IN 1898, on a lush, pastoral estate in rural England, Serge Carrefax is born. Serge's father, a boisterous inventor and physicist, runs a school for the deaf where he teaches his young students to read lips, speak, and show off their progress with elaborate stagings of Greek mythology. On the property there are offices and workshops, streams and gardens, a crypt and a hedge maze. Through them Serge doggedly pursues his older sister, Sophie, whose Dionysian spirit enthralls the otherwise detached boy. As much as anyone, Sophie raises her younger brother, and her death at age 17 further compounds Serge's incestuous confusion.

This marvelously rich and surreal setting would be enough in itself to fill a fine book, but for English author Tom McCarthy, it's only the beginning. Serge will soon travel across Europe, visiting the German front of World War I, where he develops tastes for cocaine and heroin as a plane's tail-gunner before shuffling around bohemian London, and later Greece and Cairo.

All the while, C is packed with dense history and scientific detail. Serge is surrounded by an age of invention, and McCarthy explores its subjects with scholarly verve, delving deeply into early electronic communication, cryptography, language, history, physics, botany, and more. At times the extent of detail McCarthy unearths borders on minutia, but they become the tools of a very earnest hope of conceptualizing death.

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One of the most important tools is Serge's own existential disposition. Instead of longing for love or adventure, Serge revels in detachment. He finds comfort in electrical impulses and a skewed take on physics and perspective. Indeed, Serge is no normal boy, or protagonist: He is a window. A conduit.

It sounds confusing, and it is. Throughout its 300 pages of staggering lyricism, C deconstructs many genres—period piece, epic, scientific primer—while satisfyingly masquerading as each. What finally emerges from the complex and beautiful cipher is a metaphysical dip into death's ethereal slipstream. And while it may sound haughty or downright impossible, McCarthy comes as close to actualizing this out-of-body experience as anyone could on paper.

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