LITERATURE— TOM McCARTHY

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Fred­eric Tuten

Tom McCarthy could be con­sid­ered a con­cep­tual artist whose medium is fic­tion. His Satin Is­land is just out. Fred­eric Tuten, the Bri­tish nov­el­ist’s coun­ter­part on this side of the At­lantic, in­ves­ti­gates the novel’s dizzy­ingly di­verse sources.

An over­view of Tom McCarthy as a writer and artist barely hints at his ex­tra­or­di­nary in­tel­lec­tual and cre­ative energy, his wit, his mis­chievous­ness, and his un­adorned pas­sion for ideas. To read McCarthy is to be in con­tact with, for starters, James Joyce, the Fu­tur­ists and Sur­re­al­ists with their man­i­festos, Freud, Der­rida, Hergé, Lévi-Strauss. I come away from his work not only with a sense of my own en­rich­ment, but with the de­sire to fur­ther en­rich my­self. What is the point of read­ing fic­tion, if not that?

McCarthy’s prose moves smoothly, ef­fort­lessly, beau­ti­fully, and of­ten stuns with an im­age, a phrase, a mo­tif. What seems to be a most sim­ple anec­dote, in his new novel Satin Is­land, for ex­am­ple, about a man whose para­chute mys­te­ri­ously fails, flow­ers into a med­i­ta­tion on grav­ity and time and death. Tom’s are not nov­els of ideas, but nov­els that gen­er­ate them. How won­der­ful and re­fresh­ing that is—in a literary at­mos­phere gov­erned by the con­cern for nat­u­ral­ness of di­a­logue and the verisimil­i­tude of de­scrip­tion, nov­els gov­erned by the con­ven­tions of plot, so- called nar­ra­tive arcs and the de­mand for like­able char­ac­ters. In his hands, the novel is a con­tin­ual re­fresh­ment of it­self.

There are writ­ers who swim in and out with the tide, there are writ­ers who suc­cess­fully float along, there are writ­ers who oc­ca­sion­ally take a timid peek un­der the ocean’s sur­face. Then there are divers. Tom swims among them.

— Fred­eric Tuten FRED­ERIC TUTEN: I un­der­stand that you started as a con­cep­tual artist. Were you writ­ing fic­tion at the same time and did that take over mak­ing art? And, by the­way, what kind of art were you, and are you, mak­ing?

TOM MCCARTHY: I started as a writer. Ever since I was a child I as­sumed I’d be a writer. I stud­ied literature (not cre­ative writ­ing—we didn’t re­ally have that then); then sat down and started writ­ing novel­las and things, find­ing an ar­ray of cheap places to live (like Prague and Ber­lin in the early 1990s) and not-too-time- con­sum­ing jobs to keep that go­ing (bar­man, life model, pic­ture-framer, and so on). I was also writ­ing the odd book re­view for mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. But around this time—dur­ing my early twen­ties—I started hang­ing out with vis­ual artists. These peo­ple gen­er­ally had a much more dy­namic en­gage­ment with literature than most “literary” peo­ple. They were into Bur­roughs and Bataille and Blan­chot, and other peo­ple whose names didn’t even be­gin with B; and their work seemed to be ac­tively ad­dress­ing the whole legacy of literary modernism (in the same way that Bruce Nau­man works through ques­tions posed by Beck­ett, for ex­am­ple, or Cage with Joyce). So I fell into that world. It’s still re­ally my home ter­ri­tory. I’m a writer through and through, but the art world—to a large ex­tent—pro­vides the arena in which literature can be vig­or­ously ad­dressed, trans­formed, and ex­panded.

So, for ex­am­ple, I did this pro­ject with Rod Dickinson, in which we “cor­rected” the French anar­chist Mar­tial Bour­din’s at­tempt to blowup the Green­wich Ob­ser­va­tory in 1894 ( he blew him­self up in­stead: dis­in­te­grated on the zero- de­gree bound­ary of time and space, like Rilke’s Or­pheus). It’s what Con­rad’s The Se­cret Agent is all about. We reprinted all the news­pa­pers from the time, al­ter­ing a sen­tence here and there to make the

Ob­ser­va­tory ac­tu­ally “have been” de­stroyed; doc­tored pho­to­graphs; and even made a short film on a hand­cranked cam­era which we post-pro­duced to show the build­ing burn­ing. The in­stal­la­tion is a big archive, with lots of texts that you read, and im­ages you view, and ob­jects too: among them the bomb and the con­tents of the anar­chist’s pocket. The whole thing is de­rived from Con­rad’s novel in the first place, and it’s about fic­tions and the real. But an art gallery is the en­vi­ron­ment in which it can be “read”: it was shown in the Hayward in Lon­don, the Western Front in Van­cou­ver, places like that. And so the ques­tion of read­ing, as well as of writ­ing, in an art space, comes into play: with the viewer turned into an ac­tive reader who has to take in all the in­for­ma­tion on dis­play, the ob­jects also be­come texts, and vice versa—we even made sure the news­pa­pers were reprinted on the same type of pa­per that would have been used in 1894.

The In­ter­na­tional Necronautical So­ci­ety, for which I serve as Gen­eral Sec­re­tary, has the same logic. It’s an or­ga­ni­za­tion that en­acts the bu­reau­cratic fan­tasies of Kafka or the un­der­ground para­noia net­works of Pyn­chon, and blurs these with the forms and pro­ce­dures of early twen­ti­eth- cen­tury avant- gardes (man­i­festos, com­mit­tees, dec­la­ra­tions and de­nun­ci­a­tions, ex­pul­sions, etcetera). We once had a ra­dio unit broad­cast­ing pro­pa­ganda non­stop: lines of poem- code mod­eled on the ones Cégeste transmits in Cocteau’s Or­phée. It looked—and func­tioned—like a big war room, with maps of our trans­mis­sion-zones on the wall, and agents cut­ting up text from news­pa­pers and mix­ing these with Ovid and so on to gen­er­ate the script se­quences—very Bur­roughs. It was a to­tally literary ex­er­cise; but, again, art was the space in which it could be re­al­ized and ex­pe­ri­enced. That in­stal­la­tion was at the In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Arts in Lon­don.

FT: This is so ex­cit­ing and tells me once again that the finest, most in­ter­est­ing work was, and is, done by writ­ers in­ter­ested in, and in­flu­enced by, the vis­ual arts. There would be no Apol­li­naire with­out Pi­casso, no Leonora Car­ring­ton with­out Max Ernst and Sur­re­al­ism. By the way, do you re­call that it took the om­nipresent and om­ni­scient cu­ra­tor and bril­liant art writer, Hans Ul­rich Obrist, and not a fel­low writer, to bring us to­gether?

TM: Yes: Hans Ul­rich did one of his “It is ur­gent that you meet!” num­bers on us, and it turned out he was right. I see Hans Ul­rich as a mod­ern- day in­car­na­tion of Musil’s Di­o­tima, who runs sa­lons in The Man With­out Qual­i­ties, con­nect­ing writ­ers to econ­o­mists and philoso­phers to artists, states­men, and sci­en­tists, and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. Only in the twenty-first cen­tury the sa­lon isn’t the bour­geois house whose rooms peo­ple move through, en­coun­ter­ing each other: it’s the tele­phone and In­ter­net, with publi­ca­tions and bi­en­ni­als hov­er­ing around the edge of this as spec­tral mark­ers for the “real” world. But the ac­tual cul­tural “con­tent” there is con­nec­tion and con­nec­tiv­ity it­self. I love the way Hans Ul­rich al­ways has two hand­held de­vices go­ing at any time; I’ve ac­tu­ally seen him op­er­at­ing three, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with the peo­ple next to him. FT: Now, have I geared you up for the fol­low­ing ques­tion? One of the prob­lems I felt in teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing classes is that many of the stu­dents burn­ing to write have very lit­tle re­la­tion­ship to a world out­side of writ­ing, whether out of lack of cu­rios­ity or ex­po­sure, or out of the idea that all writ­ing must come from the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence re­for­mu­lated to seem like fic­tion. I hold you as an ex­am­ple of the om­niv­o­rous reader and pas­sion­ate ex­plorer of ideas and dis­ci­plines who is not only in­ter­ested in the vis­ual arts. Your read­ing seems vast and, as they say, you wear your eru­di­tion lightly. This is one of the rea­sons why I’m so smit­ten by your nov­els, their qui­etly sub­ver­sive struc­tures, as well as the clar­ity, smooth­ness, pre­ci­sion of the writ­ing— their page-turn­ing qual­i­ties—and the sense, when I’ve fin­ished a novel like Satin Is­land, that I’ve been en­gaged in a world of an­thro­pol­ogy, sys­tems anal­y­sis, semi­otics, psy­chol­ogy, phi­los­o­phy, and God knows what else you’ve lay­ered within the work. Can you speak a bit about your read­ing?

TM: Thank you for your kind words. I read what­ever comes on to my radar. It’s like some­thing comes up—pops up of ne­ces­sity, be­cause I need to read it for the thing I’m writ­ing, and sud­denly the In­com­ing! alarm goes off, and I brace my­self for im­pact. So, writ­ing Satin Is­land, which has an an­thro­pol­o­gist nar­ra­tor, I was read­ing Lévi- Strauss, and ar­ti­cles in an­thro­pol­ogy jour­nals—in which Michel de Certeau’s name kept com­ing up, so I went and read de Certeau’s The Prac­tice of Ev­ery­day Life, which is amaz­ing (his whole vi­sion of con­tem­po­rary life as a “scrip­to­rium” whose cur­rency is leg­i­bil­ity), and all that in­flu­enced the book a lot (the an­thro­pol­o­gist is also a “reader,” of course). But it’s not as though that stuff is re­ally ex­te­rior to the world of the fic­tion. Lévi- Strauss has the most literary sen­si­bil­ity imag­in­able; there’s a con­stant ten­dency in his work to­ward po­etry. And de Certeau ori­ents his com­pass around Mal­larmé. One of the fig­ures who has most in­flu­enced my work is Der­rida—and who can say in Der­rida where phi­los­o­phy ends and literature be­gins? The first half of The Post Card is writ­ten as epis­to­lary fic­tion—even if some of it might be au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal as well.

With Re­main­der I was read­ing Pierre Janet and Berg­son on du­ra­tion, and some pos­i­tivist psy­chol­o­gists on trauma, and think­ing of J. G. Bal­lard and Sterne (Un­cle Toby’s end­less re­con­struc­tions of his trauma scene in Tris­tram Shandy). It all seemed to merge into this plane of con­sis­tency whose it­er­a­tion was the novel I was writ­ing. With C it was even more wide- rang­ing: Marinetti

Lévi-Strauss has the most literary sen­si­bil­ity imag­in­able; there’s a con­stant ten­dency in his work to­ward po­etry. And de Certeau ori­ents his com­pass around Mal­larmé.

and Jünger for the war sec­tion, but also doc­u­ments in the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum; The Magic Moun­tain and his­tor­i­cal ac­counts of Ed­war­dian health farms for the spa sec­tion, but also Agam­ben and Bruno Schulz; then Flaubert and Forster on Egypt, and Cavafy, and books about im­pe­rial teleg­ra­phy, and is­sue af­ter is­sue of The Egyp­tian Gazette from 1922 on mi­cro­fiche, and the Book of the Dead. There didn’t seemto be a cat­e­gor­i­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween these things.

FT: Over these past few years we have talked about Joyce. That is, you have en­cour­aged me to re­turn to him, es­pe­cially to Fin­negans Wake, which, in my youth, I re­garded as a mir­a­cle. When did you start read­ing Joyce? And when did you get to Fin­negans Wake?

TM: I started read­ing him in my late teens. I did a dis­ser­ta­tion on Fin­negans Wake as a stu­dent. I prob­a­bly spent a month do­ing noth­ing but study­ing it all day. I don’t see how else one could re­ally come to grips with it. I sup­pose you could do it part-time over a year, or decade. But you need Tin­dall’s and Camp­bell and Robin­son’s guides open on ei­ther side of the ac­tual text, and McHugh’s an­no­ta­tions, and there are var­i­ous online re­sources now, of course. For me, Joyce is more than just a good, or great, writer; his writ­ing is a seis­mic event that to­tally re­shapes the land­scape of literary pos­si­bil­ity. It is to the late- mod­ern pe­riod what Shake­speare is to the ear­lymodern: a “to­gether gush of still and but all you know” (to quote the Wake) in which lan­guage and sub­jec­tiv­ity are rad­i­cally and ir­re­versibly meshed with com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy, post­colo­nial pol­i­tics, new global car­togra­phies—all these sys­tems whose emer­gence we’re still, fal­ter­ingly, com­ing to terms with now. Just as it took a cen­tury or more to work through Shake­speare (if, in fact, we ever stopped), so the Wake pro­vides a set of codices and tem­plates whose un­rav­el­ing might map not only the field of literature’s po­ten­tial­ity and scope, but also that of our whole dig­i­tal (or what­ever you want to call it) era.

FT: May I pitch you a soft­ball? I won­der how you are able to or­ga­nize your time be­tween fam­ily life, so­cial life, writ­ing life, and read­ing life? I guess I should in­clude sleep­ing life?

TM: I fin­ished the first draft of C a week be­fore my first daugh­ter was born. Five years and another daugh­ter later, my next—short—novel is com­ing out. The writ­ing def­i­nitely got slowed down. Sleep was a ma­jor prob­lem for a cou­ple of years—there just wasn’t any. But it all works its way back into the work. Satin Is­land is, to some ex­tent, a book about a rest­less strug­gle with the im­pos­si­bil­ity of writ­ing the Book. So­cial life—well, you go out and meet in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, and that gal­va­nizes ideas and gives birth to other projects. It all finds its way back, even, es­pe­cially, the time-wast­ing. If you think about it, time-wast­ing is prob­a­bly the cen­tral theme of most mod­ern literature. Leopold Bloom spends his whole day time-wast­ing; Mar­cel Proust, his whole life. FT: You have given a por­tion of your life in writ­ing, Tintin and the Se­cret of Literature, about Hergé’s Tintin al­bums. I love your sweep from Joyce to Hergé.

TM: Hergé has al­ways fas­ci­nated and en­chanted me. And you too, Fred­eric. I loved your Tintin in the New World— although that’s more of a trib­ute to Thomas Mann than to Hergé, isn’t it? I learned as much about writ­ing from Hergé as from any “proper” writer. Stuff about nar­ra­tive: dou­bling, in­ter­rupt­ing, mir­ror­ing, mis­lead­ing, and so on. The­mat­i­cally, Hergé’s themes are very clas­si­cal: an­ces­tral houses; the host/guest re­la­tion­ship gone wrong; se­crets pass­ing down gen­er­a­tions; and, of course, crypts, in all senses of the word. Then there’s the re­la­tion to tech­nol­ogy, and to the shift­ing po­lit­i­cal tec­ton­ics of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury—and Hergé’s own tor­tured nav­i­ga­tion of these (which cu­ri­ously mir­rors that of Paul de Man, his erst­while col­league on Le Soir). Plus, of course, it’s just re­ally, re­ally good, and funny.

FT: Thank you for your com­pli­ment on my Tintin novel and for your ob­ser­va­tion of its re­la­tion­ship to Mann. To be frank, The Magic Moun­tain is to me what Fin­negans Wake is to you. It is the most im­por­tant book in my life.

Let’s move to some­thing more spe­cific, I’m sure its been told be­fore, but would you mind talk­ing about how your novel Re­main­der came to be pub­lished? Read­ers would be in­ter­ested in know­ing this.

TM: I fin­ished it in 2001, and it was re­jected by ev­ery pub­lisher my agent sent it to. They ei­ther didn’t get it or did, but thought it wasn’t sell­able. So I put it aside, and con­cen­trated on art projects in­stead. In 2004, the cu­ra­tor and gen­eral cul­tural ac­tivist Clé­men­tine Deliss (who’s now do­ing amaz­ing things as di­rec­tor of the Weltkul­turen Mu­seum in Frank­furt) of­fered to pub­lish it. She and her col­lab­o­ra­tor, the French cu­ra­tor Thomas Boutoux, had be­come fas­ci­nated by Olympia Press, the out- on- a- limb op­er­a­tion run by Mau­rice Giro­dias in Paris in the ’50s and ’60s. He pub­lished Nabokov, Troc­chi, and Beck­ett when no one else would touch them—and, of course, Bur­roughs too. Giro­dias made his money from porn and lost it on cut­ting- edge literature, and for a while he tried to bring his two au­di­ences

It all finds its way back, even, es­pe­cially, the time­wast­ing. If you think about it, time-wast­ing is prob­a­bly the cen­tral theme in most mod­ern literature. Leopold Bloom spends his whole day time­wast­ing; Mar­cel Proust, his whole life.

to­gether by pub­lish­ing lit­tle “Teaser” book­lets with porn on one side of the page and Beck­ett or who­ever on the other. This was the orig­i­nal con­text for this stuff—we shouldn’t for­get that when we read Beck­ett now in its re­spectable Faber edi­tions. So Clé­men­tine wanted to reprise this for­mat; she com­mis­sioned some porn from vis­ual artists like Inez van Lam­sweerde and Cerith Wyn Evans (although it wasn’t re­ally func­tion­ing as porn, since ev­ery­one kind of knew it was art), and rus­tled up a cou­ple of un­pub­lish­able nov­els from among her cir­cle of ac­quain­tances—of which Re­main­der was one—and put them out in Metronome edi­tions that looked just like the old Olympia edi­tions, along­side Metronome Teasers that were sold sep­a­rately. And they were dis­trib­uted, again, through art in­sti­tu­tions. Even when Re­main­der was get­ting all this press in the main­stream, and the big book­stores were ask­ing Clé­men­tine to stock it, she was go­ing: “No, we’re not in­ter­ested in chain stores; peo­ple can buy it in the Whitechapel Gallery bookshop.” There were only 750 copies of that edi­tion any­way. They’re worth over a grand each now—not be­cause it’s good, but just be­cause it’s so rare. Then Marty Asher did a big edi­tion in the States with Vintage, and Alma—a new in­de­pen­dent, but main­stream, Bri­tish pub­lisher—did a mass­mar­ket UK one, which are the for­mats most peo­ple read it in now.

FT: In your new novel, Satin Is­land, your char­ac­ter Petr, a man soon about to die, expatiates on the theme of dy­ing. To para­phrase, he says that he re­grets not be­ing able to tell any­one the ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence of death and that if there were a hereafter, there would be no one to talk about dy­ing to be­cause ev­ery­body there would have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced it. He says that even while he’s in the ac­tual mo­ment of see­ing, say, the Ber­lin Wall fall, he’s imag­in­ing how he will re­count that. Is this your idea of writ­ing and its rai­son d’être? For­give what may seem a sim­ple­minded equa­tion be­tween au­thor and char­ac­ter, but I sus­pect that Petr’s idea may be your un­der­ly­ing aes­thetic mo­tive.

TM: When Petr tells the nar­ra­tor that, the nar­ra­tor links it in his mind to his own ob­ses­sion with buffer­ing: you know, when that cir­cle spins on your screen as you wait for the nec­es­sary data to come in and get ren­dered. He’s also pre­oc­cu­pied with the non-cir­cu­lar ver­sion of buffer­ing: when you’re watch­ing a video file, and the gray bit of the line has to stay in ad­vance of the red bit and of the cur­sor show­ing where in the video you’ve ac­tu­ally got to, or—once more—buffer­ing sets in. He (the nar­ra­tor) sees it as a model for our state: we need ex­pe­ri­ence to stay ahead, if only by a nose, of our con­scious­ness of ex­pe­ri­ence, so that the lat­ter may “ren­der” the for­mer. It’s a ques­tion of tem­po­ral­ity, sure, but even more fun­da­men­tally, of nar­ra­tion, of nar­ra­tive. So it’s not so much that that’s my idea of writ­ing—rather, that a cer­tain op­er­a­tion of writ­ing is my idea of life tout court. So death would be a kind of event hori­zon for this sit­u­a­tion, a limit at which the whole thing, buffer­ing and all, col­lapses. But as such, it kind of man­i­fests it­self within the sit­u­a­tion too, an in­te­rior outer limit (I’m us­ing the lan­guage of de­con­struc­tion here, be­cause it so per­fectly maps this). There’s a won­der­ful bit in Blan­chot’s Death Sen­tence where the nar­ra­tor writes (and I’m para­phras­ing be­cause I lent my copy of the book to a friend who went and died be­fore re­turn­ing it to me) that what’s fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant or true about the events only be­gins to com­mu­ni­cate it­self once he stops nar­rat­ing them; but then, of course, there’s no chan­nel through which they may be com­mu­ni­cated.

FT: Ev­ery few years or days, we hear the cry that the novel is dead. But then some­thing comes along to prove that it is not only alive, but that it man­i­fests it­self in full vi­tal­ity and beauty. May I ask you what you think of this state­ment? I be­lieve we share a com­mon feel­ing that it is not the novel that is dead, but the lack of imag­i­na­tion that in­vests it.

TM: No, I think the novel is and al­ways has been dead, and this is the very pre­con­di­tion of its per­pet­ual re­gen­er­a­tion. Don Quixote is a novel about how nov­els don’t work (the hero tries to en­act all these episodes from books, as though to test their propo­si­tions, and he, they, flunk each time); about a fun­da­men­tal, sys­tem­atic dys­func­tion writ­ten right into the medium’s core. And that’s more or less the first ma­jor novel! It’s a pe­cu­liarly zom­bie art form, with all the gori­ness, the can­ni­bal­ism, and so forth that that term im­plies (it’s not as though you need to cut open Ulysses’s stom­ach to see what it’s been eat­ing: it’s got ev­ery­thing from De­foe to Sacher- Masoch drib­bling down its chin!). The novel stum­bles on­wards, in­eluctably, gorg­ing and dis­gorg­ing its own death, its own dead­ness. So the novel’s not just dead—it’s un­dead. The type that mat­ters at least: the com­mit­ted, en­gaged, self- aware novel that wres­tles with the con­tra­dic­tions of its own con­di­tion. The mid­dle­brow novel, by con­trast, the type that doesn’t ac­knowl­edge or ad­dress this sit­u­a­tion, but just am­bles along hap­pily be­liev­ing that a naive, un­crit­i­cal re­al­ism could ever work in the first place, let alone now—that would be un­dead too, but in a way that some­how doesn’t seem to re­ally mat­ter.

Per­for­mance view of CALL­ING ALL AGENTS: IN­TER­NA­TIONAL NECRONAUTICAL SO­CI­ETY BROAD­CAST­ING UNIT at In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Arts, Lon­don, 2004. Cour­tesy of the artist.

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