By Samantha Hunt
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; C02
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."
"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.