C [NOOK Book]


C has been shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

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 ...
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C has been shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

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.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

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
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
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: 9780307594457
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 738,755
  • File size: 3 MB

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.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Dr. Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap as it descends the lightly sloping path of Versoie House. He has sore buttocks: the seat’s hard and uncushioned. His companion, Mr. Dean of Hudson and Dean Deliveries (Lydium and Environs Since 1868), doesn’t seem to feel any discomfort. His glazed eyes stare vaguely ahead; his leathery hands, reins woven through their fingers, hover just above his knees. The rattle of glass bottles and the fricative rasp of copper wire against more copper wire rise from the trap’s back and, mixing with the click and shuffle of the horse’s hooves on gravel, hang undisturbed about the still September air. Above the vehicle tall conifers rise straight and inert as columns. Higher, much further out, black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky.
Between the doctor’s legs are wedged a brown case and a black inhaling apparatus. In his hand he holds a yellow piece of paper. He’s scrutinising this, perplexed, as best he can. From time to time he glances up from it to peer through the curtain of conifers, which reveal, then quickly conceal again, glimpses of mown grass and rows of smaller trees with white fruit and green and red foliage. There’s movement around these: small limbs reaching, touching and separating in a semi-regular pattern, as though practising a butterfly or breaststroke.
The trap rolls through a hanging pall of wood smoke, then turns, clearing the conifers. Now Learmont can see that the limbs belong to children, four or five of them, playing some kind of game. They stand in a loose circle, raising their arms and patting their hands together. Their lips are moving, but no sound’s emerging from them. Occasionally a squawk of laughter ricochets around the orchard, but it’s hard to tell which child it’s coming from. Besides, the laughter doesn’t sound quite right. It sounds distorted, slightly warped—ventriloquised almost, as though piped in from somewhere else. None of the children seem to notice his arrival; none of them, in fact, seem to be aware of their own individual presence outside and beyond that of the moving circle, their separateness given over to its fleshy choreography of multiplied, entwining bodies.
Without jerking the reins or speaking to the horse, Mr. Dean pulls the trap to a halt. Beside it, to its right, a narrow, still stream lies in front of a tall garden wall over which, from the far side, ferns and wisteria are spilling. To the trap’s left, a veined set of rose-bush stems and branches, flowers gone, clings to another wall. The wood-smoke pall comes from beyond this. So, too, does an old man with a rake, emerging from a doorway in the wall to shunt a wheelbarrow across the gravel.
“Hello!” Learmont calls out to him. “Hello?”
The old man stops, sets down his wheelbarrow and looks back at Learmont.
“Can you tell me where to find the main house? The entrance?”
The old man gestures with his free hand: over there. Then, taking up the handle of his wheelbarrow once more, he shuffles past the trap towards the orchard. Learmont listens as his footsteps die away. Eventually he turns to Mr. Dean and says:
“Silent as a tomb.”
Mr. Dean shrugs. Dr. Learmont climbs down onto the gravel, shakes his legs and looks around. The old man seemed to be pointing beyond the overspilling garden wall. This, too, has a small doorway in it.
“Why don’t you wait here?” Learmont suggests to Mr. Dean. “I’ll go and find—” he holds his yellow paper up and scrutinises it again—“this Mr. Carrefax.”
Mr. Dean nods. Dr. Learmont takes his case and inhaler, steps onto a strip of grass and crosses a small wooden bridge above the moat-like stream. Then, lowering his head beneath wisteria that manage to brush it nonetheless, he walks through the doorway.
Inside the garden are chrysanthemums, irises, tulips and anemones, all stacked and tumbling over one another on both sides of a path of uneven mosaic paving stones. Learmont follows the path towards a passageway formed by hedges and a roof of trellis strung with poisonberries and some kind of wiry, light-brown vine whose strands lead off to what look like stables. As he nears the passageway, he can hear a buzzing sound. He stops and listens. It seems to be coming from the stables: an intermittent, mechanical buzz. Learmont thinks of going in and asking the people operating the machinery for more directions, but, reasoning that it might be running on its own, decides instead to continue following the path. This forks to the right and, after passing through a doorway in another wall, splits into a maze-pattern that unfolds across a lawn on whose far side stands another wall containing yet another doorway. Learmont strides across the lawn and steps through this third doorway, which deposits him onto the edge of the orchard he saw as he first arrived. The large, lightly sloping gravel path he descended with Mr. Dean is now on the orchard’s far side, half-hidden by the conifers; a smaller footpath, on which he’s now standing, lies perpendicular to this, between the garden’s outer wall and the orchard’s lower edge. The children are still there, wrapped up in their mute pantomime. Learmont runs his eye beyond them: the rows of small, white-fruited trees give over to an unkempt lawn that, after sixty yards or so, turns into a field on which the odd sheep grazes. The field rises to a ridge; a telegraph line runs across this, then falls down the far side, away from view.
Learmont glances at his paper once again, then turns to his left and follows the footpath along the garden’s outer wall—until he eventually finds, at the end of this, the house.
He rings the bell, then steps back and looks up at the building. Its front is overgrown with ivy that has started to turn red. He rings the bell again, bringing his ear up to the door. This time someone’s heard it: he can hear footsteps approaching. A maid opens for him. She looks flustered: her hair is dishevelled, her sleeves rolled up and her hands and brow wet. A girl of three or four stands behind her, holding a towel. Both maid and girl look at Learmont’s case and inhaler.
“Delivery?” the maid asks.
“Well, I . . . yes,” he answers, holding up his paper. “I’ve come to—”
A man appears from within the house and pushes his way past the maid and child.
“Zinc and selenium?” he barks out.
“That’s in the trap,” Learmont replies. “But I came with it to—”
“And acid? And the reels of copper?” the man interrupts. He’s portly and his voice is booming. He must be forty, forty-four. “Came to—what?”
“I came to deliver the baby.”
“Came to—ah, yes! Deliver: of course! Splendid! You can . . . Yes, let’s see . . . Maureen can show you where . . . You say the copper’s in the drive?”
“Beyond the . . .” Dr. Learmont tries to point back past the gardens, but he can’t remember which direction he’s just come from.
“And there’s a man there with it? Perhaps you could help us to—”
“Sir . . .” the maid says.
“Maureen—what?” the man replies. Maureen gasps at him exasperatedly. He stares at her for a few seconds and then slaps his thigh and tells her: “No, of course: you take the doctor to her. Is everything . . . ?”
“Fine, sir,” Maureen informs him. “Thanks for your concern.”
“Splendid!” he booms. “Well, you just carry on. Maureen will see to it that you have everything you . . . Is that the telegram?”
He’s looking at Learmont’s yellow paper, his eyes glowing with excitement.
“I was a little confused . . .” Learmont begins, but the man grabs the paper off him and begins to read aloud:
“ ‘. . . expected next twenty-four hours’ . . . good . . . ‘parturient in labour since last night . . .’ Excellent! ‘Parturient,’ each letter crystal clear!”
“We weren’t quite sure as to the provenance . . .”
“What—provenance? Hang on: what’s this? ‘Doctor refuested as soon as . . .’? ‘Refuested’? What’s that for a damn word?”
“Sir!” Maureen says.
“She’s heard much worse,” he barks. “ ‘Refuested’? I’ve been . . . That blasted key!”
“Sweet Jesus!” says Maureen. She turns to the child and takes the towel from her. Another woman appears from the hallway, carrying a tray of biscuits out towards the orchard and trailing in her wake a cat. “Go with Miss Hubbard,” Maureen tells the child.
“. . . F . . . Q . . .” the man mumbles, then, barking again: “Provenance?”
“We weren’t quite sure of the telegram’s provenance,” Learmont explains. “It didn’t originate in the post office down the road in Lydium, yet it seemed to come down the same line which—”
“Miss Hubbard,” the man says, “wait.”
The second woman pauses in the doorway. “Yes, Mr. Carrefax?” she asks.
“Miss Hubbard, I can’t hear the children speaking,” he tells her.
“They’re playing, Mr. Carrefax,” she replies.
“Are you sure they’re not signing?”
“I told them that’s not allowed. I think they—”
“What? Told them? Telling them won’t do it on its own! You have to make them speak. All the time!”
The child is reaching her arm up to the tray of biscuits. The cat is watching the child’s efforts closely, still and tense. Maureen takes Learmont’s sleeve and starts to pull him into the house.
“The provenance, good doctor, is right here!” Mr. Carrefax booms at him as he squeezes past. “F and Q notwithstanding. Disappointing. Fixable. The copper! In the drive, you say?”
“There’s a man waiting in a—”
“Splendid! Miss Hubbard, if I can’t hear them I’ll think they’re signing.”
“I’ll do what I can, Mr. Carrefax,” Miss Hubbard tells him.
“At all times!” he barks at her. “I want to hear them speak!”
He strides out with her, heading for the drive. The child follows the biscuits, and the cat follows the child. Maureen leads Dr. Learmont in the other direction, up the staircase. There’s a tapestry hanging above this, a silk weaving that depicts either this same staircase or one very similar to it. They cross the landing at the top and step into a room. A second tapestry hangs on the wall of this: another picture woven in silk, this time of an Oriental scene in which pony-tailed peasants reach up into trees full of the same white fruit as the ones in the orchard. Lower down the tapestry, beneath the trees, more peasants are unravelling dark balls. Beneath them, in the room itself, a woman lies supine on a bed. A bearing-down sheet has been tied around the mattress, but the woman isn’t clutching this. She’s lying back quite peacefully, although her thick brown hair is wet with sweat. A second maid sits beside her on a chair, holding her hand. The woman in the bed smiles vaguely at Learmont.
“Mrs. Carrefax?” he asks her.
She nods. Dr. Learmont sets down his canister and, opening his case across the bed, asks:
“How far apart are your contractions?”
“Three minutes,” she tells him. Her voice is soft and grainy. There’s something slightly unusual about it, something beyond fatigue, that Learmont can’t quite place: it’s not a foreign voice, but not quite native, either. He takes her blood pressure. As he removes the strap her body is seized by a new contraction. Her face scrunches, her mouth opens, but no scream or shout comes from it: just a low, barely perceptible growling. The contraction lasts for ten or fifteen seconds.
“Painful?” Learmont asks her when it’s over.
“It is as though I had been poisoned,” she replies. She turns her head away from him and gazes through the window at the sky.
“Have you been taking any painkillers?” he asks.
She doesn’t answer. He repeats the question.
“She has to see you speaking,” the bedside maid tells him.
“She has to see your lips move, sir. She’s deaf.”
He leans over the bed and waves his hand in front of Mrs. Carrefax’s face; she turns her head towards him. He repeats his question once more. She seems to understand it, but just smiles vaguely back at him again.
“Small doses of laudanum, sir,” the bedside maid says.
“I prefer chloroform,” Learmont says.
Mrs. Carrefax’s eyes light up. Her soft, grainy, strange voice utters the word “Chlorodyne?”
“No, chloroform,” Learmont tells her, pronouncing the name clearly and emphatically. He takes a gauze mask from his case and, fixing this to the end of his inhaler’s tube, straps it round Mrs. Carrefax’s face. He opens a valve on the canister’s neck; a long, slow hissing seeps out as the gas makes its way along the canvas corridor towards her mouth and nose. The muscles in Mrs. Carrefax’s cheeks slacken; her pupils dilate. After half a minute Learmont closes the valve and unstraps the mask. A second contraction soon follows; again the woman’s body seizes up, but her face registers less pain. He refixes the mask, administers more chloroform and watches the silent features further slacken and dilate beneath their gag. When he removes it again, she begins to murmur:
“. . . un fleuve . . . un serpent d’eau noir . . .”
“What’s that?” he asks.
“It is like a fall of velvet,” she tells him. “Black velvet . . . covering a camera . . .”
“That’s the chloroform,” he says.
“. . . a camera,” she tells him, “looking in the dark . . . There is a river with a water snake, swimming towards me . . . More.” Her hand releases the bedside maid’s and gestures to the canister.
“I don’t want to knock you out completely,” Dr. Learmont says. “I’ll let you—”
“Sophie!” Maureen gasps. Learmont follows her eyes towards the doorway. The child is standing in it, watching. Maureen walks over and plants herself in front of her, blocking her view of the room. “You shouldn’t be here!” she scolds—then, softening, scoops her up into her arms and says: “We’ll go and help Frieda make the kenno.” As Learmont listens to her heavy footsteps descending the staircase, another contraction takes hold of Mrs. Carrefax. He takes from his case a bottle of carbolic acid and tells the bedside maid to go and fetch him olive oil.
“Olive oil, sir?” she repeats.
“Yes,” he answers, rolling up his sleeves. “Not long to wait now.”
But there is long to wait: all afternoon, and more. He leaves the room twice: once to stretch his legs in the hallway, from whose window he watches Mr. Carrefax and Mr. Dean carrying the coils of copper wire and crates of bottles through the walled-in garden to the stables; once to eat some sandwiches the maids have knocked up for him. He administers more chloroform and hears, above the hiss, the sound of Mr. Dean’s trap making its way up the gravel path, departing. The contractions continue; Mrs. Carrefax dips into and out of her twilight sleep. Dusk turns into evening, then night.
The final pushes come at half past two. The bedside maid holds Mrs. Carrefax’s shoulders, Mrs. Carrefax grips the bearing-down sheet and the baby’s head appears between her legs—or rather, half-appears behind a glistening film of plasma, a skin-membrane. Learmont has heard of this phenomenon but never witnessed it before: the baby has a caul. The amniotic bag envelops the entire head, a silky hood. As soon as the baby’s fully out, Learmont pinches this away from its skin and peels it upwards from the neck, removing it. He washes off the green-and-red mess covering the rest of the body, ties and cuts the cord, wraps the baby in a sheet and hands it to the mother.
“A boy,” he tells her. “Now we need to get your afterbirth out.”
He starts filling a syringe with epithemalodine. When it’s ready, he takes the baby back from her and places him in the maid’s hands. The baby starts to cry.
“This will sting a little,” Learmont says, tapping the air bubbles out. He straps the gauze mask to the mother’s face again and turns the chloroform back on, then shoots the epithemalodine into the folds of her vagina. Her body flinches; her back arches, then relaxes into the bed again. The placenta follows shortly afterwards. Learmont turns the valve off, looks down at the muffled woman and tells her:
“I’ll get rid of this—unless you want to bury it. Some people do. Some people even fry it up and eat it. And the caul is meant to be a sign of—”
But she cuts him short with a gesture of her hand towards the canister.
“It can’t hurt, I suppose,” he says. “We’ll give it a couple more minutes.” He turns the valve back on. Mrs. Carrefax’s eyes warm and widen. The baby stops crying. For a long while the room is silent but for the hiss of the chloroform and, quieter than this, the intermittent mechanical buzzing he heard earlier, floating in from outside, from the stables.
At dawn he’s fed a breakfast of kippers, eggs and bread. When he’s finished Maureen tells him that Mr. Carrefax would like to see him.
“Where is he?” Learmont asks her.
She snorts and answers: “In his workshop, of course. Follow the house round to the left and you’ll find it, through a doorway in the garden wall.”
There’s dew on the grass and snakes of mist about the tree trunks in the orchard where the children were playing yesterday. Following the perimeter of the house as instructed, Learmont turns away from the orchard and, walking towards a part of the estate he didn’t cross on his way in, passes some kind of enclosed park. A gate is set in its tall wall, its columns topped with obelisk-shaped carvings. Behind the wall, taller, conker trees loom, their leaves all big and yellow. The park drops away as the ivy-coated house wall turns and leads him across a neat lawn held in by low walls, then onwards through a further wall of hedge onto a smaller, unmown lawn around whose far side lime trees stand. He picks a very quiet buzzing sound up as he moves across this, but it’s not the same as the buzzing he heard coming from the stables: this one seems less agitated, less electrical. He understands why as he comes to the lawn’s far side: beehives are set among the limes. He skirts these and passes through a second hedge-wall to emerge into a sub-section of garden in which a rectangular trough-pond sits absolutely still, covered in pea-green slime. At the far end of this sub-section, a door leads back into the walled-in garden he arrived through yesterday. He tries it, but it’s locked. He can hear a metallic snipping sound on the other side.
“Mr. Carrefax?” he calls.
The metallic snipping stops and Mr. Carrefax’s voice booms back:
“What? Who’s that?”
“The doctor,” Learmont calls back. “The baby’s fine and well.”
“Fine and—what? I’ve misplaced the key to this door, I’m afraid. You’ll have to come in through the far side. Follow the wall round.”
It’s not apparent how to do this: the wall’s so overgrown with ivy and with bushes extending outwards like buttresses that it’s hard to tell where it leads. Learmont detours away from it into a long avenue of conker trees behind which lies an apple orchard. The avenue takes him towards a set of smaller houses, but before he reaches these he picks the wall up again, emerging from still swirls of tangled hedge to turn and run beside the narrow, moat-like stream that he crossed yesterday; eventually it passes the same wooden bridge and presents to him, once he’s recrossed this, the same small doorway. He’s come full circle. He bows his head again, steps back through the wisteria onto uneven mosaic paving and moves once more between the rows of stacked-up tulips and chrysanthemums.
The purple of the irises seems stronger, more intense that it did yesterday. The passageway formed by the hedges and trellis seems more closed-in, more laced-over. The wiry, light-brown vines that split from the poisonberries and run off towards the stables seem to have multiplied. When he arrives beneath them he sees that they’re not vines at all: they’re strands of copper wire, and more have been strung up since yesterday. The coils that came with him in Hudson and Dean’s trap are spilling unravelled from the stables’ entrances. Mr. Carrefax is standing over one with metal cutters, measuring a length.
“Hold this,” he tells Learmont, handing him one end.
Dr. Learmont obeys. Mr. Carrefax paces from the stable to a point on the trellis, paying out the length as he goes.
“Twelve feet, I’d say. Remember that. You hungry?”
“I’ve had eggs and kippers and—”
“Kippers and—what? Take kenno with me. There’s some groaning malt as well. Splendid stuff!”
He leads Learmont into one of the stables. Benches of machinery lie under shelves on which sit rows of instruments: telegraph tappers, telephone receivers, large phonograph machines with strips of paper hanging from them, wax cylinders, bottles, objects and instruments whose name and function he can only guess at. On a work table, among metal shavings, are a jug of dark brown liquid, two mugs and some cheesecake. Wiping his hands on a cloth whose surface looks no cleaner than they are, Mr. Carrefax cuts two slices of the cheesecake with a knife, hands one to the doctor, then pours out two mugs of malt.
“Breakfast, lunch, dinner—who knows? Haven’t slept all night,” he tells Learmont. “Your health, Doctor!”
The malt’s refreshing; the cheesecake is rich and sharp. The two men eat and drink in silence for a moment.
“I’ve fixed it,” Mr. Carrefax tells Dr. Learmont after a while.
“Fixed what?” Learmont asks.
“The F and Q firk—quirk, I mean. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d run the wire all the way from here up to the public lines uninterrupted.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Learmont says.
“Aha!” booms Mr. Carrefax. He places a firm hand on Learmont’s back and marches him out to the workshop’s entrance. “Look!” he says, pointing up at the trails of copper running over their heads to merge with the curling poisonberries on the trellis. “Where do you think they end?”
Learmont’s eyes follow the trellis to the wall and the locked door on
whose far side he stood five minutes ago. Among the billowing mesh of
ivy and bushes stands a kind of metal weathercock. The wires are wound
around the base of this like serpents.
“They end there?” he asks.
“Aha!” booms Carrefax again. “Yes—and no! The wires end, but the
signal jumps onwards! Five feet, for the moment. With this copper I’ll be
able to increase it to ten—fifteen even. It’s been jumped further, mind
you. That Italian is out on Salisbury Plain right now, with all his towers
and masts and kites . . . He’s in with the Post Office, you see? Got all the
funding. Always the way! A mentor—nod, wink here and there: proba-
bly a Freemason. The new birth will bear his name no doubt, when it
comes. Boy or girl?”
“The baby? A boy.”
“Splendid! Splendid! Have some more malt and kenno. Came out
smoothly? The girl had to be dragged out. Virtually needed toys set at
the foot of the bed before she’d show.”
“It took a while, but he came calmly in the end. He had a caul.”
“Had a—what? A cold?”
“A caul. A veil around his head: a kind of web. It’s meant to bring
good luck—especially to sailors.”
“Sailors? I tell you, Doctor: get this damn thing working and they
won’t need luck. There’ll be a web around the world for them to send
their signals down. You came with the delivery trap?”
“Yes. The telegraph company’s woman had taken both your messages,
so she knew Hudson and Dean were sending a man down.”
“Splendid! You need transport back, though.”
“Lydium’s not far. I can walk there and take a train.”
“No need to walk!” booms Mr. Carrefax. “I’ll telegraph for a new
trap to come and fetch you.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Dr. Learmont tells him. “The walk will
clear my head.”
“Will clear your—what? I wouldn’t hear of it! Go back into the
house. Rest while I jump your orders clear over the wall.”
Dr. Learmont obeys. He’s too tired not to. He walks back through the irises and chrysanthemums, across the narrow stream, along the avenue of conker trees. The black birds are still whirring high above them; Learmont can’t tell if they’ve multiplied or if it’s just his tiredness breaking the sky’s dome into slow-moving dots. Inside the house, he gathers his possessions back into his case. He can’t find the phials of epithemalodine or the codeine pills, but it’s not important: there are plenty more back in the surgery.
The baby’s feeding; its mother sits up in the bed, calm and contented, while the bedside maid combs her hair, unravelling it like the Chinese women pulling at their strange dark balls in the silk tapestry above them. Maureen stands at the foot of the bed; in front of her, enfolded in her arms, the girl watches her brother silently. They all watch silently: the room is silent but for the clicking lips of the sucking baby and the copper buzzing rising from the garden.

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
( 15 )
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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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