Monday, February 14, 2011

C by Tom McCarthy

by Tom McCarthy

C is a hard to describe book. So expansive within 300 or so pages, it covers nearly the entire life of one man searching for immortality in early 20th century England and Egypt. Serge Carrefax grows up with a father who teaches deaf children to speak, when he’s not constructing apparatuses for wireless communications. His sister Sophie is eccentric and science-obsessed (particularly with insects), and Serge finds comfort in the voices coming in over his homemade radio device. From an early age, he is observing and recording, skills that serve him well as a solider during World War I. He loves the flat view from above while piloted into enemy airspace. Perspective, he admits, was never his strong suit. He craves the adrenaline and the feeling of being connected to everything around him.

It doesn’t take long before he discovers new ways to feel connected:

“I’ll snap the area, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell that with my naked eye, through all the smoke.”

“Try rubbing cocaine in it,” Pietersen tells him.

“Cocaine?” Serge asks. “Isn’t that for teeth?”

“Yes, but it works wonders on your vision. Sharpens it to no end. Go pick some up from the Field Hospital in Mirabel.”

Exchanges like that, I find amusing — Ah, yes, potter on over to the hospital, and they’ll sort you right out. Never mind the stinging, you’ll be ready for anything in just a jiff. Rubbing coke in his eyes, while revelatory, doesn’t quite work as well as he wants, so he snorts it instead. He eventually moves on to heroin, and for awhile, he enjoys its sinking, swimming feeling.

Still, this is not a story of a drug addict’s chemical peril. As a doctor told Serge before his enlistment, “Things mutate. That is the way of nature — of good nature: things pass through on their way to somewhere else, and both they and the things they pass through are thereby transformed.” C tries to coalesce the world into its most basic elements. Serge does not crave connectedness out of a desire for community — No, it is a selfish, primal desire to feel his effect on his surroundings.

I’ll admit, this was a slow-burner for me. Not until the first third passed did I fall completely into the story. The pace, though it covers a fair amount of time, is still on the leisurely side. If you will forgive the easy metaphor — once I passed over the first curve of Serge’s story, I became a more enthusiastic reader. McCarthy has a particular gift for narrative that isn’t overly flowery. He articulates the difficult to describe (i.e. lust, euphoria, delirium) in a natural, forceful way. I have the suspicion that C would benefit from a reread, as I don’t feel as though I caught every thing that I should have — bits that would make the overall story more satisfying. I liked this book, but the more I’ve let my thoughts on it germinate, the more I like it. It is easy to see why it comes so oft-recommended, and also why it's divisive. It’s certainly an original book, enough so that I will keep an eye out for McCarthy’s previous work.


Full disclosure: I checked out this book from my local library. Imagine that, I’m not reviewing another book where I have to disclose the publisher who sent it to me. However you obtain your books, be sure to also support your libraries. They are a treasure indeed.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.


  1. Libraries rock. I left the US in December 1999, and one of the things I miss is libraries. We had them in China, we had them in Thailand, and we probably have them in Vietnam, but not in English. Go check out some books, y'all. Maybe C by Tom McCarthy.

  2. Since I'm back in a city with a much smaller library district, I have less of a selection now than I used to, but yes, libraries are great. I'm not sure I would have gotten around to reading this one had I not noticed it on the "new books" shelf.