Tom McCarthy

A-CBritish writer and conceptual artist Tom McCarthy had a critical hit with his debut novel, Remainder ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2007), the story of a man who uses a large settlement to recreate a moment of déjà vu in minute detail. McCarthy's latest effort, C, is an expansive, experimental biography set around the turn of the last century. The novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The Story: C is the biography of the short, eventful life of Serge Carrefax, an enigmatic boy growing up on an English estate with a father who is a cutting-edge inventor and heads a school for the deaf. Serge is followed, it seems, by the letter "C," which drives the novel's four sections--"Caul" (a homage of sorts to Dickens's character David Copperfield), "Chute," "Crash," and "Call"--as well as most of the episodes in Serge's life. But the novel also catalogs fin de siècle Europe: the introduction of groundbreaking technology like Morse code, the radio, and Tesla's work with electricity; the political tensions leading to World War I; and many more mystical episodes that connect Serge to the larger world and that blur the boundaries between dream and reality.
Knopf. 320 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307593337

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"With C, Tom McCarthy has written an avant-garde masterpiece--a sprawling cryptogram--in the guise of an epic, coming-of-age period piece. ... C is coming-of-age as philosophy, philosophy as fiction, fiction as ‘dummy-chamber' (‘the real thing's beyond')--the novel as encrypted code for life." Meehan Crist

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The end of Tom McCarthy's extraordinary novel C takes readers back to its very beginning. ... In creating a work that recycles itself and our culture, McCarthy has produced something truly original." Samantha Hunt

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Serge's life--and his obsessions with telegraphy and Morse code--reads like W. Somerset Maugham tweaked to a frenetic and distorted frequency. C is also a novel about connections." Keith Staskiewicz

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"C is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of meaning: our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. ... 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." Jennifer Egan

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The formal difficulty of C may go back to the postmodern idea that shifts interest from the ‘what' to the ‘how' of art, the game of problematizing. ... C is clever, confident, coy--and cryptic." Alexander Theroux

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Very similar themes [like Remainder] lie at the heart of [McCarthy's] disappointing and highly self-conscious new novel . ... C fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Even with a good deal of mainstream attention for his third novel, C, Tom McCarthy is still something of a fringe writer. That's by choice, and not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe McCarthy, who owes a debt to James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and the French nouveau roman, has it right when it comes to the writer's prerogative. "There is an intrepid attitude to Mr. McCarthy's literary sally that has little to do with pleasing publishers or an audience," writes the Wall Street Journal. The result is simultaneously brilliant, cryptic, reflexive, and difficult, and McCarthy seems to be content with letting his audience find the story here. Despite being an "experimental" novel, C is never less than thought-provoking, particularly for the multilayered narrative whose threads invite recognition while resisting interpretation. Only the New York Times thought otherwise--but that's Michiko Kakutani for you.