C is for…?

C
by Tom McCarthy

This is another book club read that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and I’m a little annoyed that in the end I missed the book club meeting about it due to illness, as I think I would have got a lot more from the book by discussing it. As it was, I must admit that it fell a little flat for me.

One of the many review quotes on the book’s cover calls it “admirable for an unashamed literary ambition” and, well, it certainly does scream its literariness but I’m not sure how admirable that is. Although the narration is third person, it follows quite closely the thought processes of its main character Serge, frequently combining stream of consciousness with mechanical or scientific detail in a manner that I found hard to follow and frankly dull. There were so many allusions to science, myth or literature that you could create a very long reading list to interpret the nuances of C.

The novel follows the story of Serge’s life, starting with his birth, and it’s a reasonably interesting life. Born in 1898 to a deaf mother and a father who is both an inventor and principal of a school for the deaf (in which sign language is banned), in the early section there is a certain amount of comedy, sadly lacking later on. Serge’s name itself is pronounced in the French manner by his mother (“sairj”, which he prefers) and the English way by his father (“surge”, like electricity, a running theme) who is a brusque, difficult but enthusiastic and highly animated man. Serge has an older sister, Sophie, who he is devoted to, though as they get older he worries that she is so much cleverer than he. She performs chemistry experiments from an early age, is generously indulged by her father and cannily uses her little brother without him realising he is being manipulated.

From well-to-do English countryside, the action moves to a spa town near Dresden, where Serge has been sent to be healed of a digestive disorder; then to the First World War, during which Serge serves as a frontline aeroplane radio operator; then to post-war London, where Serge half-heartedly studies architecture while becoming increasingly embroiled in drug culture and addiction; then finally to Egypt, where Serge is sent without him ever really being clear what he is supposed to be doing. They’re very different locations and situations but what ties it all together is radio and Serge’s obsession with it.

Serge’s father, at the start of the novel, is building one of the first wireless stations. It becomes the favourite hobby of teenage Serge to listen in on conversations in Morse code and this feeds directly into his wartime employment. Between injury, illness and drug-taking he is often delirious or otherwise in an altered state of mind and at those times his thought patterns become electricity- or Morse-like, rearranging the world he sees into waves and patterns.

Serge is a very believable, multi-faceted character, but he is a little cold for my liking, though there are reasons for him being that way. I thought the depiction of him as a soldier and just after the war was particularly well done, the stand out moment being when someone begins to sympathise with what he must have been through in the war and how hard that must have been and he replies, “But I liked the war.” It’s actually an ambiguous statement, because Serge spent much of the war and a lot of the time since so drug-addled he has no handle on reality, but he thinks he really means it.

It’s not a book to read if you’re easily annoyed by little rich boys getting out of scrapes through a combination of money and knowing the right people. Or indeed if you want to know exactly what is happening and have every question answered (there are a few recurring details that I expected to come to something but never did, plus there’s all the need for interpretation). But neither of those applies to me usually, so I can only conclude that it was the writing style itself that put me off. It was certainly at times beautiful and evocative, but far too often I found myself skimming long passages through boredom, and I definitely wasn’t engrossed.

First published in 2010 by Jonathan Cape. Paperback published 2011 by Vintage.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010.

I can see why people study this

As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner

Addie Bundren is dying. Or is she dead already? Nothing is ever quite clear in this brilliant but challenging American classic. It probably helps if you are familiar with the vernacular of 1920s Mississippi. I really am not.

The story is told by various characters in or observing the Bundren family as their matriarch dies and is transported to her hometown to be buried. Stream of consciousness is used rather than past-tense “this is what happened”. The voices are very different and, except for the occasional lapse into straight storytelling, the characterisation is excellent.

Characters are not formally introduced, with it sometimes taking several chapters to figure out how two people are related, which has the effect of making you feel that you have come into the story partway through. This is fantastic in terms of realism but can make the story hard to follow. There are also some scenes that are described by more than one character, making it appear that time is not quite linear.

Helpfully, the character who narrates the most – Darl – is a dreamer and his descriptions are more poetic than the others’. In his voice Faulkner writes some beautiful vignettes of simple scenes of life, from flowing water to the night sky. The other characters regard Darl with suspicion but it is not until near the end of the book that it becomes clear why.

This is a very poor family, farmers who feel strongly their differences from the likes of town folk. They work hard for the little they have and pride overrules most everything else. This is central to what would otherwise be a very difficult book to understand.

This certainly isn’t a light read. It makes you think about life and death and the relative values that you place on things. It can be tough to follow and the language can be a barrier. But it’s worth the effort for those moments of poetry and the brutal honesty of people when in their darkest hour.

First published 1930 in the USA.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.