Tom McCarthy 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.

BOMB 131 Spring 2015
BOMB 131
Tom McCarthy 01

Performance view of Calling All Agents: International Necronautical Society Broadcasting Unit at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.

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 the way, 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 blow up 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 onto 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 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 seem to be a categorical difference between these things.

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Installation view of Tom McCarthy and Rod Dickinson’s Greenwich Degree Zero, Hayward Gallery Project Space, London, 2013. Courtesy of the artists.

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 “togethergush of stillandbutallyouknow” (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 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 noncircular 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.

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Originally published in

BOMB 131, Spring 2015

Featuring interviews with Rosa Barba, Soon-Mi Yoo, Agnieszka Kurant, Tatiana Bilbao, Alejandro Zambra, Tom McCarthy, Matana Roberts, and Barbara Kasten. 

Read the issue
BOMB 131