Thursday, January 6, 2011
C is an episodic bildungsroman about Serge Carrefax, son of the founder of a school for the deaf, brother of a suicide, casual scientist, possible sociopath. The episodes in question are variations on a theme, or rather on themes: networks, communication, the complexity and interplay among various human endeavors. There is no plot, other than the wandering course of Serge's life: idyllic childhood, tragic loss, strange illness, war experience, fateful research trip. What happens here isn't the point, though--the theme is what it's all about, and everything is about the theme.
McCarthy is riffing here, in other words. This is something he can do--the writing is spectacular, for the most part. The novel is spilling over with historical research about the technology of the early twentieth century; characters routinely predict the future of communication here, or traffic in the kind of metaphors we use today to describe computers and the internet. The characters are, in the end, entirely subservient to these ideas and historical details; they're performers putting on a play about what Tom McCarthy is interested in. (And yes--there is a play within this play, a pageant performed by the deaf chilrden who, in one of the book's central ironies, can't hear themselves speak.)
This might sound cold and pretentious; in fact the book is, at times, utterly absorbing and quite moving. Certain scenes are evoked with uncanny beauty, as when the child Serge witnesses a sexual tryst that will color his erotic experiences for the rest of his life; or when his plane crashes in no man's land, and a plague of birds arrives to peck at the blasted remains of his compatriots; or when he and a lover screw upon a pile of mummies. But the mode of writing is detached; point of view is fluid, and one feels as though the book does not belong to the characters, but to the writer and reader.
I never fully owned it, personally. The last section is a true disappointment--it consists almost entirely of expository dialogue, and ends in a delirious virtuoso recapitulation of every symbol and metaphor in the novel--but nevertheless has a certain mad rigor. It's impressively bizarre and not really successful, like most things that I admire. I recommend the book with reservations, but have reservations about my reservations. I will most certainly read the next one, and all the ones after that.