C, By Tom McCarthy

Is mass communication humanity's real enemy?

Peter Carty
Sunday 15 August 2010 00:00 BST

Telecommunications began making radical changes to humanity in the 20th century, blurring boundaries between people and machines. Sadly, much of the progress it assisted has not been ennobling: most obviously, radio transmission helped usher in mechanised warfare which reduced countless millions to pulp and ashes.

The anti-hero of C, Serge Carrefax, epitomises these changes. Carrefax is born into a bustling late-Victorian family which owns a silk-manufacturing business. His eccentric, multi-talented father also manages a school for the deaf, as well as being an obsessive radio inventor. Under his influence, Carrefax learns Morse code and haunts the airwaves at night. When the First World War erupts, he joins the Royal Flying Corps as an observer and immerses himself in vectors, co-ordinates and lines of fire.

C is notable for description which can approach the eidetic. Near the start comes a luminous account of the silk works, but some of the finest writing depicts the carnage of the Front. Here's part of Tom McCarthy's treatment of the sun as it sets on the ghastly mire below: "As afternoons run into evenings, it becomes so saturated with the toxins all around it that it can no longer hold itself up and, grown heavy and feeble, sinks. Serge watches it die time and time again, watches its derelict disc slip into silvery, metallic marshland, where it drowns and dissolves." Drugged with freely available heroin and cocaine, Carrefax finds the Front's degraded morass beautiful, his disengagement engendering dark humour. When his plane is ambushed he is profoundly uninterested in its defence, sitting instead in opiated bliss as his pilot is killed.

The novel tackles several historical settings. After the war, Carrefax roams the London of the Roaring Twenties before setting off for Egypt and its ancient necropolises. McCarthy has researched extensively such recondite areas as seances, opium dens and Central European spas, but the novel's deployment of avant-garde ideas is equally prominent.

His debut novel, Remainder, was rejected by mainstream British publishers before being taken up by an obscure Parisian art imprint. When it gathered widespread acclaim, he became fêted as a writer who had won out despite refusing to compromise his work. In C he continues to mine artistic movements from the past century to produce arresting literature for this one. Carrefax remains an essentially enigmatic personality throughout: the novel's title, indeed, underlines his status as cipher. This lack of affect demonstrates McCarthy's ongoing debt to Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, but perhaps more influential here is the idealism of the Futurists concerning speed, technology and violence, together with their repudiation of humanism.

C's appearance on the Booker longlist prior to publication masks a problem, albeit a problem most writers would love to share. Remainder can lay claim to the status of a contemporary classic and so is an excruciatingly difficult work to follow. In his second novel, Men in Space, and now in C, there isn't the near-perfect marriage of theme and subject matter that characterised Remainder. C contains numerous framing passages to underline the text's concerns with signals, codes and transmission, and they can become obtrusive. "Only disconnect" might be the plea from some readers – but from another perspective that could be superfluous; maybe the novel performs this role for itself, given its preoccupation with death and a final severing of communications.

Issues of motifs aside, C is formidably well assembled and it is admirable for an unashamed literary ambition. As for Serge Carrefax, his networked world has become our world too, and his provisional existence stands as a compelling mnemonic for the inhuman consequences of modern technology.

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