The protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, is a man who has received several million pounds in compensation after an accident. With his new-found wealth he explores the temporality of events in a bizarre, almost Nietzschean, manner; he constantly restages momentary occurrences, such as cats sunning themselves on a roof, and the smell of liver cooking. Remainder was a fascinating book focussed on an unnamed character who was difficult to fully grasp: he was rather like a cipher that the reader employed to decode the endlessly restaged events.
We find something similar in C. Its protagonist, Serge Carrefax, is more developed, but the rapidly changing environments in which McCarthy places him always threaten to swallow him.
McCarthy is know not only as a novelist, but also as the founder of the International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictional organisation whose first manifesto states: ‘Our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.’ The society and its manifesto arose partly from McCarthy’s interest in early 20th century avantgarde organisations such as the Futurists, and its activities included a radio broadcasting unit that transmitted out encoded messages.
To say that Serge Carrefax is a necronaut would be meaningless: according to the INS, we are all necronauts. But it seems apt to describe him as someone who is being transmitted towards death. In C he is faced first with illness and then with war, before encountering a séance and finally an ancient Egyptian tomb; death, or the threat of it, permeates the novel. McCarthy’s interest in Futurism is also apparent. Technological innovations subsume Serge; when he serves in the RAF during the First World War he plane is shot down, and later a car crash marks a turning point where the accelerated pace of his existence reaches his nadir. The concern with communication is also carried over to C: Serge’s father experiments with wireless broadcasting, an interest he passes on to Serge, who goes on to serve as a radio operator during the war.
Communication and transmission are in fact at the centre of the novel. Indeed, they seem so central that they do not stop at being mere themes, but act as fundaments upon which the other elements of the text rest. As this somewhat unconventional deployment of devices might suggest, C is not a straightforward book: if McCarthy communicates with his readers then he does so cryptically.
This is reflected in the ways in which communication features in the novel. As a wartime wireless operator and later an employee of the Ministry of Communications based in Cairo, tasked with preparing a report on wireless transmission in the British Empire, Serge speaks in codes. And C speaks in codes too, codes which might have several meanings. Its title is an obvious example: C might on a basic level stand for Carrefax, or for Communication, Connection or Code, but it also seems to signify something more all-encompassing. As the novel approaches its climax a list of chemical compounds is recited to Serge: ‘the C is everywhere’, he is told. ‘Carbon: basic element of life.’
While it’s something as intangible as radio waves that provides the current that carries this novel’s narrative, references to human physicality are often imbued with awkwardness. Serge is born wrapped in a caul; the doctor delivering him begins to explain that it this is a sign of something, but he is interrupted before we can read what it signifies. Cocooned in the amniotic sac, Serge might resemble the silkworm larvae that his mother farms. Meanwhile, his father runs a school for deaf children; communication and physical impediment thus connect in his work.
As a teenager, Serge is sent to a European spa town in order to have a stomach complaint treated. He is diagnosed as suffering with black bile. ‘You have a poison factory in you that secretes to arteries, liver, kidneys and beyond’, he is told by a doctor. In addition to the spa waters, he is prescribed enemas, hydrotherapy and massages from a crook-backed girl. Serge ‘likes her crippled body, the illness inside it.’ When they have sex her deformed back acts as a kind of fetish object for him.
Following a modernist tradition that might well have provided the impetus for McCarthy to set this novel in the years straddling the First World War, C is not an immediately welcoming book. However, it’s certainly enticing. One feels compelled to crack the codes that underpin it, and to understand its transmissions. This is not only a novel about communication, but also a novel as communication. What is being said is not always apparent at first, but it is continually clear that many layers of information are being conveyed.