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In the Wake of Curiosity

By Anna Aslanyan.


C, Tom McCarthy, Jonathan Cape 2010

Cold caplets covered Carrefax’s contraption crouched cannily… It is tempting to start in this way a review of C — the book eagerly anticipated by Tom McCarthy‘s admirers for the last couple of years, which at one point was rumoured to contain only words beginning with the eponymous letter. Reader, it does not. Despite the proliferation of c-words, they are interspersed with others. The result is a heady — or, more aptly, captivating — concoction that constantly keeps you switched on. Far from being reduced to a word game, the text is spanned with verbal landmarks which make for a mock exercise in uniconsonantism the author clearly enjoys.

The protagonist, Serge Carrefax, is an odd figure, almost a robot half-turned man. More often than not, this basic plot — a machine acquiring human traits, sometimes a heart and even an immortal soul — ends in a tragedy, the machine enfeebled by this unexpected human condition collapsing under its weight. With Serge it is different — he is too human to survive, although not human enough to be an Everyman (this role remains firmly reserved for the protagonist of McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder). Serge is born at the turn of the 20th century into a somewhat extraordinary family, under somewhat extraordinary circumstances; while his deaf mother is giving birth, his father — who can hear but rarely listens to anything apart from his own ideas — is obsessed with his wireless radio experiments. The background of this nativity scene — “copper buzzing in the garden” — determines to a large extent Serge’s whole life. He becomes a radio ham, but, unlike his father, sees himself as a medium rather than a transformer. Serge’s abilities could make him a perfect receiver of signals that abound in the space around and beyond him were he not blocked in so many ways; a doctor at a spa resort diagnoses his illness as “Jam, block, stuck. Instead of transformation, only repetition”. This line is one of the many reminders pointing to the main message all McCarthy’s books contain: that nowadays the only subject worth addressing in literature is art, in its various guises, and that every situation in life can be deciphered through it — through constant repetition (reenactment for those more used to the writer’s terminology). Remainder and Men in Space, the first two fiction books by McCarthy, joined by this more mature work (with a number of equally rich plot lines — a modern European novel at its strongest), together form a triptych that might be interpreted, literally, as a 21st century icon — of sorts.


Shadowed in his early years by his older, brighter, brasher sister Sophie, Serge looks like a typical little brother at first — incestuously inclined, sulky and awkward. His reaction to her death is the indication of qualities that will make him stand out of the crowd throughout the book. He feels no grief, no sadness at Sophie’s funeral — he is only embarrassed by his hard-on, nothing more. As anyone who is familiar with McCarthy’s oeuvre knows, this is not the first time the author and his characters are inspired by death. Indeed, in his capacity as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, McCarthy has always maintained that death is a form of art per se and, at the same time, a creative driving force no artist can dismiss.

You don’t have to be a practising shrink to add two and two together and figure out that Serge’s “blockage”, his inability to pass things through himself, is rooted in the loss he never mourned — and therefore is destined to mourn all his life. However, things are never that simple in McCarthy’s world; there are pages in the book where the death of Serge’s sister strikes you as a purely artificial device the author uses to distract the reader’s attention, to refocus — or rechannel — it. The accidental nature of this frequency switching trick is as dubitable as that of the girl’s death.

Another occasion when Serge shows he is not made of ordinary human material is his own close brush with death. After serving as a pilot’s observer during the First World War and spending a long time in prison camps, he faces an execution squad as if it was a deliverance: “As he waits for the sergeant to give the command to shoot, Serge feels ecstatic”. The last moment announcement that it’s all over, far from bringing relief, ruins the beauty of the moment. “For the first time in the whole course of the war, he feels scared”.


Going back to things starting with c, they delineate Serge’s story in a manner concise, concentrated, and convincing. To mention just a few, there are: carbon, copy, crypt, code, cocaine, cyst, most of them playing a sinister role in the book, connected to one another in a way that holds the plot together, seemingly effortlessly. Is carnage wrought on Sophie by her secret lover to blame for a glass of cyanide in her stiff hand? Could it be the cheeky catatomb (the resting place of a family pet) that leads Serge eventually to the catacombs of ancient Egypt? Are cycteine (the chemical supposed to cure spa patients) and cysthair (the perilous result of Serge’s carelessness when exploring Egyptian heritage) both links of the same chain? As for copy, this concept, known to the reader of Remainder as reenactment, is equally important in C.

Among features McCarthy’s fans will recognise in this book to their joy is the cinematic quality of his writing. As in his earlier books, every now and again the author notices something so striking in its beauty or violence or both that he cannot help himself — he freezes his camera on it, giving us a long, Tarkovsky-style scene shot from an angle no one has thought of before. In Remainder we stood transfixed, side by side with the protagonist, watching a shot man’s blood trickle into a puddle of water. In C a victim of shooting is lying in the street, his blood mixing with milk, projecting an even stronger image on the reader’s retina. Serge’s delirious dreams are of a similar nature; in one of them, “the whole scene’s flat, like film”.

McCarthy’s prose is full of interconnections between visual and textual effects. The word play that is a vital part of the book is not the cloying, aggressive type. Instead of being kept on your toes, you are invited to play this guessing game at leisure, often as a comic relief, something to lift you out of the darkness you are surrounded by most of the time. When told that his newborn son has a caul, Serge’s father mishears it as cold and has to be informed that a caul is “a kind of web” that brings good luck. There are several references in C to a web of signals enveloping the world, but to say that they are designed to symbolise the forerunner of the Internet would, of course, be oversimplifying things. The most curious of these allusions is brought about by another idea of Carrefax Sr. who assumes — admittedly, neglecting the basic laws of physics — that no signal emitted in the ionosphere is ever lost, “they all bounce back eventually, or loop round”, and hence can be detected years later. One might, for instance, be able to “pick up the Battle of Hastings, or observe the distress of the assassinated Caesar, or the anguish of Saint Anthony during his great temptation”.


The theory may, indeed, sound curious to the reader; in fact, curiosity is yet another c-word that seems to carry in itself the key to some of the book’s codes. Serge is immersed in his wireless world, but Carrefax Cathode, another of his father’s projects, awakes no further enthusiasm in him — “whatever vibrant immediacy this might possess, all Serge can see is death” — as he toys with the question, “Can death be patented?” His curiosity towards women is restricted to one side of things — or, rather, of women in question; Serge never makes a beast with two backs with any of his lovers, always entering them from behind. It is Serge’s obsessive interest in certain things that makes him a true artist (but definitely not a scientist) — the interest whose focus remains unclear, drowned in the white noise. The climax of this state of incoherency comes when Serge is waiting for a word from his dead sister’s mouth that will bring with it completeness and closure. What he hears is “a burst of static — a static that contains all messages ever sent”.

Although you can guess what happens at the end some time before you get there, the last pages are no less thrilling for that. This is the space you need to contemplate, to muse over what comes after curiosity. You are provoked to do that by many things in C, including its very literariness (the sign of the author’s maturity rather than showing-off on his part), which manifests itself in many ways, particularly in the book’s apparent untranslatability. Finnegans Wake springs to mind whenever you come across a passage translators are going to find especially hard. Joyce’s title is evoked at the closing paragraph, when we are left in the wake of a ship, “two white lines running backwards into darkness”. Cocaine captured crooked convolutions, creases, crazy chambers…


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 22nd, 2010.