Big Other is running a book club during 2011, and January’s text is C by Tom McCarthy. The novel really caught my attention when it was published, back in the summer, and I have been very keen to read it. We finally got a copy just before Christmas and so far it has not disappointed.
To keep my thoughts organised, I’ve decided to blog my responses to it, a chapter at a time, here on Paper Knife.
There will undoubtedly be spoilers behind the break.
Part One: Caul
Can a book’s first chapter ever really be about anything except arrivals? Whatever else is happening, there is always one arrival, that of the reader opening the book for the first time, trying to determine what is going on. Sometimes the author gives clues or explanations; other times, it’s up to the reader to piece it together. McCarthy gives the reader a guide of sorts: Dr Learmont, the ‘newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry’, but as he is on his way to Versoie House for the first time, he is inevitably not much help. His own guide, Mr Dean of Hudson and Dean Deliveries, seems to be similarly ineffective: the delivery-man who doesn’t know where he is going.
This first section of the chapter gives the impression that one is making a journey into a landscape that is somehow not quite real. Names like ‘West Masedown’ and ‘New Eliry’ suggest confusion, obfuscation, the vague geography and dreamlike quality of one of Shakespeare’s more pastoral plays. There is a sense of going off the map, and this is exacerbated as Learmont tries to find Versoie House.
There are paths, walls, gardens, ‘a maze-pattern’ but where is the house? The landscape seems to be a labyrinth that Learmont must penetrate. And there is too much of everything: paths, flowers, fruit, walls, vines, the ‘fleshy choreography of multiplied, entwining bodies’. (4) I found myself thinking of country-house poems, such as Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’, or most particularly, Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ with its rampant fecundity.
Note too the quality of stillness and of silence. The contents of the pony trap click and rasp, there is the sound of the horse’s hooves, but Higher, much further out, black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky’. (3) There are children who play silently, a gardener who doesn’t speak when asked questions but who gestures, the taciturnity of Mr Dean. Where there is sound it is somehow not quite right: ‘It sounds distorted, slightly warped–ventriloquised almost, as though piped in from somewhere else.’ (4)
Section ii is an abrupt contrast to the pastoral lyricism of section i. Here there are people, several of them, all asking questions, making assumptions, talking, as it turns out, at cross-purposes. McCarthy finds his comedy in uses of the word, ‘delivery’. Learmont is there to deliver a child but he’s accompanied by goods which are being delivered to the house, and so the maid and the man who come to the door talk at cross-purposes.
This is our first sight of Simeon Carrefax, master of the house, and it is immediately clear that he is obsessed with his work to the exclusion of all else. He fails to register the urgency of Learmont’s attending the birth; Carrefax is preoccupied with how well his telegraphed message was received, with Learmont helping unload the trap, with explaining; this is counterbalanced by the maid’s attempting to take Learmont to her mistress. Speech is constantly interrupted, misunderstood, yet it is clearly of the ultimate importance. Carrefax is concerned that the children (the children Learmont saw?) should speak at all times. Why?
The reader follows Learmont to Mrs Carrefax’s room and the theme f fecundity naturally persists, in Mrs Carrefax’s pregnancy and labour, but there is a sense of heaviness and indolence which seems at odds with a word like ‘labour’. The Oriental tapestries show people at work; Mrs C lies still, drugged – there’s a complicated little dance of words and ideas going on here, hints that resonate through the chapter that Mrs C is addicted. Like Simoen she seems to have turned in on herself. We also learn, critically, that she is deaf, which begins to suggest answers to the earlier puzzle about the children who don’t speak.
When the baby, Serge, arrives, its head is covered with a caul, that is, part of the amniotic sac. A child that is born with a caul is often believed to be clairvoyant, while the caul itself is supposed to prevent drowning. Sailors were often keen to own a caul.
Section iii takes us out of the house, after the child’s birth, to Simeon’s workshop. Here the labyrinthine nature of the estate becomes very apparent, rather Alice-through-the-looking-glassish, as Learmont tries to find his way into the workshop, or maybe a series of Chinese boxes. The imagery shifts back to vegetation, to tendrils, trellises, lacing, vines that turn out to be wires.
It becomes clear at this point, not least because of the reference to ‘the Italian’ that Carrefax is experimenting with telegraphy, in competition with Marconi. His comment about a ‘web around the world’ mischievously foreshadows other webs His final act of the chapter is to telegraph for a trap to take the doctor back to Lydium. Back in the house, his perception of a web is balanced by Mrs Carrefax’s maid, combing her mistress’s hair, its ‘unravelling’ linked to the tapestries portraying the Chinese silk workers.