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Tom McCarthy's "C," reviewed by Samantha Hunt
"They are: if one gets broken, the ka moves on to another; plus, they show the dead man in three periods of life -- childhood, youth, age -- so that he himself can relive all three, enjoying them simultaneously."
These circuits speed up and repeat. Patterns and people reappear. Scars are reopened. While recovering from a loved one's suicide, Serge studies a tapestry in a German spa that depicts a scene of torture. In it he sees the face of both his physician and his childhood pediatrician: "Maybe Dr. Filip's just the latest incarnation of a character as old as this town itself, Serge thinks to himself -- a figure who reappears in era after era, like Dr. Learmont's face repeating through the sickbed afternoons of his childhood, but on a larger scale, one to be measured not in the memories of a single life but over centuries."
Indeed, after brief costume changes, McCarthy's characters, images and symbols all play multiple roles. The dead return in slightly altered forms. Even Serge himself works a double shift. It's hard to deny the similarities between him and Sergei Pankejeff, the Russian aristocrat whom Sigmund Freud referred to as "Wolf Man."
Representing "a semi-fictitious avant-garde network" called the International Necronautical Society, or INS, McCarthy published a manifesto in 1999 that announced: "Death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit. . . . We shall attempt to tap into its frequencies. . . . Our ultimate aim shall be the construction of a craft that will convey us into death in such a way that we may, if not live, then at least persist. With famine, war, disease and asteroid impact threatening to greatly speed up the universal passage toward oblivion, mankind's sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways."
Colonizing death? Dying anew? No wonder it's hard to say where this book starts and ends.
Language and letters are not left out of McCarthy's cycling. The C of the title certainly stands for Carrefax, but also for cyanide, Sophie's poison of choice; cysteine, the amino acid that darkens the spa waters; his father's coils of copper wire; the caul Serge was born under; the air corps where he first snorts cocaine; Morse code; and even the cc of Serge's carbon-copied reports. Like these reports, everything here is ink-stained, including the author. McCarthy reignites the literary pyrotechnics of Perec, Calvino, Joyce and Sebald. Words are celebrated in vocabularic feats -- Page 117 alone delights a word-lover with "syzygy," "invigilator" and "fusee." Poetry is fired in gunshot blasts that, at times, hit actual human targets: "The words fly from his gun into the sea, hammering and splintering its surface."
As the novel closes, Serge, in a fever, becomes the thing he so often held in his hands: a radio receiver, open to every channel, jammed with all that's come before. In creating a work that recycles itself and our culture, McCarthy has produced something truly original.
Hunt is the author of "The Invention of Everything Else," a novel about the life of Nikola Tesla.