Thursday, April 28, 2011

C by Tom McCarthy (Part Two)

Last week, I wrote of the first part of Tom McCarthy's novel, C. Now its time to comment on the last three parts. Part 2, Chute, reads as a much more straight-forward, authentic account of a young man at war. It starts with Serge sitting am aeronautics exam - readers are located right in the exam room with him, as he writes his answers. The exam is possibly an academic irrelevance, as his father's mate and his own god-father, Widsun, is high up in the military: there's a mention later on that he is recorded in the paperwork as Serge's protector. He pulls strings and Serge is in the air-force, training in a rumpety-sounding pain (a little joke - the plane noise is rumpiteerumpitee...), but he's in his element, as an observer - taking photos, shooting his Lewis gun, sending back radio messages about what he sees. He and his partner take to landing at a particular spot where the girls prove to be extremely friendly.

His first posting is to Saint Omer, a lethargic place where the rumbling sound might be snoring or guns, he can't tell. There's a kind of grimness to his assignation: he's told there's no space in his Squadron right now, he just has to wait for someone to die: "It shouldn't take long" "What shall I do while I wait?" "Sleep, have an omelette, pick your nose" - it really doesn't take long before there's a death and he's in - within a matter of months, two thirds are dead.

Serge has a charmed existence, and feels no fear, he even pleased by the idea his flesh might merge with that of his machine - maybe its all the cocaine he's taking. He's told to rub it into his eye to improve his vision, or to snort it for a "stronger effect". He certainly sees things with extra clarity, but it also has an impact on his sexuality - the first time he takes it, he gets a sudden erection, takes his trousers off (he's still in the air) and his "seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine's tail and falls in a fine thread towards the slit earth below". Given the title, it is perhaps significant that he accompanies this action by yelling "From all the C!s ... The bird of Heaven."

On morphine, his drug of choice, he seems to get the same state as when Sophie blew up the shed - there's an initial euphoria, then "everything slows down and seems to float" - even the tracers (ie bullets with every potential to be lethal) "rise toward him languidly, like bubbles in a glass", and he likes it best when they come very close:
so that they're almost grazing the machine's side: when this happens he feels like he's a matador being passed by the bull's horn, the two previously antagonistic objects brought together in an arrangement of force and balance so perfectly proportioned that it's been removed from time, gathered up by a pantheon of immortals to adorn their walls.
He also notices that the intersecting lines of ordnance residue and exhaust fumes form a grid in which all past manoeuvres have been recorded and so history itself seems to hang suspended. Its a beautiful image, but he's not much good at his job in this state. So when he's finally attacked by a German aircraft, all he can do is think about how graceful it is, with a special message just for him, an annunciating angel. He wants it to carry him away in a "long, whispered rush of consonants". Even now, its as if he's under special protection: on its way down, his plane collides with a parachute, which breaks his fall. He's behind enemy lines, so he's taken prisoner. The guards get so slack he manages to escape, is captured and to be shot as a spy - and here's the most unbelievable element of the whole novel - just as the fellow is about to pull the trigger, they get the news that the war is over.

The third section, Crash, is an odd one. Serge is in London, ostensibly studying architecture but he's fallen with a crew of party-goers, united in their taste for drugs, and rarely does anything. His friend, Audrey, finally persuades him to go to a seance - there's an extended account of it, but Serge works out its a fraud and is angry - at the frauds, at those who believe them, and himself for busting that belief. I think this is his lost soul period - he's looking for somewhere to be: home doesn't work, these friends don't do it for him (although they promise a special form of communication) and his old friends, like Clair, aren't any use to him. And so he drives off, and the section ends as predicted by its title.

In Call, the final section, things break up. Serge has been rescued by his godfather and given a job, associated with establishing the BBC in Egypt, along with a secret squirrel spy mission to report back to his godfather anything he finds interesting. His time in Alexandra sounds like fun - he's being fed lots of history by a workmate, attending meetings he doesn't need to attend to, writing reports and then enjoying the cinema of an evening - he's sworn off drugs and finds this to be an enjoyable rhythm. Alexandria itself sounds to him of unrequited longing - he hears it in the cries of tradesmen, the wails of beggars, the muezzen's chants "threading meshed balconies" and in the music spilling from cafes, the clang of metal cups, ships' sirens. More than anything he hears it in his workmate's voice:
its exiled, hovering cadences - and what he sees in Petrou's face and body, his perpetual slightly sideways stance: a longing for some kind of world, one either disappeared or yet to come, or perhaps even one that's always been there, although only in some other place, in a dimension Euclid never plotted, which is nonetheless reflecting off him at an asymptotic angle; and reflecting, it increasingly seems, straight towards Serge.
Things in Egypt are rather chaotic for the British, as there has just been a revolution and newly minted independence for Egypt - which rather raises the question of the appropriateness of the Empire Wireless being established. The Egyptian response is to build a network which parallels the British one. Things are even worse for Serge when he finally gets to Cairo, as the Ministry is in the process of relocating. Cairo is a fine mix of British officials and their civil servants, labourers from all over Europe and entrepreneurs and hustlers from the earth's four corners and tourists (Serge picks up a particularly dim example of the latter). These tourists sound a lot like contemporary ones, searching for independence using Lonely Planet and finding themselves in a congregation of Lonely Planet clutching individualists.

There's an interesting wee passage here which picks up on something Sophie said, several years earlier, just before she died. She says that an unnamed "he" is coming soon, tomorrow or the next day. When Serge asks if she means father, she says "Father! He's not your ... It's the other one." Then she says "Didn't use paraphylectic" and later "I'll have kill him in me, or there'll be more bodies: segments on the battlefields." Now in Cairo, Serge's boss says to him "I can see your father in you", then when Serge asks about him knowing his father, the boss says "Of course ... After all, he's the one who sent..." So - I think that his so-called godfather, Widsun, is actually his father and is also the man he saw having sex with his sister - this sent her over the edge.

Now its Serge's turn to do so. He goes up the river to a place called Sedment, an enormous burial site, thousands of tombs, all stacked one on top of the other.There was a pretty major excavation there in 1921 - he's there at roughly that time, with a small crew of archeologists who fill him in with a great deal of detail about the area - its quite the learning experience to read it. Another overt reference to the title comes along - Serge asks one of the archeologists what he's found - he rattles off a list which concludes "Surtout, the C: the C is everywhere ... Carbon: basic element of life". One of his main companions and sources is Laura - I really liked her for the first time when they're in the tomb (and I think this is when Serge first really attended to her as a woman):
She's streaming information again - but the langour's gone, and the excitement's back. It excites Serge as well: not only what she's saying but how she's saying it, its strip-procession from her. He looks at her mouth. Its lips, coated by dust, are brown. Watching them move, he has the strange sensation that he's closing in on something: not just her, or information, but what lies behind these.
In fact, this part of the novel is perhaps my favourite part - not just because of the constant stream of information, but also the descriptions of the tombs they're going through - McCarthy creates the sensation of actually being there, as well as a desire to explore a part of the world I have never even considered going to. Anyway, Serge and Laura go on a bit of a magical mystery tour through previously unexplored tombs, its like an underground city, I'm all worried that they're going to get lost, then there's this ominous "small tickling sensation" on Serge's ankle which has developed to a full blown itch by the time he regains the surface. Back in Cairo, its worse - he's stumbling, disoriented, dazed, feeling something deeper than seasickness. Then his mind goes, he's imagining all sorts of things - first time I read this, I struggled to get through this part but now, now I see I missed out something pretty dramatic: his imagined marriage to his sister.
It is no coincidence that he has been addicted to heroin, also called sister in the slang of the time.

There is probably no answer to what the title refers to: I've seen Carrefax, communication, carbon, copper, continental philosophy, code, crypt, cocaine all mentioned in various reviews. Then we have the author's own take, which may or may not be taken seriously. He has been asked what the genesis of the novel is, and responds:
But one of them was thinking about Carter and Carnarvon, who dug up Tutankhamun. And I knew that a kind of hybrid of those two historical figures was going to be part of — I mean, Serge is a composite of several things. But that’s kind of one part or two parts of it. And so as a marker, I just used the letter C. I said, “Well, Carnarvon. Carter. Let’s just call them C for now.” And it was stuck. I liked the single letter title. It made me think of Sesame Street. You know, how every episode is brought to you by the letter.
It really did take the second reading to appreciate this book - the first time through, I was a bit like Serge at times, dimly conscious of something else going on just beyond my ken. I won't say that I've grasped everything by reading it twice, but at least I have become more conscious of the things in the background, the connections between the first part and later parts and more appreciative of the writing itself. Despite its being set nearly 100 years ago, there were parallels: sure, the technological developments accounted for were primitive by today's standards, but they were the origins of what we rely upon today, and the issues and conflicts arising then have their modern counterparts. Serge was out there in cyberspace just as much as we are today.

There are lots of reviews out there, but these three contributed most to me:

New York Times review
Slate review
Surplus Matter review: this one shows the connection between Serge and Sergei Pankeyev, a patient of Freud known as the Wolf Man, something I was completely unaware of. There is something I seriously like from the Wikipedia page about Sergei. In C, Serge sees his sister out his window a couple of times at night, dressed in white. According to Freud, Sergei dreamt of a pack of six white wolves but apparently "the expression "pack of six", a "sixter" =
shiestorka: siestorka = sister".

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