Written by Tom McCarthy
Review by Doug Kemp

Set in the opening quarter of the 20th century, this is not a novel easy to summarise or capture in a few words. The central figure is one Serge Carrefax born at the end of the 19th century and who, after an unconventional childhood that seems to be set in an almost alternate, gently surreal England, becomes an observer in the Great War. Having survived this ordeal and incarceration in a German prison camp, Serge has various adventures which takes him to the London of the Roaring Twenties and then to Egypt.

But this is not a conventional narrative. The story is completely enmeshed in the developing technologies of the times and Carrefax seems to act as a kind of symbolic receiver and transmitter for the newly-utilised radio waves and emerging science as it affects mankind. His life is interleaved with advances in science and he sees his world through the prism of emerging technologies. An early bereavement seems to dislocate his perspective of the world, which is manifested in singular and eccentric behaviour, leading up to a cocaine and heroin habit during the War and afterwards.

It is all rather clever and intellectual, with threads linking up into an organic whole (the “C” of the title refers to the element carbon as being the building block of life), but it is not a very absorbing book to read. At times, the prose style reminded me of JG Ballard or Will Self. I like literary fiction, but this did not really engage me. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, this is yet another novel narrated in the present tense.