We follow the protagonist (Serge Carrefax) of this novel from his first mewling's through the screams & shouts of the first world war & right up to his very last whisper. His childhood is spent at an experimental school for the deaf, loosely brought up by a father whose work is at the cutting edge of communication technology & a mother who creates tapestries from home produced silk whilst existing in some opium dream unaware of the everyday world around her (to the extent that a 2 year old Serge almost drowns). In fact his whole world at this time appears abstract and theoretical, as if it was at least one stage removed from reality. The only bright burning life force is his sister Sophie, who is a constant source of curiosity, dragging him along on her latest challenge / experiment, then dumping him when she’s bored. A typical younger brother, Serge wanders aimlessly in Sophie's shadow, she’s abnormally bright, a naturally gifted student, knows the names of all the plants in their garden, is obsessed with her chemistry experiments, she even poisons the family cat, then takes immense pleasure in performing taxidermy on it ( to be added to the family collection?). Time barely moves, Sophie has her Phytology & chemistry, Serge developes an interest in wireless communication until one day Sophie goes to college, falls in love (unrequited?) & commits suicide, there follows a hasty funereal, which has the appearance of a pageant and very few signs of emotion.
Whilst at a health spa, for some bowel blockage, he chooses to loose his virginity to his crooked backed nurse, who he leaves without a backward glance as he volunteers to join the British army’s flying corps at the start of the first world war. As a wireless operator in spotter planes, he developes a cocaine & then a heroin habit, giving him a new perspective whilst flying in the fighter planes.
“Whole swathes of space becoming animated by the plumed trajectories of plans and orders metamorphosed into steel and cordite, speed and noise. Everything seems connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far end of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays.”
In fact such is his change of perspective, that his pilot is killed as he watches the enemy attack, refusing to defend the plane he is in because
“The German aeroplane is beautiful, elegant and agile; and it’s selected them, of all the men and machines in the battlefield, to bear down on them with its colour and its words ---- as though, like an annunciating angel, it had a message to convey-“
Serge survives, becomes a prisoner of war, escapes, gets captured as a spy and is released as the war ends. Back in England he half heartedly studies architecture whilst partying with actresses, artists, before nearly dying again, after he recovers he becomes a spy (inept) in Egypt.
If you’ve wondered why after telling this much of the story, there is no warning (Spoiler alert) giving you advance notice of revealed storylines, why I’ve even revealed the amount I have - my reasoning is that for every line I have shone a light on a dozen have remained occluded, this book has messages, tangents, clues - some relevant, some labyrinthine - leading to dead ends or passages angled slightly left of perspective, only seen from the corner of our vision. This is a book of dots and dashes, of communication and its lack, because like Pynchon, the author uses codes, signs and semiotics.
“It’s dusk; the museum’s rooms and corridors are murky. The two men stand quite static, Petrou sideways-on to Serge, his gaze fixed on his chest -- as though they, too, were sculptures, syncretic overlays of eras and mythologies, gods, mortals and their relics. they remain like this as Petrou continues, in a voice becoming fainter all the time, his recitation
“For after this night cometh…?”
Also like Pynchon, Tom McCarthy plots a large story using a microscope, to zero in at certain aspects before pulling back for a wider perspective and this has a wide perspective, covering everything from the life cycle of silkworms, early telecommunications, through the first world war fighter planes and Egyptology. This is a large tale told very well, not all of it understood some, like all communication, falters in the telling or is only understood after the fact, understood to late, and some like old radio transmissions bounce back from old satellites and other orbiting debris to haunt, ghost signals constantly flashing at the edges of consciousness.