It’s hard to know where to begin with this review. A book that is critically acclaimed and shortlisted for the Booker Prize must be approached with an open mind. While hypnotised by the manic scribbling of the cover art and the cryptic ‘C’, I knew nothing about McCarthy’s novel until I opened it. What I found was a novel about a man’s life, a man, called Serge.
The opening of the book is innocent enough, Serge is born into an eccentric family with a Father who teaches deaf and mute children how to speak and a Mother who herself is deaf. When his Father isn’t teaching children, he is exploring the technology of communication in a pre-WW1 Britain. His Mother, breeds silk worms and sells the finest silks across the world. It all sounds rather pleasant and entering the Carrefax residence is pleasurable as McCarthy uses his beautiful wordplay to set up a strikingly fantastic homestead.
Accompanying Serge for the opening of the novel is his Sister, Sophie, the epitome of confusion as McCarthy begins to entwine his skill for the English language with a most bizarre story. No, bizarre isn’t the right word, lacklustre would be more applicable. C is told over several parts and each one tells a different part of Serge’s life. After his strange upbringing by Mr and Mrs Carrefax and the passing of his Sister (very early in the book) Serge journey’s through an illness which results in a trip across Europe to visit a health spa, time as an observer in the RAF in WW1, drug addled adventure in London and a sojourn in Egypt.
Much of the time I struggled tirelessly to enjoy Serge’s story and by the end, I hadn’t succeeded in my mission. Despite the entire book being wonderfully written using descriptive text that will make your mind bleed, ‘C’ is quite literally one of the slowest and most boring book I’ve read for years. Serge’s story is dull and only sporadically shows promise but these moments are usually combined with other characters, more interesting ones. Such as his Father or reoccurring character, Widsun – government fellow who works with Ciphers, codes and top secret missions.
It’s perhaps the surrounding cast that drowns Serge in a sea of monotony that he’s hard to read, but it’s perhaps the fact that he is incredibly unlikeable. This is a young man who cares little for his family, has no compassion for his fellow man and is obsessed with masturbation, sex in a doggy style position and experimenting with hard drugs. Serge is an intense character and one who is rarely explained and therein lays the problem. We are to think about what causes him to think like this and never have are thoughts neither confirmed nor denied.
As Serge takes after his Father his love for communication technology grows as the book progresses. Communication soon becomes the central point to the novel, but why, is anyone’s guess. Communication seems to link Birth, death and sex in McCarthy’s novel but never in an enlightening way, quite the opposite, to be honest. It’s all very confusing and leads to many instances when I put the book down on my lap and actually wondered out loud what I’d just read. An example of the bewilderment felt would be as Serge, high on Heroin in a plane above the WW1 trenches is so overwhelmed by his attack on the Germans that he ejaculates over the side of the plane.
There is a moment, two thirds into the novel, where Serge visits a spiritual medium, I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it for those who want to read the book, but it’s a moment that is so interesting that it makes you wonder why more of the book didn’t receive this attention. Serge is finally a hero, he is cheeky, smiling and wonderful. It’s a moment where emotions spill from the reader and merge with the prose and you feel a weight lift from your shoulders. Sadly this moment is fleeting and ‘C’ soon treads the worn path of the last 200-odd pages.
In fact the books denouement leaves nothing but a feeling of relief. Its right to say that much of the book is open to interpretation, which is fine but what a reader is meant to interpret from two paragraphs about advertisements in an Egyptian newspaper, is beyond me. McCarthy writes so much descriptive text that it drowns his story until lost. As a Booker shortlisted book it’s worthy for how it’s written, not why it was written.
I can imagine a second read would enlighten the reader more and its use in a book club would be perfect, as its merits can be discussed at length. But, an enjoyable read, it is not, it’s a tough read.