Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s latest work draws attention to itself as a cultural product: well before the reviewer engages with the text, it is clear that we are dealing here with no chance collection of molecules or arbitrary excrescence of nature, but, rather, an artifact, a massy collection of paper quires bound together as a codex and protected by a thick cardboard cover.

Codex, or, perhaps, code? For this is a work in which nothing is as simple as it seems, one which is rife with references and cross-currents. The four sections are each given a title starting with the initial letter of the hero’s surname, Carrefax. The same letter is the book’s title and the third letter of the Roman alphabet; it also appears on virtually every page. C is also the chemical symbol for carbon, the element which forms the basis for all life on Earth, and which gives its sooty hue to the very ink with which the novel is printed.

Yes, novel, indeed, and C does not shy from the fact that it is a work of fiction, but, rather, embraces the artifice with which it is constructed. This is not a book in which one can simply lose oneself. One’s attention is brought back, insistently, to the narration of experiences and situations which are not one’s own, whether this be by coincidence – Carrefax’s treatment for digestive problems at a spa in Europe, for example – or impossibility, in the case of his career as an RAF observer in World War I.

We are also given a level of access to Carrefax’s inward thoughts and ideas which could only be made possible in real life by well-developed psychic powers or remarkable developments in neurotechnology. Carrefax himself is rather reticent, a facet of his character which only serves to emphasise the fact that we are not dealing with a journal or record of interview, but with a work of fiction.

In summary, whereas most novels are seamlessly hallucinated by a reader entranced by the author’s “so potent art”, I would estimate that at least 15% of C is taken up with its own existential status as an embodied work of narrative fiction. Fans of the post-modern and the tricksy may find sustenance in this rough terrain, but the average reader will find it heavy going.


4 responses to “C

  1. I cannot help but note that 15% is XV in Roman numerals.
    And *between* X and V on a writer’s keyboard?

  2. The book was also nominated for the Man Booker prize. A “man booker” is a “policeman” or Constable. Constable was a landscape artist famous for painting the English countryside, and the opening chapters of the novel take place in an English country estate.

    Dear Lord, is there ever an end to the hidden depths of meaning?

  3. I loved Remainder, thought well of Men In Space, but dear god C sounds terribly dull and worthy. I’ve had it since publication and still can’t bring myself to read it.

    • It’s not bad – it’s like one plot thread from Gravity’s Rainbow with the dirty jokes taken out.

      But it is by no means demanding or experimental, which is what stack of the web reviews I’ve read say: using bullshit like ‘abstract’ and ‘draws the reader’s attention to the fact that it is a novel.’

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