Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C—recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—follows Serge Carrefax’s life with an interest more overwhelming than logical; its breadth of information consistently exceeds its depth. Serge grows up nearly untended, but for the tether of his sister Sophie, a curious girl and aspiring scientist whose death under murky circumstances separates him emotionally from his oblivious parents. A spell at an Eastern European spa town exposes Serge to a broader slice of the world, as does a stint in the Royal Air Force during World War I, after which he’s drafted into the Ministry Of Communications to serve as a signal expert on a mysterious errand in Cairo.
McCarthy’s previous book, Remainder, wedded a fine eye for the particular to the tale of a man whose backstory was never revealed, though the fruits of his tragic past let him recreate any situation he desired with as many actors as he chose. The narrator’s exacting eye caused him to caress the details of each scene as he slipped further away from the unrehearsed world. McCarthy applies the same obsessive attention to the intricacies of Serge’s adventures, from the exacting standards of his father’s pronunciation method to the underworld texts of ancient Egypt, but without the counterbalance of mystery: Removed from the postmodern trick that animates Remainder, McCarthy’s narrative is so flat that more interesting characters—like the wealthy playboy Widsun, who appoints himself Serge’s mentor potentially as a front for an affair with Serge’s mother—slide straight off the page. Serge’s internal phantasmagoria enables McCarthy to represent his perspective as a toddler with a fresh palette, but it becomes an obstacle to relating his life story. It’s stifling in the details he misses, as much as the overwhelming tide of those he doesn’t.
Serge’s self-assuredness when pursuing the series of passive love interests carpeting his path is more interesting when McCarthy allows for a glimpse of what he doesn’t pick up on, but those interludes don’t leave a mark. Without a compelling reason to follow its subject’s development, or any clear evidence that he does develop (beyond the unerring passage of time), C resembles a series of snapshots of 20th-century Britain, rich in individual detail, but lacking a connecting thread. Like the coded classified ads Sophie spots in the newspaper and shows her annoyed brother, the significance is lost in the mechanics.