Tom McCarthy's "C," reviewed by Samantha Hunt

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By Samantha Hunt
Tuesday, September 14, 2010


By Tom McCarthy

Knopf. 310 pp. $29.95

The end of Tom McCarthy's extraordinary novel "C" takes readers back to its very beginning. Englishman Serge Carrefax arrives in Egypt as British rule is dissolving. He's an architect studying destruction among the sediment of the earliest civilization. The Rosetta stone mingles with the 1919 revolt. Cleopatra with the Ministry of Communications.

Rather than complicate the novel, this mash of cultures serves as a decoder ring. Meaning, quite suddenly, is doubled, tripled. Scenes that were, on first take, merely finely crafted historical fictions are revealed to be the work of a mind entranced by refrains. Only the dullest of readers will be able to resist diving back into the text for a second look. Thoth, god of secret writing, is grafted on top of Serge's own boyhood preoccupation with codes and communication; Alexander the Great stands in for Alexander Graham Bell; and the Rue des Soeurs in Cairo harks back to a name for heroin, "sister," reminding us of Sophie, Serge's beloved and doomed sibling. Culture gets recycled in this novel, but rather than bore us with each reappearance, it provides the dizzying thrill of familiarity.

What happens in "C"? Serge grows up in the early half of the 20th century. He leaves the silkworm farm of his childhood. He goes to war. He goes to Egypt. He does a lot of drugs, meets a lot of women. And "Ulysses" is the story of a man taking a walk . . .

Shortlisted last week for the Booker Prize, "C" moves in circuits, forever closing in on its topics: radio, World War I, drugs, Egyptology, seances, sisters, spas and silkworms, to name a few. McCarthy's genius comes in convincing his reader of the connections between these distant planets.

"C" traipses through such lush locales as a deaf school in the British countryside, a vaguely Eastern European spa, the airspace above France during the Great War, and the spiritualist communities of London. McCarthy dwells in the historical, but he is hardly bound by the constraints of time. He selects events that, having once happened, reverberate infinitely. There is the sinking Titanic. There is Marconi sending his first "S" across the sea. And there are the hordes of tourists shuffling past the pyramids.

This narrative method is reflected in one of Serge's Egyptian discoveries. Deep inside a tangle of tombs and burial chambers, he points to three ebony statuettes.

"What are those?"

His companion answers, "They're figures for the ka -- the soul -- to dwell in."

"They look like the same person done in different sizes."

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