Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Tom McCarthy

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase C

Title: C
Author: Tom McCarthy
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 310 pages
Availability: C - US
C - UK
C - Canada

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : artful novel of connections and transmission, but very grounded in the conventional

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2010 Rachel Kushner
Financial Times . 13/8/2010 Scarlett Thomas
The Guardian . 31/7/2010 Christopher Tayler
Harper's A 9/2010 Jonathan Dee
Literary Review . 7/2010 Jonathan Derbyshire
London Rev. of Books . 9/9/2010 Jenny Turner
The LA Times A 12/9/2010 Meehan Crist
The Nation . 22/11/2010 Ben Ehrenreich
The NY Tmes Book Rev. . 12/9/2010 Jennifer Egan
The Spectator B+ 14/8/2010 Jonathan Beckman
The Telegraph . 15/8/2010 Beth Jones
The Telegraph A 23/8/2010 Stuart Evers
The Times . 7/8/2010 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 20-7/8/2010 Ben Jeffrey
The Washington Post . 14/9/2010 Samantha Hunt
Wall St. Journal . 10/9/2010 Alexander Theroux

  Review Consensus:

  Find it quite interesting

  From the Reviews:
  • "But in C, trauma is also historical, a byproduct of war and of progress, far larger in scope than one psyche, and played out across time and space that its protagonist merely occupies. (...) History, in C, shapes even the most intimate details of the characters's lives and outlooks." - Rachel Kushner, Bookforum

  • "McCarthy’s project is ambitious, clever and, when he writes about it in essay form, exciting. As a novel, it remains frustrating. (...) The novel asks to be decoded, and I’m sure many readers will enjoy transcribing its impressionistic dots and dashes" - Scarlett Thomas, Financial Times

  • "C is a 1960s-style anti-novel that's fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity. On the face of it, though, it's a historical fantasy, sometimes witty and sometimes eerie, built around the early years of radio transmission. (...) The near-Joycean scale and density of all this is truly impressive, as is McCarthy's ability to fold it into a cleanly constructed narrative, which has its boring stretches but also moments of humour and weird beauty. Yet its mind-blowingness as a reading experience depends on the reader's appetite for certain types of analysis." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

  • "C, though, is 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 Joyce's Ulysses (.....) In a style concerned much more with precision than with received standards of literary beauty, McCarthy stretches a canvas broad enough to incorporate sex,drugs, war, incest, espionage, suicide, and Egyptology. However openly he may fly the flags of his key influences, one has the distinct sensation while reading C that one has never read anything like it before; and we're pretty late in the game to be able to say that about anybody. (...) C may not put the novel itself onto some new path, but it is a work of outstanding originality and ambition " - Jonathan Dee, Harper's

  • "Here, the recurrent motif is radio static -- the novel hums with electrical interference and the white noise of botched or blocked signals." - Jonathan Derbyshire, Literary Review

  • "As will, I think, be obvious, I had a whale of a time with this book, propped on my laptop, Wikipedia open in one window and in another, the OED. It was like being a guest at the dream-party of an extremely well-read host: things read a long time ago and more or less forgotten, things never read that I always meant to, things I certainly will read now, having seen how McCarthy can make them work." - Jenny Turner, London Review of Books

  • "Tom McCarthy has written an avant-garde masterpiece -- a sprawling cryptogram -- in the guise of an epic, coming-of-age period piece. (...) 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." - Meehan Crist, The Los Angeles Times

  • "He has written an extraordinarily smart, complex and entertaining novel, a real rarity. Amid all the hair-pulling about the death of the book and literature's grim future -- topics with which McCarthy is in constant if subtextual conversation -- this novel, at least, is alive and unafraid of its mortality. Even as it declares the demise of literature's most ancient hopes, from pylon to pylon C positively hums." - Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation

  • "McCarthy’s prose strategy in C is not far from Serge’s druggy reveries -- he aligns disparate things into larger patterns full of recurring images: analogies between the human body and earth, and machinery; hums and whirs; film screens; bowels and tunnels; electric circuits; cauls and other silken membranes. These repetitions come to feel like the articulation of a larger code -- as if, were readers to plot their exact positions throughout the novel, they would discover a hidden message. (...) And indeed, the culmination of C so powerfully ratifies its audacious architecture that it justifies the occasional longueurs of getting there." - Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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. (...) There is a great deal else to admire. (...) Yet, unlike the radios strewn across it, C is less than the sum of its parts." - Jonathan Beckman, The Spectator

  • "A beautifully crafted bildungsroman (.....) (W)hatever C’s place in literary history, this is a beautiful, accessible novel with 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." - Beth Jones, The Telegraph

  • "In C, as with his previous fiction, McCarthy has attempted to take the avant garde’s concerns and lash them to plot and narrative – and the result is a dizzying, mesmeric and beautifully written work that repays close rereading. This is not to say that C is faultless. (...) Tom McCarthy has written a novel for our times: refreshingly different, intellectually acute and strikingly enjoyable." - Stuart Evers, The Telegraph

  • "While C is unquestionably brilliant, usefully denting the model of the psychological realism that is the dominant mode of our conservative times by its unique, disorientating glance at modernism, it is less experimental than its predecessor, Remainder, or any of the novels mentioned above. It takes no risks with form and structure, using the realist frame for its own subversive purposes. Instead, it’s the constant ripple of subterranean correspondences, the whispery yet omnipresent symphony of codes and signals that provides the matrix of the book, that kinks it into a new thing." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "Technology fills the space left by introspection. Carrefax's relatively mute inner voice has the advantage of leaving him free to focus on phenomenology. The plot is more or less perfunctory -- hist story is really a portal onto the transfromation in the world's texture inthe first twenty years of the last century, when static fills the air "like the sound of thought itself,its hum and rush". (...) While there is much topique the curiosity in McCarthy's new novel, it remains a disappointingly miscellaneous whole, not quite in balance, or completely outwitting cliché" - Ben Jeffrey, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In creating a work that recycles itself and our culture, McCarthy has produced something truly original." - Samantha Hunt, The Washington Post

  • "The appeal of C depends in part on Serge as a character -- a matter rather ambiguous as presented, since he carries the burden less of a moral force than of a groping anti-hero. He can appear uncannily sterile and robotic. We see him as a sort of cubist puzzle (.....) C is a novel of cognition. Throughout, Serge probes, explores, investigates, and the reader must likewise tease out the mysteries of both the narrative and its main character." - Alexander Theroux, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       "Surtout, the C: the C is everywhere", a character observes towards the end of C. She means carbon, the "basic element of life", but variations of C abound in the novel, from its title to the titles of each of the four sections, 'Caul', 'Chute', 'Crash', and, completing the circle, 'Call'.
       The protagonist is Serge Carrefax, born at a school for the deaf run by his father, in 1898, and the book follows him through various stations in life, first at home, then at war, where he is an observer and spotter on flights across the front before being captured and interned as a POW, then as a student (of sorts) in London, and finally on assignment in Egypt around the time it gained independence from Great Britain (in 1922).
       Serge's father is fascinated by the possibilities of electro-transmission, as communication via wires -- and, soon, wirelessly -- are rapidly taking hold in the England of the day. Serge also comes to spend hours listening to the new information being tapped out in the air all around on his little RX station. Here, every night, he finds:

     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.
       It is a recurring, even dominant theme. So, for example, while flying Serge also finds:
Everything seems connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far end of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays.
       Equally significantly, it is a growing continuum -- and perhaps one which can be mapped at some point, in some way: as Serge's father points out:
Well, these electrical disturbances, once created, outlive the moment of their generation. If they remain behind indefinitely, they're detectable indefinitely, n'est-ce pas ?
       C is about trying to see, as well -- or perceive: the school for the deaf is yet another example of how communication is possible and can be passed on. There are also false trails, such as spiritualism (which Serge effectively debunks).
       Serge's life moves from his childhood home of Versoie -- a place that comes to seem like a shrunk "model of the world", though even early on he recognizes "the little household's fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it" --, to Egypt, where his job is to help with the establishment of "the (still largely prospective) Empire Wireless Chain", meant to reach all the farthest reaches. There are curtains -- beginning with the caul he is born with -- and some are lifted, but not all the connections are readily discerned.
       Serge has an older sister, a scientific prodigy, and it is her death that is the book's core event. Serge, curious but lacking his sister's abilities -- tellingly, he: "has a good feel for line and movement, but he just can't do perspective: everything he paints is flat" --, lets himself drift through life rather aimlessly. He lives in the moment, rarely bothered about goals, aims, or consequences. He's drawn to drugs, too -- the heightened sense of perception they offer, in particular.
       Serge's lack of ambition is perhaps the novel's greatest weakness: while McCarthy does well in the moment, his lack of any greater vision for Serge means that the novel proceeds episodically and without much momentum. The larger picture, of an interconnected world behind all the static, comes across, but it is hammered home from the first and then merely repeated in variations. Indeed, while accomplished, C remains remarkably conventional, and too often feels like an unripened work by A.S.Byatt (an admittedly high standard to hold it to).
       Worthwhile, and certainly a good read, but lacking.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 August 2010

- Return to top of the page -


C: Reviews: International Necronautical Society: Tom McCarthy: Other books by Tom McCarthy under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       English author Tom McCarthy was born in 1969.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2010 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links