Texts for Nothing? On Tom McCarthy
The basics: Serge is born in 1898 on his family's country estate, Versoie (cf. ver à soie, "silkworm"), somewhere outside London. His opiate-addict mother oversees the estate's proto-industrial silk works while his scientist-humanist father runs a school for the deaf and invents various wired and wireless contraptions, always one step behind Marconi and Bell in the patent game. Already we have a short history of human communication: from the stubborn tongues of old man Carrefax's students to the Huguenot looms on which Madame Carrefax's workers weave elaborate tapestries, to the electrical pulses leaping the wires strung around the estate by Carrefax père. Add a brilliant older sister, Sophie—obsessed with cryptography, bugs and poisons—who plays telegraph operator with Serge's prepubescent privates, and a mysterious godfather, Widsun, who is more than likely also Sophie's lover and, shhh, Serge's bio-dad.
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. No sooner do we meet the cast of Carrefaxes than McCarthy tosses in another family, then another. Each year old man Carrefax directs his students and children in a pageant cribbed from the classics. One year it's the primal patricide. (Earth Mother Gaia persuades Cronos to castrate his father; little Serge, playing Cronos, wanders in need of a scythe.) Another year it's Persephone's abduction by the lord of the dead. Sophie takes charge of the special effects and Serge is Ascalaphus, who witnesses Persephone's fateful indulgence in pomegranate seeds. An errant player places Hades' crown on Widsun's head. Later that night, Serge sees the shadow of a copulating couple cast on a sheet by a lantern. (Plato's cave, anyone?) Not long thereafter, Sophie, pregnant, goes mad and swallows poison.
If this sounds familiar from undergrad psychology seminars, recall Freud's Wolf Man, who provides yet another set of mythic resonances. Sergei Pankajev, like our Serge, was born with a caul (another C) and seduced as a boy by a brilliant, scientifically inclined older sister who loved Lepidoptera and later took her life. And Serge, like Pankajev, allowed himself to feel no grief at this loss; instead he buried it and came to suffer for this original encryptment. But 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.
* * *
C stands also for "carbon," the associative superhero of the periodic table, the basis for all known life, the substance of the sludge that we will all become, akin in its blackness to ink and to void, to "the distance between planets, the space across which signals travel." Black gook coats the pages of C, and not just the actual ink. Having fallen ill after Sophie's death—like Pankajev he suffers from constipation and blurry vision—teenage Serge takes the waters at a Balkan spa. His Mittel-European doctor diagnoses "morbid matter...black bile: mela chole." Serge is not the only one. World War I is right around the corner. "Blood of Europe poisoned and cathectic," the doctor declares. "All have clouded vision, just like you."
The war arrives. Serge befriends it. He is trained in cartography and codes and sent up in a plane, not as a pilot but as an "observer" tasked with transmitting the coordinates of German batteries to artillery on the ground. His companions, nearly all of whom are killed, are terrified of enemy gunfire, of becoming "a flamer, carbonisé." Not Serge: "The idea that his flesh could melt and fuse with the machine parts pleases him." Archetypal Modernist that he is, he reads Hölderlin between flights (the others wallow in A.E. Housman) and loves flying with a technophilic glee right out of a Marinetti manifesto. He loves the staticky crackle of gunfire, the vapor trails that cross the sky like wires, the way flight flattens perspective and tears away the earth's horizon line. He loves watching the sun drown each evening in the marshes and imagines himself "a new, tar-coated orb around which all things turn."
Things do happen in C. Serge has adventures. Characters die, travel, go off to war, get laid—no one exactly falls in love—but you couldn't call the novel plot-driven. 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. Midway through the war section, Serge returns from a mission and finds the recording officer waiting for him with a stack of papers. "Narrative, Carrefax," the officer reminds him.
"What?" asks Serge.
C also stands for cocaine, which the flyers rub in their eyes to sharpen their vision. Serge learns it's more fun to snort the stuff, that it heightens the associative reveries to which he's already given. Among the squadron's medical supplies he discovers diacetylmorphine—also known as heroin and, in the US street slang of the day, "sister"—and soon can't fly without it. The war's horrors register at a dulled, aesthetic distance: "detached arms semaphore quite randomly across the ground; torsos, cut off at the waist, mimic the statues of antiquity."
The war ends. Serge survives. He studies architecture in London, a task made difficult by his peculiarly Modernist handicap: an inability to render perspective, to perceive depth, to see the world as anything other than surface, veil, dark ribbon unspooling across time. It doesn't help his study habits that he falls in with an actress who teaches him how to score cocaine and its slow sister, to decode the secret languages of postwar London's demimonde. The postwar section is called "Crash" for a reason, but even as Serge unravels, he is affectless, flat as a map. He is, as Freud said of Pankajev, "unassailably entrenched behind an attitude of obliging apathy." If you're still holding out for catharsis, for some moral or sentimental breakthrough, McCarthy makes it clear that you won't get one.
When the Architectural Association's provost, Burnet, tries to empathize with Serge for all he must have suffered, Serge protests that he enjoyed the war. Burnet, stunned, searches Serge's face for some more soothing explanation, but, McCarthy writes, "Burnet and his like will never disinter what's buried there, will never elevate or train it; Serge hasn't made himself available for his team, never will." Neither, McCarthy implies, will he.
* * *
Cstands for many other things besides, but let's stop with "crypt," a word McCarthy has great fun with, implying as it does both burial and coded speech. The novel's final section finds Serge in Egypt, dispatched by Widsun, his godfather and guardian angel, now an imperial spymaster of sorts. The postwar scramble for hegemony is on, and the British Empire is showing cracks. Egypt is on the cusp of independence. The Brits are packing up but at the same time planning for another, less material form of domination. They're building pylons for the Empire Wireless Chain, a new empire in the air. Pause to note, as McCarthy does, that a pylon can be either a radio tower or the gate to an ancient Egyptian temple, a doorway to the underworld, and that Serge is soon nicknamed "Pylon Man." Empire, death and technology all walk hand in hand.
Serge travels south, and into the past. He starts in Alexandria, "where it all began," exploring the layers of the city's history with a Cavafy-like polymath named Petrou. Soon he's dispatched up the Nile on a river journey that evokes both Heart of Darkness and The Confidence-Man. Everyone on board is spying for someone, or might as well be. Even Serge isn't sure if he's a spy or not. He has reports to write, but what about? He ends up in the cemetery complex of Sedment. ("This is where it all began," he stands corrected. "Alexandria is where it ended.") The book's hallucinatory climax begins within and under a pyramid, with beetles, scarabs and bones scattered all about. The walls are smeared with bitumen.
Freud used Egypt as a metaphor for the psyche, "which is so unintelligible to us because it preserves the earlier stages of its development side by side with the end-products, retains the most ancient gods and their significations along with the most modern ones." For McCarthy, the Upper Nile is not just Serge's unconscious. It's modernity. It's us. It's where signification explodes in its own endless echo. Sedment becomes sediment. One could complain about Orientalism here, a charge McCarthy does his best to pre-empt. He parodies the imperialist myopia of Serge's colonial acquaintances ("The home of Egyptology is London," one huffs. "What's Cairo got to do with any of this?") and describes Egyptology—and by extension all modes of knowing—as a history of looking that in its arrogance assumes it is "somehow definitive, standing outside of the long history of which it merely forms another chapter." Self-consciousness, though, does not get him off the hook.
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. What's wanting is not sentiment or realism but mess, ferment, a bubbling over in excess of the rhetorical lines. Despite McCarthy's insistence on semiotic flux, the novel's myriad puzzle pieces snap smartly into place, as if chaos had been chalked out with a T square or the eternal recurrence of counterfeits managed by a central bank. The message—that all meaning recedes into static—can come in just a little too clear. So clear that it can be hard to hear the weird, whimsical songs of the static itself.
For all its ingenuity and elegance, C at times feels too straightforwardly polemical, as if McCarthy had internalized the false dichotomy that Zadie Smith mapped out at his expense, as if he felt his chosen literary path required illumination, landscaping, cobblestones and even asphalt. (To be fair, Smith's folly has also been John Barth's, Jonathan Franzen's and Ben Marcus's, all of whom have variously insisted on analogous bifurcations for a form whose greatest virtue from the beginning has been its flexibility, its slippery resistance to all imposed confinements.) In his best moments, his offhand jests and visionary riffs, McCarthy writes with well-earned swagger, confident that the novel—not just this novel but any novel, the novel—is expansive enough to hold whatever he might wish to stuff it with, as if it needed no justification save the freedoms that it claimed.
It feels worse than petty, though, to fault McCarthy for his control. He has written an extraordinarily smart, complex and entertaining novel, a real rarity. Amid all the hair-pulling about the death of the book and literature's grim future—topics with which McCarthy is in constant if subtextual conversation—this novel, at least, is alive and unafraid of its mortality. Even as it declares the demise of literature's most ancient hopes, from pylon to pylon C positively hums.