is important for a book to leave me with something, even if it is something that I missed:)

  6. VERY interesting review! Well done. I must admit that I’m pulled to this for some reason but also not sure that I will have the patience to work this hard. Especially if he is just ‘a blob’ and hard to like. Maybe in a different year – I wonder how time will look at this novel after a decade or two?

    1. Well, if it weren’t for the communication piece of it, I probably would not have liked it so much. I think the reaction you have will be the same no matter when you read it but you will need time to weed through things. If you enjoy a challenge I imagine you’d like it enough.

    1. I was curious about the title, and also the cover and then began to think that there was significance to them. I even checked to see if the author spelled something out with the code (that would be something!) but no…just random letters.

  7. I enjoy well-developed, real characters in a book, I don’t even have to like them so long as they are interesting. So I think I would find this book a bit difficult to read. But the strangeness of it and the bleakness of it, the idea that our lives are just our lives and don’t matter much in the overall scheme of things definitely intrigues me. This sounds like a very unique book that I think I might try reading just to see what I think of it.
    I thought your reviews was great, too!

  8. I liked this book, but while I read it, I liked the challenge. It’s a book I didn’t let leave the house because I needed to read it with my cull attention rather than while glancing up on the bus to make sure I didn’t miss my spot. As I said, I liked it, but it’s not a book I recommend to many. It is a book I feel accomplished having read, which is nice, and it’s a book that felt much bigger than it’s 300ish pages.

  9. ti, yours is the second review that i’ve read on this book and the first that actually clarifies the significance of the cover and what’s going on! i think i’m a bit too slow on the uptake for this one–when i read during the school year i need something straightfoward and simple because i’m often exhausted by day’s end. 🙂 i’m not sure i have the patience to slog through this one.

    1. Well, the sentence structure is not complex at all so you won’t slog through it, but may find yourself re-reading passages to see if you missed something. If you like puzzles you might be entertained by it, but I’d save it for when you can relax with it. Are you still visiting the Happiest Place on Earth?

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