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Books

Cracking the code

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C By Tom McCarthy Jonathan Cape 310 pages, Rs 699

There are many stories Tom McCarthy chooses not to tell in C, his tour de force new novel encompassing the short life of one Serge Carrefax, born at the turn of the 20th century on a rural English estate. Serge's father, a manic tinkerer with early wireless technology, runs a school for the deaf but seems oblivious to his own deaf wife, Serge's mother, who's so blinkered on opium that she nearly lets Serge drown in a creek at age 2. Serge's beloved older sister, Sophie, becomes sexually involved with a friend of their father's and winds up committing suicide at 17 - possibly after having an abortion. Serge's relationship to Sophie is preternaturally close, with incestuous overtones, and her death severs his only real human connection. But these dramas are merely suggested, their shadowy outlines ignored, sublimated or flatout denied by those involved;Sophie's self-poisoning is deemed an accident.

McCarthy, author of the ingenious 2006 novel Remainder, withstands the temptations of emotional plotting and holds out instead for something bigger, deeper, more universal and elemental. He seeks the message behind all messages : an original, primordial, unifying signal. The fact that McCarthy manages to satisfy this tall order - while also justifying his odd title in so many different ways - is a testament to his literary resourcefulness and verbal pyrotechnics. Throughout, C (a frontrunner for the 2010 Booker Prize) evokes the communications frenzy of a century ago, as well as our own. Here is Serge as a young teenager, at the start of WW I, turning the dial of his wireless transmitter in search of signals : "The air is rich tonight: still and cold, high pressure, the best time of year. . . . Above 650, 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. "

For all of Serge's lust for coherence, C raises apt questions about the moral and mental hazards of seeking double meanings from the external world. Widsun, the family friend who seduces Serge's sister, is a government official specialising in encryption, and his affair with Sophie begins with his teaching her, against her father's wishes, to crack coded newspaper messages arranging trysts. Sophie's suicide is presaged by a hallucinatory state in which she imagines confluences all around her.

Serge's own sense of meaningful connection is keenest when he's on heroin, but his addiction nearly kills him, and his preference for patterns over people dehumanises him;he likens the men he shoots from the air to singed insects, and becomes sexually excited while mowing them down. As for the spiritualists, their vain hope that wireless communication can reach the dead fuels seances run by opportunistic frauds (ironically, using wireless transmission to pull off the hoax), one of whom Serge spectacularly unmasks.

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. The sense of being prepped for a vast interpretive task is heightened by the large quantities of information that Serge (and the reader) is asked to ingest, imparted by family members - Sophie on natural history, his father on the need for the deaf to vocalize - and then by a series of interlocutors who appear in the novel briefly, for the sole purpose of education: on the nature of bowel blockage and autointoxication;on the challenges of trying to capture combat in visual art;on the history of Alexandria as a communications hub;and assorted other topics. These lectures drag despite their thematic relevance;they feel artificially planted and, at times, alienatingly technical.

The culmination of C so powerfully ratifies its audacious architecture that it justifies the occasional longueurs of getting there. Still, the book's lingering resonance owes less to its strenuous intellectual girding than to the mystery the story nonetheless retains. Like life, which we overinterpret at our peril, this strange, original book is - to its credit - a code too nuanced and alive to fully crack.

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