Book Review: 2010 Short Listed: Thomas McCarthy’s C

CRating: 2
A Novel by Tom McCarthy
2010 / 320 pages

The Setup: C follows the short, intense life of Serge Carrefax, a man who – as his name suggests – surges into the electric modernity of the early twentieth century, transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him.

Born to the sound of one of the very earliest experimental wireless stations, Serge finds himself steeped in a weird world of transmissions, whose very air seems filled with cryptic and poetic signals of all kinds. When personal loss strikes him in his adolescence, this world takes on a darker and more morbid aspect. What follows is a stunning tour de force in which the eerily idyllic settings of pre-war Europe give way to the exhilarating flightpaths of the frontline aeroplane radio operator, then the prison camps of Germany, the drug-fuelled London of the roaring twenties and, finally, the ancient tombs of Egypt.  (from the hardcover edition)

This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 12/20/2010

Author Tom McCarthy can write, there’s no question there, but what he chooses to write about in C, or rather the way he goes about it, can be painfully dull for a large chunk of the novel. The main character Serge isn’t very likable or relatable either.  Though this isn’t always a requirement for a novel to be good, it would have helped if this character had at least some semblance of a direction or goal in mind.  Instead he wanders through life as if nothing at all matters or is of any consequence.

The theme of communication, or lack thereof, is repeated throughout the novel so much so that it overwhelms much of what is being described of Serge’s life. There are great moments, like the first section of the book that describes his childhood, and a piece in the last section where he cleverly debunks a fraud psychic, but there are interesting plot points that are setup early on that are never fully revealed. Serge’s sister Sophie is such an interesting character and to not receive follow-up or closure in this regard was very disappointing.

Another plus for the novel was McCarthy’s dedication in researching the time period. The school for the deaf, the depictions of the war, and Egypt all felt very real, though once again, my main complaint for historical novels like this is that one character always seems to have all of the information of the world and must explain it in detail to every one else. At different points throughout the book Serge does in fact get “lessons” from the various people he meets on his travels.

I really wish Serge gave a sh*t more. Maybe that’s the way I’m supposed to feel? I don’t know, maybe that’s the point McCarthy is trying to drive home, that in the end nothing is worth caring about very much.  If so, that’s a pretty bleak message to put forth and one that I’d rather not dwell upon or support.  I can’t help but think that if everyone shared that view the world would be a much worse place to live in.


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