‘Where does the human end and technological prosthesis begin?’ – C by Tom McCarthy

Méfie-toi – this novel could seriously damage your brain. Opening with the birth of Serge Carrefax, a boy cocooned in a caul, bombarded with wireless signals, Tom McCarthy’s third novel C conflates technology and epistemology, technics and text, and asks where does the human end and technological prosthesis begin? The opening chapters buzz with energy – indeed, the “bombos” of bombard is also the buzzing of the telegraph, of garden bees, and the vibrating plosives of deaf children forming words. Not only is Serge’s father a genius with telegraphy, he also understands the physiology of airstream mechanism – language as technics. McCarthy certainly does not shirk his responsibility to seriousness and yet, like the declarations, proclamations, and events of the Necronautical Society (McCarthy is General Secretary), the potential and potent intellectualism crackles with wit and humour.

An historical account of technology from sericulture and Huguenot looms to the invention of the Kinetoscope, wireless, the aeroplane and their use in culture and war, C is also a bildungsroman (a formation novel or [in]formation novel) with its attendant personal losses and journeys of self-discovery. Serge is an information freak, channelling radio signals, novels, and music. The passages on the early years of wireless networks and the language used by operators read like descriptions of the Internet and contemporary text messaging. Serge’s sister Sophie experiments on insects, draws charts, cuts out cryptic headlines, creating her own network of interconnectedness while the world forms and reforms in its own historical laboratory, running tests on technology and death.

There is a Joycean and Pynchonesque exuberance, a joy of language, and a realization that words, however abstract, communicate:

            Serge pops its top and pours the water out: it, too, is cloudy,

            darkened sooty.

If a sentence’s network, however complicated, is a means of and to information there is also a concomitant danger of language metastasizing, that same language becoming a virus, self-duplicating, ready to invade the host system’s grammar and logic, becoming a word horde, becoming chaos. It is the interconnectedness, not only of language but also of humans and things, which delivers us from the brink of everythingness and nothingness. McCarthy writes about the fragility of relationships, of the body, of language, and of our increasing dependency on media networks. The narrative moves from a bucolic England to a Bohemian spa city to World War I battlefields to seedy Soho and on to the tombs and stelae of Egypt. The book fairly thrums with insects, incest, geometry, spiritualism, maps, coordinates, the invention and evolution of radio, aeroplanes, codes, weapons, and object-detection systems. If Kafka, according Zizek, eroticized bureaucracy, McCarthy “eroticizes technology” he sexes “things” up.

Damn it. I hadn’t planned to mention any philosophers, scientists, linguists, psychoanalysts, historicists; but I think these and their theories may be summoned in future reviews, dissertations, PhDs, full-length book studies, and companions to this novel. Badiou’s event; Bataille’s base materialism; Baudrillard’s simulacrum; Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction; Deleuze’s repetition; Derrida’s grammatology; Heidegger’s readiness-to-hand; Jakobson’s communication model; Lyotard’s report on knowledge; McLuhan’s media; Simondon’s individuation; Stiegler’s technics and time; Virilio’s integral accident. I’m sure there are those out there in the blogosphere and at university who could and will write one-thousand-word reviews/essays on the influence of any of these thinkers on C – whether McCarthy intended the references or not. Here, let me have a go: I’ll quote from Bernard Stiegler’s “Nanomutations, hypomnemata and grammatisation,” and let you do the rest – do the interconnectedness bit:

“Now a few years into this 21st century, which will be the century of nanotechnologies and which will see unheard of relations between technics, science and desire, the crucial question of what links and distinguishes power, knowledge and the will, i.e., the question of what can, at times, set these infinitives into oppositions, composing them at the same time, by posing them together, this question which, more profoundly and par excellence is the problem of thought and its ass’s skin – as though it diagrammed the mechanism of that stupidity Deleuze called “transcendental” –, this question is a problem for us, so much so as to appear to have become unthinkable, the test and ordeal of powerlessness itself. The great transformation of these terms, inasmuch as they are constituted only through the relation they form, begins with the advent of machines as a stage in the process of grammatisation. I call “grammatisation” the process whereby the flux and flow networking our existences become discreet elements: writing is thus, as the breaking into discreet elements of the flux of speech (let us invent the word “discretisation” for this possibility), a stage in grammatisation. Now, the process of grammatisation, with the dawn of the industrial revolution, suddenly surpasses the sphere of language – one wants to say that the same thing happened to the sphere of logos – and invades the sphere of the body: first and foremost, the gestures of workers, which are discredited, devalued in view of their automatic reproduction – while at the same time the machines and apparatuses of reproducibilities of the visible and the audible appear on the scene.”

C, like its predecessors Tristram Shandy, The Castle, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Naked Lunch, and Gravity’s Rainbow, questions what the novel is, what it can do, what form it can take, and how it exists in relation and reference to other media, other forms of information. It is a novel concerned primarily but not exhaustively with “the flux and flow networking our existences”.

Few English-language novels published over the past twenty years or so have had this ambition and intelligence. Maybe William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987) with its satirical ruminations on technology, the history of electricity, and insects; James Flint’s underrated novel Habitus (1988) with its investigations into the evolutionary forces of audio-visual technology, computers, and space travel; or Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006) and its turn-of the-20th-century examination of techne-mysticical eros and thanatos drives. C is easily the equal of these novels and, in the quality of the writing, surpasses them.

Any Cop?: Included on the 2010 Man-Booker Prize longlist alongside The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner, (and if one includes the contemporary work of Jon McGregor, Glen Duncan, and Scarlett Thomas), C places Tom McCarthy at the vanguard of this exciting generation of innovative British novelists.

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