Find your voice and get your story straight
“C” by Tom McCarthy

“C” by Tom McCarthy

I managed to get to the end of “C” without anyone asking me what it’s about.

Which is just as well because it’s not a question that lends itself to a short answer.

The answer to that question is usually a précis of the story and/or the high concept theme of the book.

But “C” doesn’t have a “story” as such. Nor does it readily lend itself to the “ideas that you can hold in your hand“, 25 word concept definition much beloved of Steven Spielberg.

Tom McCarthy is clearly no Michael Crichton in that respect.

(And he’d probably be very happy to agree with that).

“C” is less about what happens, and more about how it makes you feel.

I quickly discovered that it is no book for a few pages before bedtime. I read it in stints of at least one hour – on trains, planes and waiting in (stationary) automobiles to chauffeur my daughters home from various social events. I found that I needed that time to acclimatise to, and enjoy, the sweep and cadence of the language.

And how best to describe that cadence? I’ve wrestled with, and slept on, this. And the best I can come up with is that it’s the literary equivalent of tilt-shift photography.

This is a photographic technique that renders real life scenes as if you’re looking at a miniature model.

And Tom McCarthy’s writing has a similar effect. Whether it’s a garden pageant in rural England, the battlefields of WW1, a drug-fuelled party in the East End of London, or an archeological dig in Egypt, the camera of your mind views the scenes from odd angles, in slow motion, and with a smear of petroleum jelly across its lens. For instance, there’s a passage when an Allied howitzer shell appears alongside the rickety biplane from which the book’s main character is observing the German trenches. The shell is travelling at the same height, at the same speed and in the same direction as the aeroplane…

At one point a howitzer shell appears right beside them, travelling in the same direction – one of their own, surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show its underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent. It’s so close that its wind-stream gently lifts and lowers the machine, making it bob. Serge knows that planes get hit by their own shells, but this one seems so placid, so companionable – and besides, if they’re travelling at the same speed then both it and they are just still bodies in space, harmless blocks of matter. In the instant before their paths diverge, it seems to Serge that the shell and the plane are interchangeable – and that the shell and he are interchangeable…

Serge is Serge Carrefax. Inside the book’s front cover he, and his role in the book, are described thus…

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.

Here, having reached the back cover, I’m not much the wiser when it comes to Serge Carrefax. If I were a method actor preparing myself to play his part in the film, and seeking to understand “What’s my motivation?”, I wouldn’t get much joy from the book. He is very much the miniaturised, tilt-shift character in terms of what he feels and wants. And he drifts through each page with an air of detachment as the book is narrated around him.

He appears to place little value on his own life, bordering on a death wish. But we don’t know why.

There is the time when, despite the screamed imploring of his pilot, he elects not to fire back at the German plane that is about to shoot them down. And he experiences a feeling of ecstasy when about to be executed by firing squad, only to be saved by the end of the war.

Telling you that he gets his (death) wish in the end shouldn’t spoil this book for you.

And, tilt-shifted to the end, it’s entirely fitting than he meets his maker in fevered, hallucinatory and solitary fashion.

In his fever Serge hears…

…a word, or non-word, that itself eventually mutates, changing its provenance and status until it finally resolves itself..

And that is a pretty accurate description of the writing style throughout this book.

I’m glad that I read “C”.

But I’m equally glad that a blog post is the only time that I’ve had to attempt to explain it.

P.S. Lots of things in, and themes of, the book begin with “C”.

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