If you missed McCarthy’s widely- and well-reviewed first novel, Remainder, think of him as a young and British Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity’s Rainbow McCarthy has said is “the marker, the pace-setter for the contemporary novel.” Pynchon’s first novel, V., was about a mysterious early-twentieth-century figure who kept showing up in exotic locales of death and decadence. McCarthy’s third novel, C, follows its young English protagonist from his family’s maze-like country estate, where his sister commits suicide, to a soigné Eastern European spa, to World War I France, and finally to a tomb in Egypt. Both novels end in the blank waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

But “be not afeard,” as McCarthy says, quoting The Tempest. Like Pynchon, he’s a master of the genre mash-up, so C tells a sensitive coming-of-age story, complements Hemingway’s ground-bound war novels with air combat, provides a roaring twenties tale of sex, drugs, and spiritualism in London, and gives readers political intrigue in Alexandria and Upper Egypt. In its first three (of four) parts, C has the narrative arc of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, set back a generation. The chronological structure, obsessive protagonist, and highly detailed settings of C also resemble the methods that made Remainder accessible. (McCarthy’s second novel, Men in Space, about art forgery in Prague, has not been released in the U.S.)

“So why the possibly intimidating comparison to Pynchon?” you may ask. One answer is the word “crypt.” Our first association is probably “tomb,” but McCarthy knows the word derives from the Greek for “hidden.” Thus “encryption.” McCarthy believes death is the often hidden subject of all great literature, and he is the General Secretary of the semi-fictional “International Necronautical Society,” so he wants to keep the double meaning in play. As does Pynchon in V., an encyclopedia of evasions of mortality. C is shorter and tighter but possibly more secretive.

If I may again anticipate you: “Another effete postmodern game, the author showing off for English grads who’ve read too much literary theory.” McCarthy demonstrates in his ingenious critical book, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, that he has read Derrida and plenty of other French theorists, but C is no world-forgetting game. Using Pynchon-like research into early twentieth-century technologies, McCarthy persuasively and valuably shows that the modern era was not so different from our postmodern isle “full of noises” (The Tempest again).

McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge Carrefax, was born in 1899. His father, who appears to be a crank inventor, actually anticipates developments in electronics and teaches the deaf how to speak; Serge’s mother works with a Jacquard loom (a forerunner of the computer). At an early age, Serge is a radio ham picking up signals and static from very distant places. He and his older sister, Sophie (who studies insects), play with telegraph keys, listen to recordings, and watch kinetoscopes. Not long after Sophie begins the university, she commits suicide. After describing her burial in the family crypt, McCarthy uses references to her scientific study and to Serge’s radio experience to express the boy’s seemingly postmodern sense of the “undivulged”:

What he feels is discomfort…a sense he has of things being unresolved or, more precisely, undivulged. The charts, the lines, the letter-clusters and the fragments Sophie was pronouncing as she wandered round the Mosaic Garden—and, beyond these, or perhaps behind them, the vague, hovering bodies and muffled signals he’s been half-seeing and -hearing at the dial’s far end, among those crashing and erupting discharges of meteoric events, galactic emanations: these, he’s more and more convinced, mean something and are issuing from somewhere, from a place he hasn’t managed to track down before the one person from whom he might have learnt the what, where, and why of it all elected to go incommunicado….”

Depressed by Sophie’s death, Serge is sent to a spa where a physician teaches him about the unconscious messages his body sends to itself. In the Air Force, he is a spotter, radioing signals back from his plane to shelling batteries. In London he exposes a fraudulent spiritualist with a remote control device, and in Egypt he’s involved with a global communications network. All this participation in information loops occurs before 1925.           

In a traditional historical novel, these facts and events would be background. In C they move forward to establish metaphors that Serge uses to understand himself and that McCarthy employs to revise our sense of the past as he critiques postmodern presumption. An archaeologist in Egypt speaks for the author: “‘The mistake most of my contemporaries make is to assume that they’re the first… that their moment of looking is somehow definitive, standing outside of the long history of which it merely forms another chapter.’” The archaeologist’s assistant provides the aesthetic corollary for McCarthy when she discusses ancient artists: “scribes—had greater freedom, more leeway to mix and match old texts, thereby creating new ones.”

You could ignore McCarthy’s cultural ambition and skim along with his movie-ready bildungsroman plot, which includes several near-death experiences and Serge’s sexual relations with almost every female character he meets. But you’d miss, to slightly modify a title by Roland Barthes, the pleasure of the texture that McCarthy weaves in this book that describes in detail the production of fine silks. First, there’s the protagonist’s name: “Serge” as “fabric” and “surge” are both relevant in the novel. “Carrefax” I haven’t decoded, though it does combine the French for “square” and the English for “copy,” both significant in this novel of four parts that “mix and match” earlier works.

More important than names are the situations (such as Serge’s always having sex in the canine position), images (such as grids, insects, mechanisms), and sounds (double meanings, mishearings, static) that repeat, combine, transform, and proliferate into patterns that carry McCarthy’s historicizing message and give C a texture quite unlike—and much silkier than—the intentionally manual-like prose of Remainder.           

The following passage, which has links to the first passage I quoted, describes Serge when he’s aloft in his spotter plane. The sentence has Faulkner’s syntax and Pynchon’s science, the kind of physical specificity found in realistic fiction and the cryptic quality that interests McCarthy:

As the second-hand needle moves across the final quarter-segment of his watch’s face, Serge feels an almost sacred tingling, as though he himself had become godlike, elevated by machinery and signal code to a higher post within the overall structure of things, a vantage point from the vectors and control lines linking earth and heaven, the hermetic language of the invocations, its very lettering and script, have become visible, tangible even, all concentrated at a spot just underneath the index finger of his right hand which is tapping out, right now, the sequence C3E MX12 G….

To revise another title, this one by Wallace Stevens, McCarthy is the “Comedian of the Letter C,” which can be pronounced as an “s” or as a “k.” The novel’s parts are entitled Caul, Chute, Crash, and Call. Caul and Call are homophones. Chute suggests, in context, parachute and shooting weapons. Crash refers to a literal auto accident and the after-effects of drug use. Postmodernists may like to think anxiety about the instability of signs is a recent phenomenon. McCarthy illustrates the age of that worry with his titles and Serge’s exploration of alphabetical and pictographic writing in Egypt.

One meaning of the letter “C” is copy. For Serge’s psychological development, McCarthy does a blurry copy of the book he has called the “single best novel ever written”—The Sound and the Fury. With an abstracted father and spaced-out mother, young Serge is a composite of Faulkner’s three Compson males: the cognitively limited Benjy (Serge is dyslexic and can’t draw perspective), the cruel Jason, the incest-obsessed and suicidal Quentin. The Compson boys’ sister, Caddy (C. C.), runs away after out-of-wedlock sexual relations. Serge’s sister kills herself after an affair with a teacher.

McCarthy also copies many details, including the sister’s suicide, from the biography of Sergei Pankejeff, Freud’s Wolf Man. And Serge has Sergei’s symptoms—severe constipation and a sense of reality being veiled or “cauled”—when he is treated by a Dr. Filip. Dr. Freud concluded that his patient had been traumatized by witnessing the primal scene. Recent analysts suggest that the Wolf Man suffered from repressed desire for his sister, and this seems McCarthy’s position, for he has young Serge see his sister having sex behind a scrim. Like the author’s emphasizing postmodern qualities of early twentieth-century material life, his use of Faulkner and his revision of Freud contest the dominance of the Oedipal struggle in modernist writing.

The war in Part II gives Serge a way to forget Sophie’s death and her elaborate crypt on the family estate. War also offers the chance to court his own death. In Part III, heroin (H) and cocaine (C) use, along with fast women and a fast car, have similar evasive motives. The drugs also give Serge a new sense of hidden meaning, one now encoded in ordinary life:

He starts seeing all of London’s surfaces and happenings as potentially encrypted: street signage, chalk-marks scrawled on walls, phrases on newspaper vendors’ stall and sandwich boards, snatches of conversations heard in passing, the arrangements of flowers on window-sill or clothes on washing lines.

To emphasize this theme of encrypted meaning, Parts II and III end with Serge’s narrowly escaping crypts—a collapsed plane and a wrecked car. The war story of Part II is highly original in its combination of fascinating details about primitive aerial combat and Serge’s unusual attitude toward the death he daily faces. The text feels more like Pynchon’s war novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, than Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The fast-living London aftermath in Part III is somewhat more predictable—except for a hilarious episode in which Serge cleverly interferes with a table-rapper’s coded messages.

In Part IV, when Serge is about 23, he is recruited by the government to research the safety of British radio towers in Egypt. He is guided through the mysteries of Alexandria by a Greek polyglot, lectured on the Egyptian Book of the Dead by an English archaeologist, and instructed on burial practices by the archaeologist’s assistant, Laura. Then she leads Serge deep into a maze-like tomb. Returning to England on a ship, Serge has a long fever-dream that reveals or imagines the secrets he has found beneath the ground and layers of history.

Although appropriate for the temporal and linguistic regress of C, Part IV is less successful as narrative. In earlier parts, thematic patterns and associational skeins arise out of Serge’s lived experience. In the Egyptian setting, one can see McCarthy flapping the mouths of Serge’s instructors, and his lengthy hallucination seems a convenient way for the author to summarize his motifs, as well as confirm the reader’s suspicion that Sophie (and not Sophia, or wisdom) has been Serge’s fixation all along.

Perhaps I shouldn’t complain about artifice undermining realism at the end. I know (from McCarthy’s book on Tintin) that he believes “realism” in fiction means copying documents, such as biographies or other novels, that report the real. But McCarthy’s impressive achievement in most of C is balancing the conventional discourse of social and psychological fiction with what Serge calls “streaming information,” those irregular metaphoric bursts which may be signal, may be noise, may be encrypted message. Although I’ve tried in my description to preserve McCarthy’s balance of traditional story and occasionally dense style, ultimately it’s his inventive streaming—of technologies, literary texts, codes, and cultural theories, of clicking “c’s” and hissing “s’s”—that distinguish the novel and will bring readers back again and again to C, which happens to be the periodic chart’s symbol for carbon, the “‘basic element of life.’”

Here is one last “streaming” passage—the conclusion of Serge’s fever-dream, his solution to the cryptic experiences in the earlier passages I’ve quoted, and an ending that brings us around to the final watery blank of V. and C:

He’s merging with the void: seared, shot through, carbonisé, he’s become the sea of ink, the distance between planets, the space across which signals travel. Like time itself, he’s flattening, turning into carbon paper: the black smear between the sheets, the surface through which things repeat, CC themselves, but that will itself always remain black, and blank.