C by Tom McCarthyC by Tom McCarthy was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, listed as a National Bestseller, shortlisted for the Galaxy National Book Awards – Waterstone’s UK Author of the Year.

Touted as “fascinating”, “extraordinary” and “brilliant” by well-known papers such as The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Publishers Weekly, and The Telegraph. “C is clever, confident, coy – and cryptic.” said The Wall Street Journal; “Tour de force” described the New York Times Book Review.

My question for these reviewers: Really?!? A “tour de force”? An “avante-garde masterpiece”? With “a cleanly constructed narrative”? I’m sorry, but did I miss something? Did we read the same novel?

C takes place in the early years of the twentieth century and ranges from western England to Europe to North Africa. Serge Carrefax spends his childhood at Versoie House, where his father teaches deaf children to speak when he’s not experimenting with wireless telegraphy.

Sophie, Serge’s sister and only connection to the world at large, takes outrageous liberties with Serge’s young body — which may explain the unusual sexual predilections that haunt him for the rest of his life. After recuperating from a mysterious illness at a Bohemian spa, Serge serves in World War I as a radio operator. C culminates in a bizarre scene in an Egyptian catacomb where all Serge’s paths and relationships at last converge.

From the publisher, Vintage Canada

The novel is a straight-up narrative about the life of Serge Carrefax… who, despite some unique circumstances, was rather a dull man. It feels like he’s slogging through the novel, half asleep. Albiet, half the novel he’s high on some drug or another, but the narrative doesn’t need to be so directionless. Serge isn’t very likeable, but there are plenty of unlikeable main characters who at least have some sort of goal, direction, or purpose.

Many of the motifs of the novel start with or contain the letter “C”: communication, chemicals, crypts, codes, copper, and, of course “carbon: the basic element of life” (292). I was particularly interested in the ‘communication’ aspect, due to my studies. At one point, Serge becomes a hobbyist of radio, a budding field of interest. This was probably the most interesting part for me, yet radio only had passing (technical) references and wasn’t much more than a waning interest for Serge.

Tom McCarthy is a talented writer—the prose is reflective, poetic, and deep. The problem is that it just doesn’t go anywhere, and when it gets there, it spends a page detailing something highly technical in industry-specific jargon. I’m sure the wartime communications tactics / deaf education methods / Egyptian myths / chemical concoctions were incredibly well-researched, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

Finished April 29, 2012