Book Review: Tom McCarthy – “C”

ImageApparently C is a programming language. That may be relevant. Tom McCarthy’s novel starts weirdly well with a doctor hitching a ride on a cart carrying copper wire in order to visit a woman in labour. The father turns out to be much more interested in the copper wire than in his impending offspring. The house is old, rambling and confusing in layout. This could go all sorts of ways, the reader thinks.

The book covers the entire life of the baby about to be born. Young Serge, born in the dying years of the 19th century in southern England, grows up in a strange household. His father is a deaf school headmaster and eccentric inventor fascinated by new means of communication. His mother hardly features at all (why?). His elder sister is a sadistic scientific genius who kills herself for reasons not very clear. Serge suffers from ill-health as a boy, shares his father’s fascination with radio, becomes an observer in a First World War fighting aircraft and is then a prisoner of war, returning to civilian life, experiencing spiritualism and drugs, only to die in Egypt soon after.

The strangeness of the main characters and of the world they’re in (instance the attitudes of the fliers to death and of British intelligence in Egypt to everyone else on the planet) are well conveyed. There are passages of description, especially in the Royal Flying Corps chapters, which are vivid and very well done indeed. But there is a hole in the book. I found until nearly the end that I did not care what happened to Serge. Why? Because he didn’t seem to care at all about what happened to anyone else or if he hmself lived. His sister’s death doesn’t seem to provoke any emotions at all. He was totally indifferent to deaths of fellow-flyers in training and in war. He shot up manned German observation balloons not to try to win the war or out of anger, but because it was fun and fascinating. Narrowly escaping being executed on the last day of the war, he feels cheated and has no thought for his comrade who was about to die and wanted to live. Frankly, he seems to be a bit of a monster.

My unease about the book is that I’m not sure Tom McCarthy realises what a wasteland is in his main character. There are suggestions that the book is a kind of prediction of how humanity was developing, but very few people today are emotionless and disconnected like that. The SS cultivated being above emotions of sympathy or revulsion at the suffering of people they corralled and killed, but even they generally cared about their comrades.

When Serge is angry at a spiritualist fake, and unmasks the deception, it seems strange. Where has that emotion, that anger at deceit, come from? It’s the first emotion he’s displayed. His relations with women seem just as blank-faced and emotionless.

His fever and delirium in his final days are well described. But whether there is any significance in where and how he dies, I just don’t know.


My lines for today are (rather a lot of lines, but it’s an example of the impact being from the whole, and the lines I’d most want to quote are well-separated by others).

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Well, that really shouldn’t be difficult. Still, here’s a clue:


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  1. One line on the quiz was enough for me; the Scottish bard – Robert Burns

    • Absolutely! Well, I said it was easy. Not only is the opening line famous, but the dialect (“gang” and so on) points to Scotland or Northumbria.

      I think Burns needs to be liberated from tartan tweeness. He is very, very good.

      • Indeed he is, and twee is a far-from-appropriate description of him; he was a carouoser and womanizer of the highest calibre.

      • I don’t suppose many people would describe him as twee, but some of the razzmatazz around him threatens to suffocate his poetry. I suspect he would have loathed Sir Walter Scott’s romantic inventions, but now he’s packaged up with them. That’s my feeling.

  2. A good analysis Simon. And I must admit it interested me, the character being so emotionless, it’s an unusual approach.

    • Some of the time you might think it was the author not telling you about Serge’s emotions, choosing to describe his experiences without including the emotion, but at times he definitely shows coldness. In a way that would reassure me: this is a picture of an emotionally missing person, not of an emotionless world; but the absence of emotion is repeated so routinely that I wonder.

  3. Needs a firefighter…good one Simon!:) Your analysis of the wasteland character Serge reminded me of one of Albert Camus’s characters…was it a book called Stranger?

    • Thanks. I don’t know – I haven’t read that one, but it does sound like Camus; except in Camus there generally seems to be a possibility of redemption (a Catholic despite himself, maybe). It’s just occurred to me that another analogy would be Pinkie in Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock”; except Pinkie is a selfish man of action and Serge seems to drift. Now I’m beginning to develop a theme, because Greene WAS a Catholic. No idea about Tom McCarthy, but McCarthy’s an Irish Catholic name!


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