It does not take McCarthy long, however, to upset the reader’s expectations; there is to be no painstakingly researched birthing scene, no parental anguish. Instead, a narrative of energy, invention and intelligence begins to take shape: one that is at once dazzling and profoundly resonant ... In a novel burning with ambition, McCarthy sets his goals high and nowhere is this better achieved than in the chapters Serge spends in the air, as a birdman with the Royal Air Force. McCarthy’s prose rises to the challenges presented by aerial flight and his descriptions of the air battles that rage around Serge are chilling, exciting and energetic – filtered as they are through Serge’s increasingly drug-sharpened senses ... In C, as with his previous fiction, McCarthy has attempted to take the avant garde’s concerns and lash them to plot and narrative – and the result is a dizzying, mesmeric and beautifully written work that repays close rereading ... Tom McCarthy has written a novel for our times: refreshingly different, intellectually acute and strikingly enjoyable.
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 ... 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 ... For all of Serge’s lust for coherence, C...raises apt questions about the moral and mental hazards of seeking double meanings from the external world. ... McCarthy’s prose strategy in C is not far from Serge’s druggy reveries ... These lectures drag despite their thematic relevance; they feel artificially planted and, at times, alienatingly technical ... Still, the book’s lingering resonance owes less to its strenuous intellectual girding than to the mystery the story nonetheless retains. Like life, which we overinterpret at our peril, this strange, original book is — to its credit — a code too nuanced and alive to fully crack.
C is a 1960s-style anti-novel that's fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity. On the face of it, though, it's a historical fantasy, sometimes witty and sometimes eerie, built around the early years of radio transmission ... Though Serge holds the foreground, it's plain from early on that the novel is chiefly structured by the idea of transmission and reception, which serves as a metaphor for, among many other things, and very roughly speaking, an implied relationship between language, technology and subjectivity ... The near-Joycean scale and density of all this is truly impressive, as is McCarthy's ability to fold it into a cleanly constructed narrative, which has its boring stretches but also moments of humour and weird beauty. Yet its mind-blowingness as a reading experience depends on the reader's appetite for certain types of analysis. Armed with various concepts from Heidegger, Freud or Paul Virilio, say, it would be possible to unpick its implications more or less indefinitely, but there's a dispiriting feeling that the book has been reverse-engineered with an eye to achieving just that.
With C, Tom McCarthy has written an avant-garde masterpiece — a sprawling cryptogram — in the guise of an epic, coming-of-age period piece ... According to McCarthy, death makes life — and art — beautiful, and C exalts the materialism of both life and art over false promises of transcendence ... C also argues for a destroying-to-create sort of writing ... McCarthy orchestrates an almost incestuous intimacy among older texts and writers ... C is coming-of-age as philosophy, philosophy as fiction, fiction as 'dummy-chamber' ('the real thing’s beyond') — the novel as encrypted code for life.
It is the sense of a world on the verge of social upheaval that gives C a certain momentous quality, allowing Mr. McCarthy a chance to play with themes of family disaffiliation, sexual relations and, indeed, war ... The appeal of C depends in part on Serge as a character—a matter rather ambiguous as presented, since he carries the burden less of a moral force than of a groping anti-hero. He can appear uncannily sterile and robotic ... Still, Serge is a seeker—of knowledge and experience— and in that guise a pilgrim we are willing to follow and even to care for ... Mr. McCarthy often employs the historical present, a kind of 'hot news' mode used by Hemingway both successfully (The Killers) and farcically (Islands in the Stream). There is a lot of wordplay, too. Nearly un-get-at-able sentences pop up ... The book is dense with allusions, extravagant and learned ... What does it all add up to? It is hard to say, but there is an intrepid attitude to Mr. McCarthy's literary sally that has little to do with pleasing publishers or even an audience. C is clever, confident, coy—and cryptic.
C is a historical novel in deconstructionist drag, a loose shell of a story that gives McCarthy the full range to roam around the debris of the early twentieth century. Like the deliriously errant Karl in Kafka's Amerika, or the globally hop-scotching comic-strip hero Tintin, about whom McCarthy once wrote a funny book of criticism, Carrefax finds himself thrust into a series of loosely connected scenes drawn from a roster of modernist mythmakers ... The self-consciousness of McCarthy's conceit could prove witheringly academic, but C animates a host of big themes - sex, drugs, death, technology, and above all communication - and winds them tightly around each other ... A book that's steeped in avant-garde literature and criticism from Pynchon to BarthesV meets and larded with plays on words, C spirals around its character's journey like a riddle by the Sphinx. It's almost as if it's been CCd from the Greeks to the present.
C is notable for description which can approach the eidetic. Near the start comes a luminous account of the silk works, but some of the finest writing depicts the carnage of the Front ... McCarthy has researched extensively such recondite areas as seances, opium dens and Central European spas, but the novel's deployment of avant-garde ideas is equally prominent ... In C he continues to mine artistic movements from the past century to produce arresting literature for this one. Carrefax remains an essentially enigmatic personality throughout: the novel's title, indeed, underlines his status as cipher. This lack of affect demonstrates McCarthy's ongoing debt to Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, but perhaps more influential here is the idealism of the Futurists concerning speed, technology and violence, together with their repudiation of humanism ... Issues of motifs aside, C is formidably well assembled and it is admirable for an unashamed literary ambition.
...in place of interpretation, the novel chooses instead to echo, repeat, re-enact its founding elements in changing configurations – through bowels and spa towns, trenches and tunnels, crypts and cryptograms, silken sacs and veils ... Ideas travel via lewd puns, slips, metaphors, mishearings, following the method laid out by Freud, and also Joyce – and, perhaps, a half-hidden, half-flagrant, third ... C is organised to look a bit like a realist Bildungsroman, the life and impressions of one young man: he even gets born with a caul on him, as David Copperfield did. Serge, however, attracts no sympathy or empathy or whatever from his creator: he’s a convergence, or rather an area of concentration, where ideas, images, words, preoccupations gather and regroup ... It was like being a guest at the dream-party of an extremely well-read host: things read a long time ago and more or less forgotten, things never read that I always meant to, things I certainly will read now, having seen how McCarthy can make them work ... Literature as event, in McCarthy’s parlance, ripples outwards, allowing mourning to maintain its mystery even as it becomes a social, shared experience.
The first section of C devotes several pages to the verse pageant Serge later hears in the guns of war ... No one dies, or even gets bad news. So we read through these pages guessing at their point, finally to realize that McCarthy wants to illustrate that human communication was broken before machines got involved. I would have preferred a more profound dramatization of that concept, but I might not be completely sympathetic to the strictest modernist and postmodern notions ... Serge is what some would call a flat character ... McCarthy cannot employ this device and let us experience Serge's flatness without highlighting it repeatedly ... I dislike the bludgeoning aspect of McCarthy's approach, even if it is parody ... One aspect of C that intrigued me was that Serge's lack of depth is something of a narrative ruse. We see from his interactions with other people that our hero can be sarcastic, bluntly seductive, and guileful. He's less remote from people than the narrator's portrait of Serge's inner life suggests ... The gorgeous sentences woven into C bring to mind a term like lyrical postmodernism ... This brings us to the stranger possibility cited before, that C is a brilliant hoax ... This artist plays the role of overzealous postmodern novelist with insouciant accuracy. Why turn a once-revolutionary movement into an orthodoxy, other than to kill it?
...a spiralling reiteration of history, both minute and gross, where the banal transforms and is reinvented at each manifestation, where space is as tangible as the code defining it - that is to say, tangible enough. Death is at once ritualized and mocked, the dead piling and layering into a complex of information that may or may not mean anything beyond the mere resonance, shimmer and collective beauty of their endless accumulation ... Infinity is gorgeous in the hands of Tom McCarthy, gorgeous and fearsome. Like god without god ... McCarthy's prose coruscates, constructing the novelistic equivalent to the strangely compelling refresh on a computer screen ... The iterations accrete, shift, return transformed, in order to be reenacted. Memory, certainly Serge's, seems to desire this accumulation of sameness, not nostalgia, but a scaffold of returning and repeating motif upon which to hang narrative ... McCarthy gives us in C this urge toward finding meaning, toward decoding, and understanding, but without the relief of an answer or resolution. The resolution is the infinite permutation of story fragment, or, life. And like life, C is fascinating, uncanny, sometimes hilarious, pageantry.
Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C...follows Serge Carrefax’s life with an interest more overwhelming than logical; its breadth of information consistently exceeds its depth ... Removed from the postmodern trick that animates Remainder, McCarthy’s narrative is so flat that more interesting characters—like the wealthy playboy Widsun, who appoints himself Serge’s mentor potentially as a front for an affair with Serge’s mother—slide straight off the page. Serge’s internal phantasmagoria enables McCarthy to represent his perspective as a toddler with a fresh palette, but it becomes an obstacle to relating his life story. It’s stifling in the details he misses, as much as the overwhelming tide of those he doesn’t ... Without a compelling reason to follow its subject’s development, or any clear evidence that he does develop (beyond the unerring passage of time), C resembles a series of snapshots of 20th-century Britain, rich in individual detail, but lacking a connecting thread.
...C is not nearly as arid and clinical as Remainder was, and in moments it offers conventional novelistic pleasures. It even flirts with psychological depth, and doesn’t skimp on the pretty sentences ... C is also pretty weird—and can be intermittently tedious ... With C he’s having it both ways: aiming to satisfy middlebrow readers (me!), all the while confirming his experimentalist bona fides. You can read the novel as a picaresque turn-of-the-century bildungsroman or puzzle over it, grad-student style, as a braid of recurring motifs: light and dark, surface and depth, the allure of pure geometry vs. the undertow of human muck ... The novel’s metaphors are controlled and coherent, the set pieces amusingly ribald, and the novel teems with Joycean language play. It is also, in places, unabashedly lyrical ... Serge isn’t much of a character. In the early chapters, you sense his longing for warmth and connection—but as the novel progresses Serge flattens out, becomes more of a literary construction than a human being.
If modernism is history–in both senses of the world–then the modernist novel must be a historical novel, a deliberate reconstruction of a world and a way of thinking that are no longer our own. And that is what C is, at bottom: a brilliant historical novel, packed with the kind of information that is such novels’ stock-in-trade ... He is at his best when he writes in revelatory, estranging detail about the way things look, feel, sound, work ... C is a novel obsessed with codes and connections. Like Thomas Pynchon, to whom he is deeply indebted...McCarthy believes that the 20th century ushered in a paranoid age, that we are ruled and ensnared by our technology ... This kind of unabashed anachronism marks the difference between C and an ordinary historical novel. McCarthy is not trying to imagine what it felt like to live in the past. Rather, he is reimagining the past as a prologue to our encoded, networked present.
...McCarthy's new novel is full of familiar delights and familiar tedium ... The novel explores the dizzy emergence of technology at the beginning of the 20th century rather than its depressing development in the 21st century, and does most of this exploring in the country, a setting generally ignored in favour of the city as a more obvious centre of metallic modernity ... Protracted descriptions of a pageant and a seance drain the reader’s will to live. The use of the present tense does not ease matters. Nor does the recurrence of images - more than 50 of them - mixing organic processes with each other, or with mechanical processes ... Initially thrilling, the novel’s tone and vocabulary begin to pall after 100 pages ... Although McCarthy favours the emphasis on facts and visual description encouraged by Robbe-Grillet and achieves something of Kafka’s chill, C remains disappointingly approachable. It neither confounds nor excites; for better or worse, it is not a new direction.
McCarthy thus provides all the makings for a toothsome family drama, which C decidedly is not. Nor is it a Bildungsroman or a historical novel, though it might masquerade as either. What matters here is not Bildung or fidelity but return, structured repetition, flickery overlays of pattern. All narrative advances are also descents and reversals ... in McCarthy’s fictions, unlike in Freud’s case study, no primal scene unlocks the secrets of the symbolic order. Behind every sign is another sign, an intersection in a web of linked associations. Meaning, such as it is, lies scattered across the network ... There are no hooks really, except the most basic mysteries of meaning. What suspense McCarthy provides is driven more by the momentum of his language and the layered elegance of his ideas than by events ... One could also kvetch that for all its cerebral pleasures, C suffers from a certain lack of playfulness. It’s not that Serge is a cipher; it’s that he’s not quite cipher enough. He’s too overdetermined a symbol, and one that signifies too precisely ... He has written an extraordinarily smart, complex and entertaining novel, a real rarity.
The recurrence of themes and motifs that McCarthy has used to so animate C with the crackling intimacy of a single consciousness are a departure from the metier the author employed in his first novel, Remainder ... But the heart of the book lies in its long and romantic discourses on the unseen entanglements and leitmotifs that run through all of our lives, the way that certain symbols and languages, numbers and codes, ciphers and glyphs manifest to us almost constantly, as if some unknown and unseen entity was communicating with us ... this book is Joycean in its inclusiveness. As if every wayward assumption or secret belief that Serge ever has about himself, that every connection ever forged in his mind was hardwired into the world around him, shuffling in and out of his receptors, reminding him who he is, who he was, what made and makes him. This is McCarthy’s brilliance at work, that ability to deliver the feeling that what was true for Serge is also true for each of us.
Tom McCarthy’s third novel is a slap-happy, unoriginal historical yarn teetering between the late 19th century and the early 20th and appears determined to be anti-conventional while being just that. It opens many boxes and then slams them shut ... The characters are one-dimensional. Although Carrefax snr, a panto-type loudmouth with a fondness for pagents and shouting 'splendid', could be based on John Cleese in overdrive, the hero, Serge, is both cartoon figure and lost soul ... It is as if McCarthy has no interest in character and tolerates characterisation as a means of demonstrating his talent for mildly amusing dialogue, often based on misunderstandings from comments being misheard – rather too obvious a device in a narrative featuring deafness and emerging communication ... McCarthy works hard at keeping everything slightly off centre, even the humour, which may explain why this novel is not quite as funny as its author may have suspected ... this knowing, laboured and oddly hasty narrative, expected to make next week’s Man Booker shortlist, never adds up to the sum of its many musings.
The plot is sketchy by design, since its purpose is to serve as a vehicle for the novel’s driving obsessions with crypts, codes, and transmission. The whole book is crisscrossed with wires ... C’s intellectual preoccupations can be fascinating, but they don’t always sit well together. The links it draws between radio, codes, and secrets suggest a new theory of literary modernism, calling to mind a literature that is party autonomic and partly scavenged, carried along subterranean avenues and fugitive broadcasts ... For all his research, McCarthy writes as if the past century simply hadn’t happened, dropping the scandalous tropes of ninety years ago directly into his prim blocks of Neo-Victorian prose where they can no longer offend or surprise ... At its best, C feels like the continuation of an ongoing conversation with the literary past, in which the murmur of the previous fin-de-siècle comes through like static on the radio. But too often, McCarthy gets bogged down in the paradoxes of writing a historicist avant-garde novel ... C is at once an ingenious commentary on the work of his masters and a grim attempt to turn their innovations into a comfortably reproducible genre.
An ambitious, epochal second novel from the author of Remainder (2007) ... Communication, connection and distance: These are the underlying subjects of McCarthy’s narrative, but he weaves these threads together with such magnificent artistry that the reader is aware of these tropes only at a not-quite-conscious level. The first two parts of Serge’s story—which spans his childhood and his experience as a pilot in the Great War—are rendered as a fairy tale, but a thoroughly naturalistic, insistently modern one ... Then, it’s as if McCarthy stops writing, leaving the rest of the novel to a lesser author—one familiar with the plot, but with no capacity for subtlety ... The novel is redeemed by the ending ... Flawed but fascinating.
Each chapter of McCarthy's tour de force is a cryptic, ornate puzzle box, rich with correspondences and emphatically detailed digressions. Ambitious readers will be eager to revisit this endlessly interpretive world, while more casual readers will marvel at the high-flying picaresque perched at the crossroads of science and the stuff dreams are made of.