Book Review: C by Thomas McCarthy

Posted on August 31, 2010


When you read a lot of fiction, you start to see patterns.  It’s inevitable.  Writers are readers too, after all, and it’s hard not to be at least a little bit derivative.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, however.  Such patterns can be fun and often comforting in their familiarity, like bananas.  But if most fiction is bananas, C is a cherimoya.  Not that I can’t identify the emulative elements in the book (a spoonful of Pynchon, a hint of Hemingway, a shot of Heller for good measure), but McCarthy has managed to synthesize such bits and pieces into an entirely new compound.  C is an abstract installation/constellation of a novel that somehow doesn’t disgust me with incomprehensibility.

The tale begins in a school for deaf children, with the birth of the hearing-protagonist Serge, whose father manages the school.  Serge’s father is also a tinkerer, particularly with regards to wireless communication, a theme that recurs throughout the story.  We come to realize that Serge has got some form of uncategorizable learning disability, making his genius sister Sophie their father’s closer companion.

Serge’s sister soon dies in a mysterious poisoning I have yet to understand (along with many other incidents in the plot). I initially thought the rest of C would focus on her mysterious death, but McCarthy’s not so cheap or easy as that.  No indeed, the rest of the book takes us through Serge’s water cures and enemas at a spa facility, his stint as a Royal Flying Corps observer (and subsequent brushes with death), ruminations on the fraudulence of a séance, and finally adventures among Egyptian pyramids both historical and sexual.  Peculiar is an understatement.

Still, the funny thing is, I am not captivated by it post-reading.  It’s as if my experience of reading this book mirrors Serge’s approach to life: lather, rinse, die.  I get the feeling that events happen to Serge and he has only a minor claim to agency. The story did not provoke in me any grand pontification on personal narratives or tenuous life/death balances.  C is rife with fodder for high school English courses (come now, the symbolisms are so overt), but I deftly avoided such analysis for this is still my summer break, after all.

Instead, I’ve taken C on as entertainment, as an art piece, as good writing.  Actually, it is great writing.  What’s more, I can tell McCarthy knows it: he’s an arrogant bastard, but a lovable arrogant bastard.    And if for no other reason, you’ve got to read it to figure out the reference(s) in the title.

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