Tom McCarthy’s C: A Review

Laughing at the Haters: Tom McCarthy’s C

Opinions of Tom McCarthy’s novel C vary wildly. One contingent asserts the book is an avant-garde masterpiece, though they never seem to quite articulate why. At the same time, an extremely vocal opposing group insists C is not about anything… and they are not just a little angry about that. Although, the angry complainer’s main beef seems to be that they simply do not get the book.

Personally, given my take on C, I find the entire hubbub a bit amusing.

Admittedly, as many of the complainers have complained, Serge Carrefax (the main character) is a bit passive. When Serge is a child, he mainly follows his brilliant but troubled sister as she conducts experiments and displays an increasingly brilliant mind, whenever his sister does not force Serge to “[l]eave her alone” and/or “[g]o and do something else.” Later, Serge enters the military during the First World War and is made an airman, but:

…it’s been decided at some juncture higher up—a meeting in a room thick with cigar smoke, or an encrypted communication sent down wires from Oxford via London via who-knows-where—has all the makings of a good observer…

…instead of an actual pilot. He is in the middle of one of the most intense wars up until that point in history and—at someone else’s decision, of course—he merely watches from the sky.

Even after he is captured (because he fails to act to save the plane he rides in from crashing), he does not try to escape the German prisoner of war camp until after multiple groups of other prisoners just walk out because Germany is crumbling and “the remaining guards simply don’t care enough to stop them.” Whatever arguments can be made about the complainer’s issues with the book, it cannot be argued that Serge is not extremely passive.

However, I interpreted Serge passivity as symbolic of his role as a receiver. Even when he spends endless nights caught up in the spreading wireless transmission technology, he does not invent any new developments himself. Instead, he endlessly tunes into transmissions from all over the world and transcribes. “He listen[s] to the whine and crackle…right through till morning.”

Serge even senses patterns of communication, almost metaphysically, that he receives from the non-sentient world around him. When his sister galvanizes the leg of a dead cat to make it move, “Serge, watching the leg move with the angular stiffness of a clockwork mechanism, thinks of semaphore machines, their angles and positions.”

In short, Serge cannot perform an active role because he is too busy receiving, whether these communications are transmitted by sentient beings or not.

Still, people from the complainer camp do acknowledge the possibility that Serge’s passivity is a function of him being a receiver, but summarily pass over this because Serge never makes any sense of the communication he receives. They complain that there is no big insight in C, and thus, this interpretation makes no sense.

As a result, this branch of the complainers concludes that there is no point to the entire novel.

However, this is where I disagree most. C centers on the time period where wireless transmission and air travel begin to change the world. Contrary to Serge’s father’s view that “[t]he more we chatter with each other… the less likely [war] becomes,” increased communication does not clarify the world and bring peace. In fact, the changes lead to so much communication that no sense can be made out of it all, resulting in worse isolation and mistrust than ever before.

The government ministry that Serge eventually joins is “at the crossroads… the confluence of all the region’s interest groups’ transmissions.” Serge’s ministry listens “to the Wafdists and the Turks” who themselves listen “to Ulamáists and Zionists.” “[T]he French are listening to [the English], and” vice versa, “but [they] share info on the Russians, who [they] both hate, although not as much as… the Germans, who [they] listen to as well. Or is it the Spartacans? In any case, [they] listen to them all.”

Knowing all this spying is going on, Serge’s ministry takes an interest in something just so everyone else takes it seriously, and the other groups do this as well. Then, because others take an interest, the original group that pretended to take an interest actually becomes interested. Each group acts this way to ensure everyone else is as confused as they are. Thus, the result is not really increased communication, but confusion due to extreme information overload.

This communication overload/confusion plays right into Serge’s receiver-hood. He may sense information broadcast in the universe around him, but it appears only as so much noise. The static is:

…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.

Serge’s father posits to him that “[w]ireless waves don’t die away after the ether disturbance is produced… [T]hey linger, clogging up the air and causing interference… [E]very exciting or painful event in history has discharged waves of similar detectability into the ether” and, as such, are “still…happening.” Hence, Serge is receiving so many messages that nothing clear can come through.

This interference and overload is illustrated in a more tangible, symbolic way in the archeological mess Serge sees during his travels to Egypt. There, an Egyptologist named Falkiner informs Serge how complex investigation of Egypt is because:

[T]he tombs were being dug up from the moment they were made. Romans, Arabs, the pharaohs themselves would delve into and disinter them—and the artefacts they took from them would themselves be re-located and re-used for their own ends.

In fact, Falkiner tells Serge that this “is part of what [archeologists] are studying, or should be studying, these histories of looking” and that the mistake is when the archeologists assume “that they’re the first—or, even when it’s clear they’re not, that their moment of looking is somehow definitive.” In short, just as in the signals Serge receives, there is so much competing information that it is impossible to differentiate.

Ultimately, to me, C seems to suggest that the information revolution actually isolated mankind by overwhelming perception. Everything is connected, whether past or present, but that universal connection merges into the incomprehensible static of the ‘Om.’ This is what is so amusing, given the fact that the main complaint is that some people do not “get” the book. In short, they are mad because they do not get the message regarding a book about not being able to discern the message.

To me, this is very funny.

Of course, it is possible that I am full of total horse shit about all of this, and I fully acknowledge that possibility. I do not even claim that I fully “get” C either, but I do think that I may get it better than the people who say there is nothing there. Frankly, the interpretation of the book discussed above makes sense to me.

Regardless, I empathize with the complainers in that I do not think C is a book that can be easily understood in a single sitting. Its complexities are too delicate, too subtle. I can understand that they are frustrated that they did not get it, though. I am fonder of McCarthy’s previous novel, Remainder, and perhaps part of the reason for that is I “got” Remainder more.

However, I do not think the challenge in understanding C detracts from the book. I think it is also good that C is so subtle that I cannot immediately wrap it up and move on with my life. Some books should be easy so readers who want that can have it, but some books should not be given away in the interest of those other readers who may want a little more to chew on at dinner.

After all, if all books were so easy to figure out that there were no questions, what they hell would we contentiously debate about? We would have nothing to shout at the same time, merging our cacophonous and disparate voices into that unintelligible static that so entrances Serge.


David Atkinson David Atkinson

David S. Atkinson is the author of "Bones Buried in the Dirt" (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K) and "The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes" (EAB Publishing). His writing appears in "Bartleby Snopes," "Grey Sparrow Journal," "Interrobang?! Magazine," "Atticus Review," and others. His website is and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

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