THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

‘C’ examines quest to communicate

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 9, 2010

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The baby was born with a caul, the doctor is telling the infant’s father. “A veil around his head: a kind of web,’’ the physician explains, a few hours after the birth. “It’s meant to bring good luck — especially to sailors.’’

“Sailors?’’ scoffs the father, fiddling with his copper telegraph wires. It is just before the turn of the last century, on a grand and peculiar estate in rural England, and technology is advancing at an intoxicating pace. “I tell you, Doctor: Get this damn thing working and they won’t need luck. There’ll be a web around the world for them to send their signals down.’’

Signals — the transmission and reception of them, the missing and misapprehension of them — are a central obsession of British author Tom McCarthy’s cryptically titled “C,’’ an extraordinarily transporting novel that manages through its very precision of language to weave a moving, mordantly funny, deeply absorbing narrative into an intricate lattice of ideas.

McCarthy’s fascinating and intensely weird debut novel, “Remainder,’’ so far his only other novel published in this country, was nearly overwhelmed by the intellectual constructs driving it. This time, the storytelling largely prevails. So does the soundscape — a strange and remarkable element to ascribe to a book, but one McCarthy crafts so exquisitely that we even hear his silences, and can be stunned by them.

At the center of “C’’ is Serge Carrefax, the baby whose arrival beckoned the doctor. We watch him grow up on the estate with his older sister, Sophie, largely cared for by servants, their parents being otherwise occupied. Their father, an eccentric who dabbles in inventing, runs a day school for deaf children, whom he teaches to speak and forbids to sign. Their languorous mother, deaf and a junkie, oversees the family’s silkworks.

Serge inherits affinities from each of his parents, but his adolescent metamorphosis into a radio bug — an echo of his father’s preoccupation with communications — is unaccompanied by the older man’s utopian conviction that a planet whose people can talk with each other is a planet less likely to engage in war. That ideology, so similar to contemporary tech aficionado gospel, is hardly the only parallel McCarthy draws to the present.

But the purview of “C’’ is much broader than communication by mechanical means, or even by written or spoken language. The failure to make contact with and sufficiently comprehend the people closest to hand has devastating effects in Serge’s life, whether at home in England, where even the children at the day school recognize the adult language of intimacy, or in the air over France, where he flies missions during World War I.

The human quest to connect with realms that may or may not exist is ever-present, too. Is it possible to commune with the dead? In some other dimension, is the past still playing out — and if it is, do its sound waves reverberate in this dimension? Is the sound of the past part of the static that surrounds us? And if we can’t agree on what the past was — if, from culture to culture, our legends and histories and religions conflict — is there any hope for global understanding in the present?

Toward the book’s close, McCarthy loses control of his narrative a bit and suddenly resembles a professor racing to get through the syllabus before the semester ends: so many ideas to impart, so many points to underline, so little time remaining. What we get for that final stretch is more lecture than literature, but it can only blunt, not negate, the signal achievement that’s come before.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

C By Tom McCarthy

Knopf, 310 pp., $25.95