You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


Tom McCarthy's novel C concerns the life of Serge Carrefax, from his birth at the end of the nineteenth century, growing up surrounded by new technologies, and surviving World War I as an observer on a plane. Serge is surrounded by signals, starting with wireless signals even as he is born. His father runs an amateur radio station from his English estate. The estate's main business is the production of silk, and there is also a school for the deaf where children learn to speak in strange cadences. Serge's father insists that the children do not sign, instead they must speak and read each others' lips. Serge's own mother is deaf, placing a wall of silence on their relationship. In these first chapters the themes of communication and encoding are grounded.

Serge and his older sister Sophie make the estate their playground. Sometimes literally, as when they decide to transfer their version of the Real Estate game outside to the gardens, assigning squares for properties and railroads and rolling dice to move. Later, Serge spends his nights listening to Morse code signals from across Europe and beyond, while Sophie searches for a rare insect in their garden. When Sophie dies due to accidentally drinking poison, their father insists that she be buried with a string attached to a bell, so that she may communicate with the outside world if she revives.

Later, Serge travels to a Bavarian spa to be healed of a mysterious malady. The dark water is supposed to cure him, but the enemas only make him feel better for a short while. He examines the pipes that carry the dark water through the town, forming maps and representations in his mind.

Serge gets flight training during the war and is sent off to be an observer at the front. This involves watching enemy gun emplacements and sending signals back to the English artillery about their location and how close the shells are to hitting them. It is during this period that he discovers cocaine and heroine. Flying high, the lines of the landscape take on new depth for him. When his plane is shot down he is sent to a prison camp where the prisoners dig tunnels across the town. The tunnels make new lines and new meanings, though Serge can't make any sense out of them because they never end up going anywhere.

After the war Serge studies architecture half-heartedly (he can only draw the two-dimensional plan view) and meets Audrey, a young woman who introduces him to drug connections. The coded conversations for talking about drugs expand to fill Serge's mind, and he imagines the whole world full of drug codes. The codes take on new meaning when Audrey takes him to a seance. Serge is captivated by the code talking from the dead, until he discovers that the table is tilting by wireless signals from a man in a Fedora hat in the audience. Serge fashions his own device and at the next seance co-opts the proceedings with his own signals.

The story culminates when Serge travels to Egypt for the government to help with the British Empire's radio network. There tourists mingle with striking workers; the English bureaucrats play mind games with the agents of the other foreign governments, who in turn send false messages to themselves and each other. Serge travels with two archaeologists and a chemist up the Nile. He sees the blood of the land in the river and visits a tomb with the young woman archaeologist where they have sex in the dark.

This story is one of levels and layers. Parts take on different meanings as they are transferred or translated. Wireless signals become dots, which become letters, which become codes, which turn into a message calling the doctor for Serge's birth, or instructions for a bombing, or a call from beyond the grave. Serge has to deal with learning the codes of life. The style of the novel is beautiful. The story unfolds from Serge's mind as he sees codes in the world. The insects of the family estate are linked to Sophie's studies, and in the end to the bug that gives Serge his fatal bite. The pieces of the story come together for a satisfying whole. The novel is very enjoyable. A

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