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  • Written by Tom McCarthy
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  • C
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On Sale: September 07, 2010
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59445-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

C has been shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.


The acclaimed author of Remainder, which Zadie Smith hailed as “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,”gives us his most spectacularly inventive novel yet.

Opening in England at the turn of the twentieth century, C is the story of a boy named Serge Carrefax, whose father spends his time experimenting with wireless communication while running a school for deaf children. Serge grows up amid the noise and silence with his brilliant but troubled older sister, Sophie: an intense sibling relationship that stays with him as he heads off into an equally troubled larger world.

After a fling with a nurse at a Bohemian spa, Serge serves in World War I as a radio operator for reconnaissance planes. When his plane is shot down, Serge is taken to a German prison camp, from which he escapes. Back in London, he’s recruited for a mission to Cairo on behalf of the shadowy Empire Wireless Chain. All of which eventually carries Serge to a fitful—and perhaps fateful—climax at the bottom of an Egyptian tomb . . .

Only a writer like Tom McCarthy could pull off a story with this effortless historical breadth, psychological insight, and postmodern originality.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

5

i

The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad—and always mute. It’s not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he’s riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words start forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop . . .

He’s got two masts set up. There’s a twenty-two-foot pine one topped with fifteen more feet of bamboo, all bolted to an oak-stump base halfburied in the Mosaic Garden. Tent pegs circle the stump round; steel guy wires, double-insulated, climb from these to tether the mast down. On the chimney of the main house, a pole three feet long reaches the same height as the bamboo. Between the masts are strung four eighteen-gage manganese copper wires threaded through oak-lath crosses. In Serge’s bedroom, there’s a boxed tuning coil containing twenty feet of silkcovered platinoid, shellacked and scraped. Two dials are mounted on the box’s lid: a large, clock-handed one dead in the centre and, to its right, a smaller disc made from ash-wood recessed at the back and dotted at the front by twenty little screws with turned-down heads set in a circle to form switch-studs. The detector’s brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser’s Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn’t any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiverpattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms. The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four-inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap. The spark gap flashes blue each time he taps; it makes a spitting noise, so loud he’s had to build a silence box around the desk to isolate his little RX station from the sleeping household—or, as it becomes more obvious to him with every session, to maintain the little household’s fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it.

Tonight, as on most nights, he starts out local, sweeping from two hundred and fifty to four hundred metres. It’s the usual traffic: CQ signals from experimental wireless stations in Masedown and Eliry, tapping out their call signs and then slipping into Q-code once another bug’s responded. They exchange signal quality reports, compare equipment, enquire about variations in the weather and degrees of atmospheric interference. The sequence QTC, which Serge, like any other Wireless World subscriber, knows means “Have you anything to transmit?”, is usually met with a short, negative burst before both questioner and responder move on to fish for other signals. Serge used to answer all CQs, noting each station’s details in his call-book; lately, though, he’s become more selective in the signals he’ll acknowledge, preferring to let the small-fry click away as background chatter, only picking up the pencil to transcribe the dots and dashes when their basic QRNs and QRAs unfold into longer sequences. This is happening right now: an RXer in Lydium who calls himself “Wireworm” is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General’s plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.

“. . . tht bedsteads n gas pipes cn b used as rcving aerials is well-kn0n I mslf hv dn this,” Wireworm’s boasting, “als0 I cn trn pian0 wire in2 tuning coil fashion dtctrs from wshing s0da n a needle mst I obtain lcnses 4 ths wll we gt inspctrs chcking r pots n pans 2 C tht they cnfrm 2 rgulatns I sgst cmpaign cvl ds0bdns agnst such impsitions . . .”

Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm’s not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word “fashion.” The spacing’s a little awkward also: too studied, too self-conscious. Besides, most bugs can improvise equipment: he once made Bodner’s spade conduct a signal and the house’s pipes vibrate and resonate, sending Frieda running in panic from her bath . . .

Serge moves up to five hundred metres. Here are stronger, more decisive signals: coastal stations’ call signs, flung from towering masts. Poldhu’s transmitting its weather report; a few nudges away, Malin, Cleethorpes, Nordeich send out theirs. Liverpool’s exchanging messages with tugboats in the Mersey: Serge transcribes a rota of towing duties for tomorrow. Further out, the lightship Tongue’s reporting a derelict’s position: the coordinates click their way in to the Seaforth station, then flash out again, to be acknowledged by Marconi operators of commercial liners, one after the other. The ships’ names reel off in litany: Falaba, British Sun, Scania, Morea, Carmania, each name appendaged by its church: Cunard Line, Allen, Aberdeen Direct, Canadian Pacific Railway, Holland-America. The clicks peter out, and Serge glances at the clock: it’s half a minute before one. A few seconds later, Paris’s call-sign comes on: FL for Eiffel. Serge taps his finger on the desktop to the rhythm of the huge tower’s stand-by clicks, then holds it still and erect for the silent lull that always comes just before the time-code. All the operators have gone silent: boats, coastal stations, bugs—all waiting, like him, for the quarter- second dots to set the air, the world, time itself back in motion as they
chime the hour.

They sound, and then the headphones really come to life. The press digest goes out from Niton, Poldhu, Malin, Cadiz: Diario del Atlántico, Journal de l’Atlantique, Atlantic Daily News . . . “Madero and Suárez Shot in Mexico While Trying to Escape” . . . “Trade Pact Between” . . . “Entretien de” . . . “Shocking Domestic Tragedy in Bow” . . . “Il Fundatore”. . . “Husband Unable to Prevent” . . . The stories blur together: Serge sees a man clutching a kitchen knife chasing a politician across parched earth, past cacti and armadillos, while ambassadors wave papers around fugitive and pursuer, negotiating terms. “Grain Up Five, Lloyds Down Two” . . . “Australia All Out for Four Hundred and Twenty-one, England Sixty-two for Three in Reply” . . . Malin’s got ten private messages for Lusitania, seven for Campania, two for Olympic: request instructions how to proceed with . . . the honour of your company on the occasion of . . . weighing seven and a half pounds, a girl . . . The operators stay on after the Marconigrams have gone through, chatting to one another: Carrigan’s moved to President Lincoln, Borstable to Malwa; the Company Football Team drew two–all against the Evening Standard Eleven; old Allsop, wireless instructor at Marconi House, is getting married on the twenty-second . . . His tapper-finger firing up her spark gap . . . Short, then long . . . Olympic and Campania are playing a game of chess: K4 to Q7 . . . K4 to K5 . . . They always start K4 . . . Serge transcribes for a while, then lays his pencil down and lets the sequences run through the space between his ears, sounding his skull: there’s a fluency to them, a rhythm that’s spontaneous, as though the clicks were somehow speaking on their own and didn’t need the detectors, keys or finger-twitching men who cling to them like afterthoughts . . .

He climbs to six hundred, and picks up ice reports sent out from whalers: floeberg/growler 51n 10' 45.63" lat 36w 12' 39.37 long . . . field ice 59n 42' 43.54" lat 14w 45' 56.25" long . . . Compagnie de Télégraphie sans Fil reports occasional light snow off Friesland.
Paris comes on again; again the cycle pauses and restarts. Then Bergen, Crookhaven, Tarifa, Malaga, Gibraltar. Serge pictures gardenias tucked behind girls’ ears, red dresses and the blood of bulls. He hears news forwarded, via Port Said and Rome, from Abyssinia, and sees an African girl strumming on some kind of mandolin, jet-black breasts glowing darkly through light silk. Suez is issuing warnings of Somali raiders further down the coast. More names process by: Isle of Perim, Zanzibar, Isle of Socotra, Persian Gulf. Parades of tents line themselves up for him: inside them, dancers serving sherbet; outside, camels saddled with rich carpets, deserts opening up beneath red skies. The air is rich tonight: still and cold, high pressure, the best time of year. He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils: it, too, carries signals, odour-messages from distant, unseen bowels. When it arrives, he slips the headphones off, opens the silence cabin’s door to let some air in and hears a goods train passing half a mile away. The pulsing of its carriage-joins above the steel rails carries to him cleanly. He looks down at his desk: the half-worn pencil, the light’s edge across the paper sheet, the tuning box, the tapper. These things—here, solid, tangible— are somehow made more present by the tinny sound still spilling from the headphones lying beside them. The sound’s present too, material: Serge sees its ripples snaking through the sky, pleats in its fabric, joins pulsing as they make their way down corridors of air and moisture, rock and metal, oak, pine and bamboo . . .

Above six hundred and fifty, the clicks dissipate into a thin, pervasive noise, like dust. Discharges break across this: distant lightning, Aurora Borealis, meteorites. Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-rich gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould . . .

Once, he picked up a CQD: a distress signal. It came from the Atlantic, two hundred or so miles off Greenland. The Pachitea, merchant vessel of the Peruvian Steamship Company, had hit an object—maybe whale, maybe iceberg—and was breaking up. The nearest vessel was another South American, Acania, but it was fifty miles away. Galway had picked the call up; so had Le Havre, Malin, Poldhu and just about every ship between Southampton and New York. Fifteen minutes after Serge had locked onto the signal half the radio bugs in Europe had tuned into it as well. The Admiralty put a message out instructing amateurs to stop blocking the air. Serge ignored the order, but lost the signal beneath general interference: the atmospherics were atrocious that night. He listened to the whine and crackle, though, right through till morning—and heard, or thought he heard, among its breaks and flecks, the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into waves that had come to bury them.


From the Hardcover edition.
Tom McCarthy

About Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy - C

Photo © Erinn Hartman

TOM McCARTHY was born in 1969 and lives in London. He is known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. His previous books include Men in Space, C, Remainder, and Tintin and the Secret of Literature.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“A tour de force . . . An intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.”
—Jennifer Egan, New York Times Book Review

“Remarkable not for its austerity but for its unlikely, panoramic ambition . . . C is a bird so rare as to seem oxymoronic: an avant-garde epic, the first I can think of since Ulysses.”
—Jonathan Dee, Harper’s Magazine

C is clever, confident, coy—and cryptic.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
“Moving, mordantly funny, deeply absorbing.”
The Boston Globe
 
“Unquestionably brilliant. . . . This is a genuinely exciting and spookily beautiful book, a new kind of joy.”
The Times (London)

“Tom McCarthy has written an avant-garde masterpiece. . . . C is coming-of-age as philosophy, philosophy as fiction, fiction as ‘dummy-chamber’ (‘the real thing’s beyond’)—the novel as encrypted code for life.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“[An] extraordinary novel. . . . McCarthy reignites the literary pyrotechnics of Perec, Calvino, Joyce and Sebald. Words are celebrated in vocabularic feats. . . . [He] has produced something truly original.”
The Washington Post
 
“[McCarthy] is the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel. . . . Genuinely exciting to read.”
—Slate
 
“Clever, confident, emphatic, poised. . . . Whatever happens to this novel or to this writer, a chain of events has been set in motion. Nothing and no one is going to stop it going on and on.”
London Review of Books
 
“A supercharged, fizzingly written Bildungsroman. . . . The remix the novel has been crying out for.”
The Sunday Times (London)
 
“Beautiful . . . a thrilling tale. This is one of the most brilliant books to have hit the shelves this year, and McCarthy deserves high praise for an electric piece of writing which should be read and enjoyed as much as dissected and discussed.”
The Sunday Telegraph (London)
 
“A dizzying, mesmeric and beautifully written work. . . . McCarthy has written a novel for our times: refreshingly different, intellectually acute and strikingly enjoyable. . . . It seems highly unlikely that anyone will publish a better novel this year.”
The Daily Telegraph (London)
 
C is for carbon and cocaine, Cairo and CQ, and many other things besides. Under the elegant curve of the letter lies a fantastically detailed landscape of tiny pen-strokes that, if seen from high enough above, coalesce into a face, laughing uproariously. Tom McCarthy’s latest is terrifically stylish, acrobatic, and insidious.”
—Luc Sante

Awards

FINALIST 2010 Man Booker Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of C, Tom McCarthy’s daring follow-up to Remainder, his stunning debut.

About the Guide

“A tour de force. . . . An intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.” —Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review
 
The acclaimed author of Remainder, which Zadie Smith hailed as “one of the great English novels of the past ten years,” gives us his most spectacularly inventive novel yet.
 
Opening in England at the turn of the twentieth century, C is the story of a boy named Serge Carrefax, whose father spends his time experimenting with wireless communication while running a school for deaf children. Serge grows up amid the noise and silence with his brilliant but troubled older sister, Sophie: an intense sibling relationship that stays with him as he heads off into an equally troubled larger world.
 
After a fling with a nurse at a Bohemian spa, Serge serves in World War I as a radio operator for reconnaissance planes. When his plane is shot down, Serge is taken to a German prison camp, from which he escapes. Back in London, he’s recruited for a mission to Cairo on behalf of the shadowy Empire Wireless Chain. All of which eventually carries Serge to a fitful—and perhaps fateful—climax at the bottom of an Egyptian tomb . . .
 
Only a writer like Tom McCarthy could pull off a story with this effortless historical breadth, psychological insight, and postmodern originality.

About the Author

Tom McCarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. He is known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. His previous books are Remainder and Tintin and the Secret of Literature.

Discussion Guides

1. There are many C’s in C. On page 292, Pacorie says to Serge:

Surtout, the C: the C is everywhere.”
“The sea?” asks Serge.
“The letter: C.”
“What’s C?”
Carbon: basic element of life.”

What is the significance of carbon throughout the novel? What other C’s do you notice, and what might they mean?

2. Read the epigraph from Omar Khayyám. What does this tell us about what we’re about to read?

3. How does McCarthy use the metaphor of transmission and reception? How does the recurrence of codes in the novel tie in to this?

4. At one point in the novel, a character is buried with a wireless transmitter key. How does the relationship between technology and mourning play out in the novel?

5. Serge has trouble with physical perspective. How does this affect his behavior? How does he fare with psychological perspective?

6. How would you describe Serge’s relationship with Sophie? What aspects of their childhood relationship does Serge retain throughout his life? What parts—if any—is he able to leave behind?

7. Discuss the pageant at Versoie. Why did Mr. Carrefax choose the story of Persephone? How does it tie in to the novel’s themes?

8. “What he means is that he doesn’t think of what he’s doing as a deadening. Quite the opposite: it’s a quickening, a bringing to life” (page 159). How does Serge’s attitude toward life and death help him in the war and beyond? How does it harm him?

9. “Just Imagine,” Simeon Carrefax says to Serge on page 198, “if every exciting or painful event in history has discharged waves of similar detectability into the ether—why, we could pick up the Battle of Hastings, or observe the distress of the assassinated Caesar. . . These things could still be happening, right now, around us.” What does this tell the reader about Simeon? And what does Serge’s reaction reveal?

10. In London, Serge develops a heroin habit: “Every week Serge hands over to Barney the fruit of Versoie’s trees and beehives, Barney hands over the goods, and sister roils and courses through his veins” (page 185). What effects does Serge achieve through his drug use? What does he escape thereby, and what—if anything—do the drugs help him see more clearly?

11. Discuss the Miss Dobai setpiece. What point is McCarthy making here?

12. What role does Widsun play? When he requests a private appendix to Serge’s report, what is he asking for?

13. Reread the passage that begins in the middle of page 253, with “Ignoring his words. . .” How is Petrou’s explanation of Sophia significant?

14. Falkiner says to Serge, “This is part of what we’re studying, or should be studying: you have to look at all of this, at all these histories of looking” (page 278). What does he mean by, “histories of looking”? How does this affect your reading of the novel?

15. What is the significance of Osiris and Isis for Serge and Sophie? Why does Serge say, “Isis was a coherer” (page 284)?

16. Serge writes Méfie-toi, “beware,” in his notebook. Why?

17. On page 290, Laura tells Serge that in some burials, “the deceased’s unreported deeds, clandestine history and guilty conscience” were recorded on scarabs. What do insects represent in the novel, from Mrs. Carrefax’s silkworms to the one that bites Serge?

18. How would you interpret Serge’s hallucinations and fever dreams on his journey back to Cairo?

19. 19. Read the complete text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65. How does it relate to Serge’s life?

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,

But sad mortality o’ersways their power, 

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, 

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of batt’ring days, 

When rocks impregnable are not so stout, 

Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O, fearful meditation! where, alack, 

Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 

Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? 
   
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

20. What is a dummy chamber? Why does Serge, in his delirium, say they’re “everywhere” (page 309)?

21. Reread and discuss the last paragraph of the novel. How did you interpret it?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Remainder by Tom McCarthy; Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon; The Wolfman and Other Cases by Sigmund Freud; The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann; Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov; The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot.

  • C by Tom McCarthy
  • September 06, 2011
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780307388216

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