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C
     

C

3.2 15
by Tom McCarthy
 

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Opening in England at the turn of the twentieth century, C is the story of Serge Carrefax, whose father experiments with wireless communication while running a school for deaf children. Serge grows up amid the noise and silence with his brilliant but troubled older sister, Sophie: an intense sibling relationship that haunts him as he heads off into an

Overview

Opening in England at the turn of the twentieth century, C is the story of Serge Carrefax, whose father experiments with wireless communication while running a school for deaf children. Serge grows up amid the noise and silence with his brilliant but troubled older sister, Sophie: an intense sibling relationship that haunts him as he heads off into an equally troubled larger world. As Serge goes from a Bohemian spa to the skies of World War I, and from a German prison camp into the tombs of Egypt, we follow his life through the tumultuous course of the nascent modern era. Tom McCarthy—acclaimed author of Remainder—has created a truly singular character, and a world that sparkles with historical breadth and postmodern originality.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A tour de force . . . An intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.”
—Jennifer Egan, New York Times Book Review

“Remarkable not for its austerity but for its unlikely, panoramic ambition . . . C is a bird so rare as to seem oxymoronic: an avant-garde epic, the first I can think of since Ulysses.”
—Jonathan Dee, Harper’s Magazine

C is clever, confident, coy—and cryptic.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
“Moving, mordantly funny, deeply absorbing.”
The Boston Globe
 
“Unquestionably brilliant. . . . This is a genuinely exciting and spookily beautiful book, a new kind of joy.”
The Times (London)

“Tom McCarthy has written an avant-garde masterpiece. . . . C is coming-of-age as philosophy, philosophy as fiction, fiction as ‘dummy-chamber’ (‘the real thing’s beyond’)—the novel as encrypted code for life.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“[An] extraordinary novel. . . . McCarthy reignites the literary pyrotechnics of Perec, Calvino, Joyce and Sebald. Words are celebrated in vocabularic feats. . . . [He] has produced something truly original.”
The Washington Post
 
“[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel. . . . Genuinely exciting to read.”
—Slate
 
“Clever, confident, emphatic, poised. . . . Whatever happens to this novel or to this writer, a chain of events has been set in motion. Nothing and no one is going to stop it going on and on.”
London Review of Books
 
“A supercharged, fizzingly written Bildungsroman. . . . The remix the novel has been crying out for.”
The Sunday Times (London)
 
“Beautiful . . . a thrilling tale. This is one of the most brilliant books to have hit the shelves this year, and McCarthy deserves high praise for an electric piece of writing which should be read and enjoyed as much as dissected and discussed.”
The Sunday Telegraph (London)
 
“A dizzying, mesmeric and beautifully written work. . . . McCarthy has written a novel for our times: refreshingly different, intellectually acute and strikingly enjoyable. . . . It seems highly unlikely that anyone will publish a better novel this year.”
The Daily Telegraph (London)
 
C is for carbon and cocaine, Cairo and CQ, and many other things besides. Under the elegant curve of the letter lies a fantastically detailed landscape of tiny pen-strokes that, if seen from high enough above, coalesce into a face, laughing uproariously. Tom McCarthy’s latest is terrifically stylish, acrobatic, and insidious.”
—Luc Sante

Jennifer Egan
C is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of meaning: our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. Gone is the minimalist restraint [McCarthy] employed in Remainder; here, he fuses a Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs to create an intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.
—The New York Times
Samantha Hunt
C moves in circuits, forever closing in on its topics: radio, World War I, drugs, Egyptology, seances, sisters, spas and silkworms, to name a few. McCarthy's genius comes in convincing his reader of the connections between these distant planets…In creating a work that recycles itself and our culture, McCarthy has produced something truly original.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
McCarthy’s third novel hopscotches between a marvelously diverse chain of times and places—from the British countryside to Egypt, from the 1920s to the turn of the 21st century. It’s an overstuffed historical novel that is also an experimental attempt at favoring form over content, which raises the inevitable question: how does an audiobook reader do justice to a book that is simultaneously a story and a story about the telling of stories? The process is maddeningly tricky, but Stephan Hoye acquits himself well. The natural reserve of Hoye’s reading maintains a certain distance from McCarthy’s narrative—a distance that takes on increasing weight as the novel snakes in sidelong fashion toward its metafictional climax. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, July 26). (Sept.)
Library Journal
FC is for "Carbon: basic element of life," Serge is told near the end of McCarthy's (Remainder) latest; "the C is everywhere." Seeking to illuminate life at its most basic, the novel begins with Serge's birth at the turn of the last century, then follows him to architecture school, the military (he serves during World War I), and a civil service job in Egypt. His gifted sister, with whom he has a questionable relationship, commits suicide. His genius father is obsessed with teaching deaf children and inventing new methods of communication in his private laboratory (though he rarely communicates with family). But Serge is not a genius. This seems to be McCarthy's point—life and communication flow all around Serge, not in him; drugs, women, and war provide only brief bursts of ecstasy, not the "basic elements" necessary for life. McCarthy's attention to the tiny bits of matter around the story (minutiae) heightens Serge's menial existence. VERDICT Recommended for those who read extensively in literary fiction or are devoted to Thomas Pynchon's brand of maximalism. (Though be warned: C is not as entertaining as Pynchon's works.) [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/10.]—Stephen Morrow, Ohio Univ., Athens

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307388216
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/06/2011
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
611,710
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

5

i

The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad—and always mute. It’s not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he’s riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words start forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop . . .

He’s got two masts set up. There’s a twenty-two-foot pine one topped with fifteen more feet of bamboo, all bolted to an oak-stump base halfburied in the Mosaic Garden. Tent pegs circle the stump round; steel guy wires, double-insulated, climb from these to tether the mast down. On the chimney of the main house, a pole three feet long reaches the same height as the bamboo. Between the masts are strung four eighteen-gage manganese copper wires threaded through oak-lath crosses. In Serge’s bedroom, there’s a boxed tuning coil containing twenty feet of silkcovered platinoid, shellacked and scraped. Two dials are mounted on the box’s lid: a large, clock-handed one dead in the centre and, to its right, a smaller disc made from ash-wood recessed at the back and dotted at the front by twenty little screws with turned-down heads set in a circle to form switch-studs. The detector’s brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser’s Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn’t any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiverpattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms. The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four-inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap. The spark gap flashes blue each time he taps; it makes a spitting noise, so loud he’s had to build a silence box around the desk to isolate his little RX station from the sleeping household—or, as it becomes more obvious to him with every session, to maintain the little household’s fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it.

Tonight, as on most nights, he starts out local, sweeping from two hundred and fifty to four hundred metres. It’s the usual traffic: CQ signals from experimental wireless stations in Masedown and Eliry, tapping out their call signs and then slipping into Q-code once another bug’s responded. They exchange signal quality reports, compare equipment, enquire about variations in the weather and degrees of atmospheric interference. The sequence QTC, which Serge, like any other Wireless World subscriber, knows means “Have you anything to transmit?”, is usually met with a short, negative burst before both questioner and responder move on to fish for other signals. Serge used to answer all CQs, noting each station’s details in his call-book; lately, though, he’s become more selective in the signals he’ll acknowledge, preferring to let the small-fry click away as background chatter, only picking up the pencil to transcribe the dots and dashes when their basic QRNs and QRAs unfold into longer sequences. This is happening right now: an RXer in Lydium who calls himself “Wireworm” is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General’s plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.

“. . . tht bedsteads n gas pipes cn b used as rcving aerials is well-kn0n I mslf hv dn this,” Wireworm’s boasting, “als0 I cn trn pian0 wire in2 tuning coil fashion dtctrs from wshing s0da n a needle mst I obtain lcnses 4 ths wll we gt inspctrs chcking r pots n pans 2 C tht they cnfrm 2 rgulatns I sgst cmpaign cvl ds0bdns agnst such impsitions . . .”

Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm’s not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word “fashion.” The spacing’s a little awkward also: too studied, too self-conscious. Besides, most bugs can improvise equipment: he once made Bodner’s spade conduct a signal and the house’s pipes vibrate and resonate, sending Frieda running in panic from her bath . . .

Serge moves up to five hundred metres. Here are stronger, more decisive signals: coastal stations’ call signs, flung from towering masts. Poldhu’s transmitting its weather report; a few nudges away, Malin, Cleethorpes, Nordeich send out theirs. Liverpool’s exchanging messages with tugboats in the Mersey: Serge transcribes a rota of towing duties for tomorrow. Further out, the lightship Tongue’s reporting a derelict’s position: the coordinates click their way in to the Seaforth station, then flash out again, to be acknowledged by Marconi operators of commercial liners, one after the other. The ships’ names reel off in litany: Falaba, British Sun, Scania, Morea, Carmania, each name appendaged by its church: Cunard Line, Allen, Aberdeen Direct, Canadian Pacific Railway, Holland-America. The clicks peter out, and Serge glances at the clock: it’s half a minute before one. A few seconds later, Paris’s call-sign comes on: FL for Eiffel. Serge taps his finger on the desktop to the rhythm of the huge tower’s stand-by clicks, then holds it still and erect for the silent lull that always comes just before the time-code. All the operators have gone silent: boats, coastal stations, bugs—all waiting, like him, for the quarter- second dots to set the air, the world, time itself back in motion as they chime the hour.

They sound, and then the headphones really come to life. The press digest goes out from Niton, Poldhu, Malin, Cadiz: Diario del Atlántico, Journal de l’Atlantique, Atlantic Daily News . . . “Madero and Suárez Shot in Mexico While Trying to Escape” . . . “Trade Pact Between” . . . “Entretien de” . . . “Shocking Domestic Tragedy in Bow” . . . “Il Fundatore”. . . “Husband Unable to Prevent” . . . The stories blur together: Serge sees a man clutching a kitchen knife chasing a politician across parched earth, past cacti and armadillos, while ambassadors wave papers around fugitive and pursuer, negotiating terms. “Grain Up Five, Lloyds Down Two” . . . “Australia All Out for Four Hundred and Twenty-one, England Sixty-two for Three in Reply” . . . Malin’s got ten private messages for Lusitania, seven for Campania, two for Olympic: request instructions how to proceed with . . . the honour of your company on the occasion of . . . weighing seven and a half pounds, a girl . . . The operators stay on after the Marconigrams have gone through, chatting to one another: Carrigan’s moved to President Lincoln, Borstable to Malwa; the Company Football Team drew two–all against the Evening Standard Eleven; old Allsop, wireless instructor at Marconi House, is getting married on the twenty-second . . . His tapper-finger firing up her spark gap . . . Short, then long . . . Olympic and Campania are playing a game of chess: K4 to Q7 . . . K4 to K5 . . . They always start K4 . . . Serge transcribes for a while, then lays his pencil down and lets the sequences run through the space between his ears, sounding his skull: there’s a fluency to them, a rhythm that’s spontaneous, as though the clicks were somehow speaking on their own and didn’t need the detectors, keys or finger-twitching men who cling to them like afterthoughts . . .

He climbs to six hundred, and picks up ice reports sent out from whalers: floeberg/growler 51n 10' 45.63" lat 36w 12' 39.37 long . . . field ice 59n 42' 43.54" lat 14w 45' 56.25" long . . . Compagnie de Télégraphie sans Fil reports occasional light snow off Friesland.
Paris comes on again; again the cycle pauses and restarts. Then Bergen, Crookhaven, Tarifa, Malaga, Gibraltar. Serge pictures gardenias tucked behind girls’ ears, red dresses and the blood of bulls. He hears news forwarded, via Port Said and Rome, from Abyssinia, and sees an African girl strumming on some kind of mandolin, jet-black breasts glowing darkly through light silk. Suez is issuing warnings of Somali raiders further down the coast. More names process by: Isle of Perim, Zanzibar, Isle of Socotra, Persian Gulf. Parades of tents line themselves up for him: inside them, dancers serving sherbet; outside, camels saddled with rich carpets, deserts opening up beneath red skies. The air is rich tonight: still and cold, high pressure, the best time of year. He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils: it, too, carries signals, odour-messages from distant, unseen bowels. When it arrives, he slips the headphones off, opens the silence cabin’s door to let some air in and hears a goods train passing half a mile away. The pulsing of its carriage-joins above the steel rails carries to him cleanly. He looks down at his desk: the half-worn pencil, the light’s edge across the paper sheet, the tuning box, the tapper. These things—here, solid, tangible— are somehow made more present by the tinny sound still spilling from the headphones lying beside them. The sound’s present too, material: Serge sees its ripples snaking through the sky, pleats in its fabric, joins pulsing as they make their way down corridors of air and moisture, rock and metal, oak, pine and bamboo . . .

Above six hundred and fifty, the clicks dissipate into a thin, pervasive noise, like dust. Discharges break across this: distant lightning, Aurora Borealis, meteorites. Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-rich gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould . . .

Once, he picked up a CQD: a distress signal. It came from the Atlantic, two hundred or so miles off Greenland. The Pachitea, merchant vessel of the Peruvian Steamship Company, had hit an object—maybe whale, maybe iceberg—and was breaking up. The nearest vessel was another South American, Acania, but it was fifty miles away. Galway had picked the call up; so had Le Havre, Malin, Poldhu and just about every ship between Southampton and New York. Fifteen minutes after Serge had locked onto the signal half the radio bugs in Europe had tuned into it as well. The Admiralty put a message out instructing amateurs to stop blocking the air. Serge ignored the order, but lost the signal beneath general interference: the atmospherics were atrocious that night. He listened to the whine and crackle, though, right through till morning—and heard, or thought he heard, among its breaks and flecks, the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into waves that had come to bury them.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Recommended for those who...are devoted to Thomas Pynchon's brand of maximalism." —-Library Journal

Meet the Author

Tom McCarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. He is known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. His previous books are Remainder and Tintin and the Secret of Literature.

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C 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
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TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
The story begins around the turn of the 20th century at Versoie House, a school for the deaf. This is a deaf school like no other. Here, the students are not taught to sign. Instead, they are encouraged to vocalize their wants via an abbreviated language focusing on long and short sounds. Mr. Carrefax, the founder of the school is also a scientist. He's fascinated with the idea of wireless communication and spends much of his time out in his workshop. While puttering around his shop, his wife is in the midst of delivering their son. He sort of leaves her to her business and their son is born. In an environment focusing on communication, Serge Carrefax is born into silence as his mother is deaf, and to top it off, he greets the world with a caul over his head. For those who are superstitious, a caul usually means that the child will be gifted in some way, or that he will be able to predict the future. This led me to believe that Serge would become a very important person later in life. Not so. Serge ends up poisoned. He begins to leach blackness out of his body (think carbon) and his vision is covered by a dark veil. Now, I read this part carefully and I do believe the poisoning was done by his sister Sophie. She fed him poisoned berries. Whether intentional or not, it doesn't really matter because Sophie kills herself when she finds herself impregnanted by her father's close friend. Serge, grief-stricken over Sophie's death and leaching out this horrible blackness, heads to a spa that specializes in such things. The doctor, though very odd in his ways, manages to cure Serge. It's at this point that things get very weird. Things happen. I say things because the writing was so disjointed in places that I had a hard time figuring out what was going on. McCarthy manages to create Serge without any admirable qualities. He's not wretched, at least not in an obvious way, but he's composed of cells and matter and that's about it. Oh, and of course Carbon which is the element of life and what the title of the book represents. As for the rest of the story, Serge meets people, has a great deal of sex, becomes addicted to cocaine and heroin and fights in the Great War. I wouldn't say that he stumbles through life because he doesn't. He does everything with a purpose but one wonders about the end result. I've never met a character like Serge. I know virtually nothing about him and it seems that McCarthy did this intentionally. I mean, why follow a man through life if you care nothing about him? After thinking about it a bit and considering the meaning of the title, I've come to the conclusion that the entire book is about the components of life, but not life itself. Therefore, Serge is just one of many pawns inhabiting the planet. After figuring this out, I went back through the novel and things that I had overlooked before or only glanced at briefly, began to make sense. This was not an easy book to read. It had to be decoded and picked apart and since there is so little in the way of character development, many will find it difficult to read. I, on the other hand, sort of enjoyed it by the time I finished. As humans, we are just another form of life. No different from the insects or animals that we share space with. It's quite humbling to be reduced to nothingness in a world as vast as ours.
Laphroaig More than 1 year ago
Serge Carrefax was born, did some stuff, and mercifully died at the age of 23, thus sparing the reader from more inane incidents and pointless anecdotes. I found nothing of value here and wish I hadn't wasted my time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was awesome but if you are really looking for romance and excitment read katherine from Anya Seton. Why has not anybody produced a movie on the book Katherine yet???- Its a True story