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.