Magazine article The Spectator

Confounded Clever

Magazine article The Spectator

Confounded Clever

Article excerpt


by Tom McCarthy

Cape, £16.99, pp. 310,

ISBN 9780224090209

'C ' is for Caul, Chute, Crash and Call, the titles of the four sections of Tom McCarthy's new novel; for Serge Carrefax, its protagonist; and for, among other things, coordinates, communication technology, crypts, cryptography, Ceres, carbon, cocaine and Cartesian space, motifs that trellis this book.

Serge is born at the end of the 19th century on a comfortable country estate to a mother who manufactures silk and a father who runs a deaf school and devotes his remaining hours to the budding science of telegraphy (the etymological origin of 'Serge' means 'silk', besides the more obvious pun on 'surge'). His sister poisons herself when he is still young, though it is difficult to tell how much this contributes to his subsequent emotional frigidity and self-medication.

Following a brief spell in a central European sanitorium, Serge joins the air force during the first world war, which allows him to continue his childhood passion for wireless technology. His geometric imagination delights in gridded trenches and the arcs formed by artillery shells. After demobilisation, Serge intermittently studies architecture in London, though he mostly consumes large quantites of coke and dope. With the intercession of his godfather, our hero is dispatched to Egypt to expand the imperial telegraph network and ends up joining an archaeological exploration.

As should be clear, the plot is episodic, and serves as a skeletal structure around which McCarthy's themes entwine: electronic transmission, repetition, two-dimensional space, the relationship between death and esoteric knowledge, and the impossibility of communication. These derive - in large part - from McCarthy's long standing interest in French Theory, and he deploys them with great ingenuity. He is especially adept at describing the bursts of static and interference that invade everyday life, whether half-understood snatches of conversation or the silence at the end of a gramophone record 'bursting . . . with a crackle and snap'.

There is a great deal else to admire. In his attempt to transmute ideas into narrative, McCarthy has cultivated a distinctive lexicon crammed with words like 'matter' and 'residue' that hover energetically on the cusp of abstraction and tangibility; and his deadpan humour is evidenced by a table-tilting seance that Serge hijacks when he realises it is directed by remote control (in this case the medium is indeed the message). …

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