Tom McCarthy's 2005 debut, "Remainder", managed what the jackets of so many first novels promise: a fresh and—in this case—unsettling take on contemporary life. It is about a brain-damaged man who marshals millions of pounds and a troupe of actors, consiglieres and forensic experts to reconstruct a memory. It is an intentionally confusing and difficult book that manages to draw on both Proust and Beckett, yet remain intoxicatingly readable.
McCarthy's subsequent monograph on Hergé's beloved comic cartoon journalist, "Tintin and the Secret of Literature", his avant-garde collective—The International Necronautical Society—and his second novel, "Men in Space" (2007), have been no less divisive. He has received accolades and abuse, and has squabbled with critics, once declaring that a prominent publication needed a "Semtex enema".
Still, he has been eking out a place in the canon. In her essay "Two Paths for the Novel", Zadie Smith anoints McCarthy's "Remainder" as one of the paths. His latest novel, "C", has been selected for the 2010 Man Booker longlist. Over e-mail, McCarthy spoke with us about authenticity, politics, "Remainder" and "C", a book that is as strange and powerful as anything McCarthy has done before.
More Intelligent Life: Will your new novel "C" rattle audiences as much as your last ones have?
So far in the UK the reviews have either been ecstatic
or excoriating—but the US is a little different, so let's see.
MIL: How do your readers react to you in person?
TM: Funny question. There's no one way anyone reacts to me or anyone else, I'd say.
MIL: "C" takes place at the dawn of the 20th century. What lead you to write about this time period?
TM: It's the period of radio's emergence. Radio is a big presence in the book. It's also the great period of literary modernism, which fascinates me.
MIL: You've said that all contemporary literature must worry through the avant-garde. What does that mean for your writing?
TM: What I said (these things get garbled when they're printed) is that contemporary literature has to deal with the challenges laid down by modernism. The most exhilarating and unsettling upheavals took place in the early 20th century, and to ignore them and go back to writing some kitsch version of the 19th-century novel is ostrich-like.
MIL: It seems many avant-garde works rely on a single conceit. "Tristam Shandy" used lies, "Motherless Brooklyn" used a tourettic narrator. Must avant-garde literature have a single mechanism to be intelligible to its readers?
TM: What's the conceit of "Finnegans Wake" then? I'm not sure "Tristram Shandy" has a single conceit. I suppose there's an inversion of the 'Life and Adventures of' tradition into 'The Life and Opinions of—plus an obvious refusal of certain narrative conventions, for example in Tristram's inability to get himself born for the first third of his own book. But Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is equally full of such refusals: it subverts just about every dramatic convention that it purports to buy into. I'm suspicious of the term 'avant-garde'. I think it should be restricted to its strict historical designation: Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists etc. "Tristram Shandy" and "Motherless Brooklyn" aren't avant-garde novels; they're novels. And very good ones too!
MIL: Does your work have a political purpose? You are, after all the Secretary General of the International Necronautical Society, and have released manifestos and purged the more commercially minded members of your party.
TM: All art is political inasmuch as it takes place within the space of the polis, and involves language and social relations and the Symbolic Order in general. But I never make work that's polemic, or that has a message. That's not what art's there for. What's genuinely radical about good art is that it detonates a kind of ambiguity-bomb at the heart of the polis. That's true from Aeschylus to Joyce. The INS may 'sample' certain obviously recognisable political forms, but always with an ironic logic of citation, not to mention humour.
MIL: The INS has been described as performance art—how does visual art connect with your literary practice?
TM: It's definitely not performance art. It's a kind of overlay of art and literature. There are live events, Hearings, publications, even radio broadcasting propaganda units transmitting William Burroughs-style cut-up messages from galleries over FM. But the INS is anti-theatre. We've argued in the past that all theatres should be turned into car parks. Car parks are really fascinating spaces, full of geometry, technology and menace; anything could happen in them.
MIL: You told the Guardian recently that 'Cults of Authenticity' should be abolished. Were you referring to identity politics, or did you mean literature itself, that verisimilitude—conjuring reality with words—is bogus and backward?
The Guardian was quoting from the INS 'Joint Declaration on Inauthenticity', delivered first by myself and INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley in the Drawing Centre, New York, and subsequently by two actors posing as us at Tate Britain, London. Our critique of the ideology and aesthetics of authenticity had many strands, but the main one was to debunk a notion of self-identity, and of the centred self as the point from which the world is measured.
MIL: So what should take the place of these cults of authenticity? (In novels and otherwise.)
TM: We suggested replacing the notion of the individual with that of the 'dividual'—a subject always-already ruptured, networked, given over to contingency. This applies to literature and art as much as to politics.
MIL: Was the narrator of Remainder someone cult-free? He was damaged by falling debris, which meant he lost chunks of his memory, ties to family and friends, and even his conscience; but he gains an enormous amount of money. He's basically roaming around untethered from anything.
TM: He's not quite untethered: he's completely tethered to his trauma, and the patterns of repetition it bequeaths. In Freudian terms, he's living out the death drive. He's also tethered to the world: he's a poetic materialist.
MIL: What happens to him is pretty bleak. There is something so repellent—yet so compelling—about the way he spirals out of control. Do you think that is why your books have had such polarising effect on your audience?
TM: Liberal humanists hate them. They dislike the violence (although they're perfectly happy to vote for governments that collude in torture). People with a grounding in art or literature tend to like them.
MIL: How do you decide to experiment with such a character? Do you begin a work with a condition in mind, and experiment with it, or did his ailment emerge as a solution to problem or spring fully formed?
TM: I was looking at a crack on the wall and had a moment of deja-vu, just like the hero does in the book. The whole thing came from that, in ten minutes.
MIL: You have a novel in progress that is rumoured to be about oil spills and is called "Satin Island" Is it about the United States? (Satin Island = Staten Island?)
TM: It begins with an oil spill. I was writing it when all that Louisiana stuff happened. It's in its very early stages. I just like the sound of the name, and the image it evokes: Satin Island.
"C" (Jonathan Cape) is out in Britain. It will be released in America by Knopf on September 7th.
~ JAMES MCGIRK
Picture credit: Erinn Hartman