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C is for elemental carbon --- the main building block of life --- and for caul, communication, carbon copy, cocaine and Carrefax. Seemingly endless possibilities abound for connections involving "C" in this peculiar and thoughtful novel nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

"If you've felt that your reading experience is virtually complete or that you've read every style out there, you can be sure that reading C will change your mind..."

If you've felt that your reading experience is virtually complete or that you've read every style out there, you can be sure that reading C will change your mind --- if you're up for the challenge. The writing style is postmodern, but difficult to characterize and unique from any novel I've read. It presents a convoluted journey that intends reading to serve a purely literary purpose and one that doesn't directly inspire or teach, or help you relate to characters, but deciphers hidden consequences and symbolic significance in short-story format that (hopefully) by the end will join the story into a cohesive whole.

The subject here is Serge Carrefax, a British child who grows up at a prestigious school for the deaf that is run by his father, who is the Headmaster. Serge and his sister Sophie are not deaf but live there with their parents, and the story commences with the birth of Serge, wherein a physician is called to the estate to deliver the baby boy. Up to that point, his mother --- who is deaf --- had been attended by one of the school's employees during her labor, while her husband remains distracted. After a difficult labor, Serge is delivered healthy but with a caul --- a thin membrane that covers his scalp. This is removed uneventfully while the doctor remarks, with some significance, that many consider this an omen of good luck. That communication is lost on the baby's mother, however, because she doesn't wish to take the information in. This is the first of many instances where something seems amiss, and while the woman recedes into her mind, the doctor and baby are virtually ignored.

Future stories center on the childhoods of Serge and Sophie, who grow up detached, living away from the obsessions of their parents. Nursemaids attend to them while their mother manages a silk production plant and their father his school and various inventions involving communication. They keep each other company and throw themselves into their mischief, games concocted by inquisitive young minds but leading to more dubious, unusual activities. Both scientifically-minded children spend a lot of time willingly within the confines of a lab in chemistry experiments and outdoor expeditions that lead them toward unusual futures, Sophie's involving dissections of various animals and in-depth studies of living things. Sophie's interests progress quite disturbingly toward experiments on mammals and nonsensical research, and the two grow up curiously detached, inquisitive but lacking in moral foundation --- both intensely detail-oriented and impulsive, living life only in the minutiae.

The book progresses with a seemingly random smattering of events, short stories that center on Serge's young and then adult years. He lives surrounded by a number of people and becomes a British soldier in an airborne fleet during World War I, and then later in the employ of the British Ministry of Communications. His job eventually leads him to Cairo and into the Egyptian tombs, and through all, he leads his life continuously detached, seeing everything through the microscope that defines his existence. Nothing makes sense to him on any other scale, and like the insects he's studied, his life is hopelessly segmented and marred by skewed perceptions. He enjoys a few lovely, sharp moments in noticing details but throws himself only toward the physical side of the world, and his lens stilts not only his own enjoyment but the reader's too. Trysts with Serge's lovers are only ever that: a physical detail, lacking in feeling or devotion. Viewed through the eyes of an unfeeling hawk, his life makes the world seem a bland and barren place.

C is an unusual book that seems an exercise in distortion and irony with its many skewed perceptions and unusual writing style. While I recognize that it's quite well-written, it is also continuously difficult to read. The segmented style, while obviously intentional, left me feeling an overall lack of cohesion to bring the story together, and the absolute lack of emotion or joy in any of the characters greatly affected my enjoyment of it. There seems to be a calling here for a very specific audience: not the masses who are looking for clear and exhilarating entertainment or inspiration, but a more supremely academic audience who appreciates subtlety and highly challenging books. Readers should also bear in mind the alternate reading purpose here of an experience that delights in gathering new ideas and themes while being willing to continuously plough through unclear plot lines and decipher difficult --- and often uncomfortable --- challenges.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith on December 26, 2010

by Tom McCarthy

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307388212
  • ISBN-13: 9780307388216