Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Book thirty-one: C by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy's novel C may be the best-written book I've read this year.  Is it the year's best book? I'm not sure.  But it's easily in the top three or four. And I'm having a hard time thinking of a book that is better written.  Maybe Tinkers.

The book follows the life of Serge Carrefax, from his unusual birth, through his service in World War One, to a drug fueled college career, and on to a return to government service with a stint in Egypt. I picked this book up because a reviewer I respect gave it high marks and called it "strenuously intellectual."  I took that as a reading challenged and expected a book that would be difficult, but hopefully rewarding.

What I didn't expect was a book that was delightful and beautiful.  Sure, there are a lot of historical, philosophical, and scientific references in this book that went right over my head.  I'll bet there are a whole grundle of references that I didn't even know were references.  But you can read this book on other levels.

For example, you can read C just for the stories.  I loved the opening section about Serge's childhood and growing up in a quirky British family.  We meet his father Mr. Simeon Carrefax, a brilliant character. He's a tinkerer of early wireless technologies who receives a delivery of copper wires in the same wagon that brings the doctor who delivers Serge.  Carrefax runs a school for deaf children that refuses to allow sign language. All this takes place at the quirky family estate known as Versoie.  This is such a wondrous, weird, funny place that I'm considering naming my house Versoie.  I might even take to insisting that friends refer to the front yard as the "Mulberry Lawn" and the back yard as the "Crypt Garden."  I could grow lime trees and keep bees.

You can also read this book on a literary level. C makes you wish for one of your favorite college literature professors to guide you through the themes.  The book crawls with insects that seem to invade the electrically charged story.  There's a Kafka-esque merger of bugs and technology and humanity.  This is a place where even the fireflies pulse "photically, in dots and dashes." This hints at another of the book's central themes: the buzzing, whirring, electrified technology that drives the character's lives.  C takes the early communications technology of the late 19th and early 20 Centuries and uses it to say something about now.  Maybe that's because we too find ourselves wrapped up in figuring out a whole new set of communications technologies.

One of the best reasons to read this book is the writing. Tom McCarthy is one talented writer.  C offers a dreamy, liquid style that might be pompous if it weren't so beautiful. Even though lush, the writing doesn't gets in the way of the story. Some passages are lyrical, almost poetic and themes emerge and re-emerge in subtle and delightful ways.

Sure, I'm still trying to process the book's fantastical, fever-induced hallucinogenic ending but even that is good reading.   So maybe I'll just wander out to the Crypt Garden, check in on the bees, and ponder it all.

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