By Tom McCarthy
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.