Now that that's out of the way, let's take a look at C, the new novel by Tom McCarthy, itself.
C is divided into four parts: 'Caul', 'Chute', 'Crash', 'Call'.
The plot, let's call it, goes something like this (be forewarned, Spoilers this way lie): Serge Carrefax, like David Copperfield and Hamlet (and my youngest, Wesdom, I might add) is born with a caul. In Western superstition the caul is a sign of good luck; in ancient Egypt it destines the child for the cult of Isis (which factors into the novel's end). It's a good thing, too! Poor Serge needs all the luck he can get because McCarthy keeps trying to kill him.
Serge grows up on the grounds of Versoie, an isolated country estate in early 20th Century England. His family manufactures silk, and his father tries to teach deaf children to communicate by means other than sign language when he is not obsessing about newfangled forms of wireless communication. As a toddler, Serge nearly drowns in a stream while his drug-addled mother lolls uselessly nearby, saved only at the last instant by the childrens' maid/nanny. Serge loves then loses his beloved, volatile dynamo of a sister, Sophie, a brilliant naturalist, who becomes pregnant by the childrens' tutor (and quite possibly Serge's true father (267)), one Widsun who, incidentally presides over Serge's destiny throughout like a distant god. Sophie and Serge miraculously survive a chemical explosion, and, with Serge, we see her fluttering around the grounds of their estate like a disembodied spirit before she poisons herself in shame. She is not so lucky to survive McCarthy's ravages.
Serge then travels to an Eastern European sanitarium to find healing for a nervous condition—clouded vision and coughing up black bile, or melancholy—no one seems to understand. He survives the quacks there and their 'cures'. He discovers sex with his scoliotic masseuse and his vision is restored, but he rejects what could've been, if he'd been psychologically capable of accepting it, an advantageous match with a woman of his own class. Air travel and rumors of war loom.
His vision restored, Serge joins the Royal Flying Corps, predecessor of the Royal Air Force, as an "Art-Obs", a forward airborne artillery observer, and proto-tailgunner. He survives flight training in early rattletrap flying machines that kill nearly as many as they pass. He rubs cocaine on his eyeballs to sharpen his vision. He flies perilously close to an artillery shell as it arcs toward its target. And after freezing during an attack by, presumably, Lt. Paul Friedrich Kempf, a German tri-plane ace coming in from the blind spot of his gun, his plane is shot down and careens into the caul of a parachute of a German balloon observer. Forced down alive behind enemy lines, he is captured and sent to an officer's POW camp where he relishes the fine art of tunneling. He escapes with ease and seemingly miraculously avoids execution as a spy just as the war absurdly ends.
In the aftermath of the Great War, Versoie is in disrepair, its mulberry trees dying from blight. Serge moves to London and half-assedly pursues an education in architecture; survives a bout as a drug fiend, alternating between 'H' (heroin, or sister) and 'C' (cocaine); falls in with and betrays his lover, an actress named Audrey; ingeniously debunks a fraudulent medium, Miss Dobai, and survives the ensuing riot; and overdoses and wrecks his father's car for reasons he cannot quite fathom:
"He's angry at Miss Dobai and her gang, at people for being credulous, at himself for his cruelty to Audrey. He gravitates, naturally, to the Triangle, spends some time in Mrs. Fox's, then stops off at Wooldridge's, then at the taxidermist's. Needing a place to ingest his by-now-considerable haul, and not wanting to return home or retreat to some dingy toilet [N.B.: Remainder, anyone?], he heads for the Holborn basement where his father's car is garaged (he's had the loan of it again for the last two weeks). Retrieving the key from an attendant whose uniform it strikes him in passing, is very similar to that of the Empire ushers, he sits in the front seat and, in the dark and columned vault, injects and sniffs and sniffs and injects, more and more, to try to make the anger go away. It doesn't: it bears down on him from all sides. He decides he's got to make things move.He survives yet again and upon recuperating at the estate, he is called upon by Widsun to go Egypt to spy, essentially, on competing efforts to link up the declining European empires by means of wireless communication. As part of his job, he ventures up the Nile and back in time, discovering a lovely convergence between modern and ancient pylons. He hooks up with a beautiful archaeologist in the uncharted bowels of an ancient tomb excavation under the mystical spell of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, is bitten by an asp or beetle, and dies, we are led to believe, like a great, mythic Northern warrior aboard ship at sea.
He starts the car up…" (235)
(to be continued)
"Dead Set on Destruction," by Hüsker Dü