Saturday, April 23, 2011

C by Tom Mccarthy (Part One)

I've not yet read McCarthy's first book, Remainder, but I've read enough about it to create expectations: he is said to be a master of literary theory and that book is said to explore a deep philosophical question by having the narrator doubt his own existence. I've seen "experimental" and the phrase avant garde used a fair few times to describe Remainder and so thought C would be something similar. For the most part, it reads like straight-forward historical fiction - although I guess that is a logical progression from Remainder, where it is the narrator who seeks to re-enact the past: now the novel itself purports to be a re-enactment of a past, one which only partly happened.

C is the story of Serge Carrefax, from birth to death, told in four stages: Caul, Chute, Crash and Call. The narrative is firmly located in time (starting in about 1898) and contemporary events. There's no obvious religion, we get no insight into people's motivations, not even Serge's, but there is a huge amount of technological and other scientific detail - something I liked a lot about the novel.

There are at least three types of caul in the first part: Serge is born with the amniotic bag over his head as a silky veil or hood (silk is also significant, as his parents have a silk-making enterprise, from which they make parachutes); his dad puns on the idea of a caul by predicting a web around the world for sailors to send their signals down; and the section ends when Serge finds that the gauzy crepe that has blurred his vision has finally gone (which made me wonder if he spent the entire first 18 years of his life with his eyes behind a caul).

His upbringing is unusual: his parents run a school for deaf mutes, but dad doesn't believe in either condition. He thinks anyone with the right body parts can speak, the body just needs fine-tuning, alignment and the speech must be wring or wrenched out - all it takes is a proper explanation of the correct adjustments of their organs. As part of the process, he forces an annual pageant on both pupils and guests. The pupils admittedly do speak, after a fashion, but take every opportunity to use sign language despite his prohibition. Dad is also fascinated by technology - he spends his entire life hoping to come up with some great invention. A mate brings in a Kinetoscope, an early form of film projector. These obsessions leave no time for parenting - that role is taken up by the maid, who sees the Carrefaxes as arrogant and incapabe, and the tutor, Mr Clair. But they leave their mark: Serge is very obviously his father's son.

There are quite a few creepy scenes from his early childhood: his sister, Sophie, when he is 2.5 years old, using his penis as some form of telegraph key; his beating up of a toy soldier at the same age as an enactment of killing the gardener and the completely mechanical way in which he kills a wasp. Later on, his sister becomes quite the chemist, and creates an explosion which Serge experiences in slow motion - his sister's face "seems to have slowed down" and expanded, instruments rise and hover, "incredibly slowly, as though willing themselves upwards, through excruciating effort". Then a window breaks: he watches each of its glass fragments soundlessly separate.

There is some fun: I loved it when a visitor finds all sorts of coded messages in the personal's column in the Times: he and Sophie decode them and reply. Poor old Serge is not very adept at this sort of thing. There's a wee joke: the cat is buried in the family crypt: does that make it a cat-a-comb? Then there's the Realtor's Game - which sounds a lot like Monopoly (which can be traced to 1924, but Serge and Sophie were playing in about 1905). He transforms the make-believe telephone company into an actual telephone network around his family's estate. This transforms into an interest in radio and communications - something which stays with him for his entire life. We are treated to a detailed account of his set up and of a night he spends going through the radio bands. Early txt speak features- logical, given the reliance on Morse code, and there's a wee joke: Serge notes that one fellow can't be very young as no-one over 20 would tap out the complete word. As he searches the waves (in much the same way we might now surf the web) he's conscious of things just beyond his ken, gets glimpses and half-hears them.

There's one small point which troubled me here: radio enthusiasts are called hams, they use a bug to send morse code but several references are made to the enthusiasts as "bugs". I had to consult an American dictionary on this one: Merriam-Webster does say a bug is an enthusiast. Maybe that was an early usage which has died away - there's nothing in the OED. But there is a kind of pun happening: he's a bug and Sophie becomes obsessed with bugs, of the natural variety. She, too, is said to be tuned in, as if she's a receiver. It doesn't end well for her.

I think that there's yet another form of caul: innocence. I am pretty sure that Serge sees his sister having sex although he doesn't recognise that's what he's seeing. He's heard a noise, a "rhythmic scratching, a rubbing chafe that carries on its back a higher sound". Its coming from behind the sheet (the movie had been projected non to it), and he sees a shadow cast on to it:
It's some kind of moving thing made of articulated parts. One of the parts is horizontal, propped up on four stick legs like a low table, the other end is vertical, slotted into the underside of the table's rear end but rising above it, its spine wobbling as the whole contraption rocks back and forth. The thing pulses like an insect's thorax, and with each pulse comes the rustle, scratch and chafe; with each pulse the horizontal, low part squeaks, and the vertical part now starts emitting a deep grunt, a gruff, hog-like snort. The grunts grow more intense ... the squeaks grow louder... The thing's rocking and wobbling faster and faster, squeaking and grunting more with every pulse.
Later on, he gives a peculiar account of what lovers do: he's seen a photo of a woman kneeling with a man standing beside her, holding his member while she smiles at it. This image seems to stick with him: every account of his sexual activity involves a woman kneeling in front of him. It is when he finally has sex for the first time that his vision clears. This is at Klodebrady, which seems to be a spa in Bavaria, where he is sent for hydrotherapy because he is suffering from, in old fashioned terms, black bile or mela chola. He has good reason to be melancholic: what is more interesting is the reference back, back to classical notions of the humours. The woman he chooses appeals, because he likes the illness within her body, the sulphuric smell of her, the impression she creates of things gurgling up from below. His other female companion, the pretty Lucia, is too light-blooded, and two light-hearted (and probably light-headed) to make much of an impression on him.

Its only in my second reading that I've really got that there's quite a lot lurking in this first part, things which connect outwards with actual history (the impending war is hinted at several times, and there are the numerous references to technological advances, such as the erection of Marconi radio towers) and forwards with the history presented by the novel. So, yes, I'm starting to see why those with
more knowledge than me are saying its a novel which deserves a lot of attention. So much so that I want to defer any consideration of the final three movements to another post.



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