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"C is for carbon and cocaine, Cairo and CO, 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" "Remainder [is] more than an entertaining brain-teaser: it's a work of novelistic philosophy, as disturbing as it is funny."—The New York Times Book Review" "A novel of astonishing genius."—The Believer" "The

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2010 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. FIRST AMERICAN EDITION, FIRST PRINTING OF THIS CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED NOVEL + BRAND NEW + ORIGINAL HARDBACK FORMAT, ... PROTECTED BY A MYLAR COVER; COLLECTING BOOKS SINCE 1988, SELLING BOOKS SINCE 2008 Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 320 p. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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"C is for carbon and cocaine, Cairo and CO, 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" "Remainder [is] more than an entertaining brain-teaser: it's a work of novelistic philosophy, as disturbing as it is funny."—The New York Times Book Review" "A novel of astonishing genius."—The Believer" "The acclaimed author of Remainder, which Zadie Smith hailed as one of the great English novels of the past ten years, gives us his most spectacularly inventive novel yet." "Opening in England at the turn of the twentieth century, C is the story of a boy named Serge Carrefax, whose father spends his time experimenting 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 stays with him as he heads off into an equally troubled larger world." "After a fling with a nurse at a Bohemian spa, Serge serves in World War I as a radio operator for reconnaissance planes. When his plane is shot down, Serge is taken to a German prison camp, from which he escapes. Back in London, he's recruited for a mission to Cairo on behalf of the shadowy Empire Wireless chain. All of which eventually carries Serge to a fitful–and perhaps fateful climax at the bottom of an Egyptian tomb..." Only a writer like Tom McCarthy could pull off a story with this effortless historical breadth, psychological insight, and postmodern originality.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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.)
From the Publisher
"Recommended for those who...are devoted to Thomas Pynchon's brand of maximalism." —Library Journal
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

--Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307593337
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 9.52 (w) x 11.28 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Hoye has won more than a dozen AudioFile Earphones Awards and two prestigious APA Audie Awards, including one for Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki. He has recorded many other notable titles, such as Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong and The Google Story by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed.
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Read an Excerpt



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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of C, Tom McCarthy’s daring follow-up to Remainder, his stunning debut.

1. There are many C’s in C. On page 292, Pacorie says to Serge:

Surtout, the C: the C is everywhere.”
“The sea?” asks Serge.
“The letter: C.”
“What’s C?”
Carbon: basic element of life.”

What is the significance of carbon throughout the novel? What other C’s do you notice, and what might they mean?

2. Read the epigraph from Omar Khayyám. What does this tell us about what we’re about to read?

3. How does McCarthy use the metaphor of transmission and reception? How does the recurrence of codes in the novel tie in to this?

4. At one point in the novel, a character is buried with a wireless transmitter key. How does the relationship between technology and mourning play out in the novel?

5. Serge has trouble with physical perspective. How does this affect his behavior? How does he fare with psychological perspective?

6. How would you describe Serge’s relationship with Sophie? What aspects of their childhood relationship does Serge retain throughout his life? What parts—if any—is he able to leave behind?

7. Discuss the pageant at Versoie. Why did Mr. Carrefax choose the story of Persephone? How does it tie in to the novel’s themes?

8. “What he means is that he doesn’t think of what he’s doing as a deadening. Quite the opposite: it’s a quickening, a bringing to life” (page 159). How does Serge’s attitude toward life and death help him in the war and beyond? How does it harm him?

9. “Just Imagine,” Simeon Carrefax says to Serge on page 198, “if every exciting or painful event in history has discharged waves of similar detectability into the ether—why, we could pick up the Battle of Hastings, or observe the distress of the assassinated Caesar. . . These things could still be happening, right now, around us.” What does this tell the reader about Simeon? And what does Serge’s reaction reveal?

10. In London, Serge develops a heroin habit: “Every week Serge hands over to Barney the fruit of Versoie’s trees and beehives, Barney hands over the goods, and sister roils and courses through his veins” (page 185). What effects does Serge achieve through his drug use? What does he escape thereby, and what—if anything—do the drugs help him see more clearly?

11. Discuss the Miss Dobai setpiece. What point is McCarthy making here?

12. What role does Widsun play? When he requests a private appendix to Serge’s report, what is he asking for?

13. Reread the passage that begins in the middle of page 253, with “Ignoring his words. . .” How is Petrou’s explanation of Sophia significant?

14. Falkiner says to Serge, “This is part of what we’re studying, or should be studying: you have to look at all of this, at all these histories of looking” (page 278). What does he mean by, “histories of looking”? How does this affect your reading of the novel?

15. What is the significance of Osiris and Isis for Serge and Sophie? Why does Serge say, “Isis was a coherer” (page 284)?

16. Serge writes Méfie-toi, “beware,” in his notebook. Why?

17. On page 290, Laura tells Serge that in some burials, “the deceased’s unreported deeds, clandestine history and guilty conscience” were recorded on scarabs. What do insects represent in the novel, from Mrs. Carrefax’s silkworms to the one that bites Serge?

18. How would you interpret Serge’s hallucinations and fever dreams on his journey back to Cairo?

19. 19. Read the complete text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65. How does it relate to Serge’s life?

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,

But sad mortality o’ersways their power, 

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, 

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of batt’ring days, 

When rocks impregnable are not so stout, 

Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O, fearful meditation! where, alack, 

Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 

Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? 
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

20. What is a dummy chamber? Why does Serge, in his delirium, say they’re “everywhere” (page 309)?

21. Reread and discuss the last paragraph of the novel. How did you interpret it?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    As if written in code, C is a novel that needs to be interpreted before it can be appreciated.

    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.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 4, 2010

    Short-listed for the ManBooker Prize - what were they thinking?

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2010

    Read !!!

    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

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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