Remainder, Tom McCarthy’s first published novel, arrived in 2005 as the ideal kind of literary fiction, showing us a new reality and refusing to give up its secrets all at once.

It’s a work of a certain uncompromising inscrutability, and like all works of art that don’t exist to strike the eye, ear or mind with an instant and gratifying rush of artifice and pleasure, it pulls us back to it time and again to check what we’d missed seeing in its mirrored surface when we first opened it. British publishers would have preferred it to be otherwise, since they all passed on it, leaving it up to a small press in Paris to release it in a limited edition, before it was brought out in the US by Random House to laudatory reviews by such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Zadie Smith.

It’s been said that literature shouldn’t give us answers, but pose questions. Remainder is a novel about the nature of reality and, more specifically, about an unnamed Londoner who, injured when a fragment of aircraft lands on him and leaves him impaired, through a legal settlement ends up a hugely wealthy man. It’s that money which goes towards duplicating, as closely as possible, the world as he experiences it. We have no idea of the nature or extent of his injuries; all we see is his condition. By recreating reality—with the aid of contractors and actors—it can be re-enacted to his heart’s desire, allowing him to grasp onto what he’s forever on the verge of losing. To hold on to the moment, the remembered thing, the reality that gives him a sense of self, is all-important. Because the very thing he lost in the accident was, in fact, a piece of his humanity.

Alain Robbe-Grillet

It’s no accident that both Alain Robbe-Grillet (to whom McCarthy has been compared) and, I’d add, Raymond Queneau, novelist, poet and founder of the group Oulipo, had other interests, the former in agronomy, the latter in mathematics and philosophy.

(Also worth mentioning in this context is Georges Perec, whose works, like McCarthy’s, originate with concept and operate in the same way complex puzzles do, though a warmer blood runs through his fictions.) McCarthy has a second career as a conceptual artist and founder of the International Necronautical Society, which like other avant-garde movements periodically issues manifestos and proclamations, mostly about the nature of death (some, it’s been said, as a matter of parody). All three authors have a scientist’s, or at least a professional observer’s, interest in the nature of how reality is perceived and engaged with, and each approaches it in a different way.

We saw in Remainder that McCarthy really isn’t interested in developing character as much as in investigating condition, the angle at which someone stands in relation to the universe, similar to what filmmaker Christopher Nolan does in “Memento.” It’s the crease where character meets circumstance that seems to interest the author, and we encounter that once again in his latest work of fiction, C.

C traces the short life of Serge Carrefax whose father, Simeon, an inventor of instruments and strategies to aid the deaf to hear and the mute to speak, is the major influence in his life. One might even call him Serge’s creator. Born on the cusp of the 20th century, Serge—sometimes pronounced surge, as we’re reminded—is both a step ahead of his contemporaries and portrayed as slightly less than fully human. He seems always to be just behind the beat: a man thrust into the speed and abstraction of the 20th century—indeed into what we know as Modernism—deeply immersed in the how and why of it all. “Motor cars and horse carts slide around them, cutting into and out of one another’s paths like intersecting eras,” McCarthy writes of Serge in Alexandria.

As with the protagonist of Remainder we sense no inner life in any of the characters; instead they are magnets and conduits for data, mothers and fathers of invention cast adrift in the vast laboratory that is the world, just as Serge’s father Simeon turns the deaf-mute pupils in his school into talking machines, almost literally so: “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announces early on, “I am proud to call myself an oralist. I count among my intellectual forebears Deschamps, Heinicke, Gérando and the great Alexander Bell. The human body…is a mechanism.” And when death comes to the Carrefax family there is little mourning, just further bits of handiwork, shrouds made from the silk produced by the worms raised by Serge’s mother at home, and radio transmitters to be placed in the coffin. Even during the vicar’s eulogy, Serge’s father must correct the clergyman’s grammar. And only then can he shed a few quiet tears. The heart, in C, only waits to be crushed by discovery, revelation and the weight of scientific fact.

From the beginning, Serge apprehends the world as if it were code, sensing that it all somehow means something (and this includes death: “like a signal, dispersed”). Because he lacks a sense of depth, everything seems to exist for him on a single plane, and whatever he’s witnessing is broken into its components, as though stripped down to blueprint. All awaits interpretation and connection, whether a geometrical diagram on the board or the expression on a toy soldier’s face. In and of themselves, in Serge’s view, they are neutral in this story that forbids sentiment and emotion. And though the events Serge lives through are historical ones (the Western Front in the First World War; capture by the German army; archeology in Egypt in the 1920s—to a degree the stuff of an early 20th century English novel), there is nothing panoramic about this story, there are no big emotional setpieces, as in Ian McEwan’s evocation of Dunkirk in Atonement. That isn’t this author’s intent.

What McCarthy seems to be getting at is not that Serge is a witness to the tides and waves of history—a largely artificial and romantic concept—but a person trying to come to grips with how it may be captured, transmitted and sent out into the world before it sinks below the horizon of memory. Serge is about defining things, giving names to objects, conditions or states of being. He stands on the brink of technology and breakthroughs in communication. And yet he stands apart from them.

In a recent piece in the London Review of Books on Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, McCarthy says astutely of Toussaint’s characters that “we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on—but rather to an encounter with structure.” And structure, of course, isn’t inherently human. It has hard edges, and when it isn’t solid, when it’s made of thoughts or words, it fizzes off into static and silence. It’s a world that Serge seems to aspire to, the place where he might just find himself—the vibration of his voice in a telephone receiver, or in the ping of radar, a place or a time where, for a fleeting moment, he could exist outside of himself in the artifice that captures the ether or the echo. For a fleeting moment, yes, but for Serge forever would be…amazing.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 many of us watched a second plane fly into a tower and all we could do, along with the TV commentators, was to try to find a name, a context, some scaffolding of reason—anything—for what we were witnessing. What we were seeing was unprecedented, on these shores at least. Thus as Serge Carrefax lives through the formative years of the 20th century, an age of speed, electricity and radio (Proust covered all of these, including plane flight, in A la Recherche du temps perdu, with the wonder and poetry of someone witnessing such matters for the first time), he wants only to find a name for what he sees and tastes and hears. To decipher the mystery that lies within things; to break the code. And then to master it.

It’s not what Serge sees and experiences that matters, but the fact that he processes the individual packets of information that comprise it. When his and his sister Sophie’s tutor delivers a lecture, in Serge’s mind the words are shattered into letters that he sees coming at him in the air, too fast and too confused for him to write them in his notebook. When he and Sophie experiment with explosives, the blast comes in slow motion. “Serge tries to ask Sophie how she can make her hair stand up like that, but finds that his words, instead of travelling out into the air, push back into his mouth and on towards his stomach.” It’s an event divided, subdivided and parsed into individual moments. When their father learns of the accident, instead of scolding them on their recklessness he draws diagrams showing how the explosion created vectors of energy throughout the room. And when Serge inadvertently one night comes upon the shadow cast by his sister having sex, he sees it as a kind of singular machine made up of several moving parts and noises, and not, as others would see it, as the frantic final fluid moments of passion.

Serge lacks a sense of context, of before and after; life is like the passing of a spool of film, frame-by-frame before his eyes. Here it comes, here it is, there it goes, only to fade quickly away. Moments bear no emotional weight for him, and though sexual arousal is something he becomes aware of early on (and the later sex is completely mechanical, devoid of any emotional involvement), the moment is his to decipher. All he can do is to imagine a future life for what he sees, as when, as a seven-year-old, he watches the coupling of silk moths (two of which, significantly, he’s named Orville and Wilbur—he later, during the war, will be in one of those early rickety planes) and thinks “this is how the scene would look in years from now, if someone were to see it printed onto photographic paper—anaemic, faded, halfway dead.” As though to record something is to begin the process of murdering it. Because what matters is the afterlife of the image, the sound, the word itself. Which is, it seems to me, very much the point of the novel.

Life, once perceived, instantly begins to decompose, to lose its outlines and vibrancy of sound; it contains its own destruction, just as when we enter into the world our journey to the grave begins. It’s a grim, Beckett-like way of thinking, but not an invalid one. Georges Perec intimated something similar with his use of the jigsaw puzzle in La Vie mode d’emploi. What Serge is doing is mapping life, reducing it to its essence, scientifically, dispassionately and (as some will think) in a dehumanized way. He is a man for whom the heart is just another organ and the sexual act merely a matter of thrust and contraction. Someone for whom there are no strings attached. Life passes him by, barely leaving a skid mark on his sensibility. It’s as though Serge were halfway between machine and human, a construct cobbled together from the wires and tubing of his father’s imagination, moving headlong towards annihilation, deserving of our pity.

McCarthy is by no means a stylist; he has no voice that can truly be identified as uniquely his, and I’m not sure achieving voice or defining a style or even telling a compelling story is his ultimate goal. There are pages in this novel that border on the banal, in which dialogue merely fills the space, and Serge, nearly always slightly blurred, goes out of focus beyond the frontiers of our attention, as though he were a balloon whose string has slipped from our fingers and has sailed into the creases and sags of low-lying clouds. It’s then we have to remind ourselves that very little in McCarthy’s fiction is there for naught. Perhaps telling the story in a flat, nearly affectless voice is a way to reflect the thought processes of his protagonist. Everything here has a reason; just as the mere dashes and dots of code can only be code when they represent something else. The something else may die; but the code is always there, just as DNA may be extracted from our remains hundreds of years after our death.

C or “C” stands for any number of things, foremost for the last name of the protagonist, Serge Carrefax who, as it opens, is about to be born into the world of late 19th-century Britain (it’s no accident that his life begins the year Marconi invented radio transmission and ends with the founding of the BBC). His delivery is almost beside the point, as the doctor in charge of the procedure is also toting some much-anticipated copper wiring, vital to Serge’s father’s experiments in radio and communication. We’re also reminded that C represents carbon, the “basic element of life,” as Serge is told. Carbon paper has its place in this novel, as does (as the author points out in his present-tense narrative) the signifier “CC,” known to anyone who’s sent an email (or, for those of a certain age, a carbon-copy) and needed to share it with another. And let’s not forget: —.—. As printed on the spine of the jacket (and incorporated into the front-cover design of the American edition) the Morse symbol for “C” may provide yet another clue to the book’s four-section structure, for to a large degree this is a novel about code: reality and the things that both hide and represent it. Oh, and C also stands for cocaine, to which our hero grows addicted. The third letter of the alphabet on the third rock from the sun.

“C” also stands for the names of the four sections of the novel, “Caul,” “Chute,” “Crash,” and the final part that not coincidentally rhymes with the first, “Call.” And before we begin “Caul” (full disclosure: like Serge—and, indeed, David Copperfield—I was also born in one) we take in the epigraph, by Omar Khayyám, which leads us to understand that death is going to play a major role in this story. Cryptography may be the study of code, but it also contains the word for that in which we hide the deceased. Death is in the epigraph; secret is the word; and the story is suffused with decay as everything in it, characters, code and memory, moves inexorably towards it.

Ultimately, we approach C expecting something experimental and finding ourselves in what appears to be a traditional text. But the devil—and the entire point of the work—is in the details, in the dots and dashes and silent gaps that weave their way through it as we come to the realization that this story can only end one way. C will not please those for whom a novel must provide what the novelist Henry Green called “a long intimacy between strangers.” But for those willing to read carefully it is a particularly fascinating work of fiction, one unlike any other. It is literature that works within literature, within the conventions of the Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel which once had its time, and yet also reaching far beyond it, into a story that, once it’s over, can only come to us as those mysterious radio broadcasts do, some decades-old, voices repeating strings of numbers, phrases without apparent sense, snippets of ancient folk tunes—the remnants of another civilization, a society once in fetters, a place where people can conveniently disappear. Stripping down the life of Serge Carrefax to its nuts and bolts, wires and vacuum tubes, McCarthy has succeeded in presenting us with yet another, even greater, question than the one he left us in Remainder. I leave it to the reader to decipher exactly what it is.

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J.P. SMITH is a frequent reviewer at The Nervous Breakdown. His seventh novel, The Drowning, will be published in January, 2019.

One response to “Everything Dies: a review of Tom McCarthy’s novel C

  1. […] In keeping with the yuletide spirit, we here at TNB are pleased to announce the launch of The TNB Holiday Limerick Contest, the winner of which will receive a signed copy of C, the new novel from celebrated English writer Tom McCarthy.  C was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize earlier this year, and you can read a review of it right here on TNB. […]

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