Medium is the message

Tom McCarthy
Jonathan Cape; £16.99

SERGE CARREFAX enters the world shrouded in a caul, a membrane to which superstition attributes great luck. That a caul is also defined as a spider’s web is no coincidence in a home in which the deaf mother runs a traditional silk manufacturing business and the scientist father leads the electric charge into the 20th century of mass communications.

From the outset, the events which influence the young Serge are scientific rather than emotional, factual rather than superstitious, predetermined rather than wilful.

C opens with the arrival of Dr Learmont at Versoie, the home of the Carrefax family which also houses the father‘s school for the deaf, and his attendance at the labour of Serge’s mother. “Painful?” Learmont asks her when it’s (her contraction) over.

“It is as though I had been poisoned,” she replies.

Later, when Serge’s sister, Sophie, dies of cyanide poisoning, we realise we are within a web of signs, symbols, metaphor and wordplay. Previously, on the moonlit Mulberry Lawn, Serge found his scientist sister manic and searching for the Balkan Beetle, which she describes as a type of flying insect: “When one antolie colony attacks another, they cut the victims up, and leave their limbs and torsos lying around the battlefield ... She looks as though she were tuning into something — as though she had turned herself into a receiver.”

This prophet for the electronic age has just presaged World War I, and McCarthy has announced a novel in which the protagonist is dead, replaced by a facilitator, a conduit for information, if not meaning.

Thus, Serge finds himself in the world of cyphers and signals as a flight observer in the war; taken prisoner and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp where escape tunnels correspond with the circuitry of the worldwide radio web; a drug-addicted, architectural student in Roaring Twenties London; debunker of spiritualist communication with ghosts of Christmas past; and the fateful spreading of his seed in a pharaoh’s tomb which leads to a nip from a scarab on the ankle, and an ironic meeting of life and death.

Serge is attended in his death throes by a ship’s doctor, which closes the circuit opened by Dr Learmont at Versoie. In his fever he inhabits the body of a giant beetle: Kafkaesque, but closure of the circuit that opened with Sophie in the Mulberry Garden. The antennae and feelers of this creature he attaches to any orifice possible (recalling Sophie’s crypt into which his father placed a Morse switch by which Sophie might communicate if her death had been misdiagnosed), but again there is no message.

Tom McCarthy is a gifted writer. On the evidence of C, he is taking the novel to new ground. He has the mind of a philosopher, the eye of an artist and the ear of a poet. By repetition and layering of detail, and the unremitting play with polarities, together with a wry humour, McCarthy’s technique unravels the unsettling truth that the medium is the message and we are faced with “... this world, the only world, in which a table is just a table, paintings and photographs just images made of matter, kites on walls of playrooms unremembered and the dead dead.”


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