The literary career of Tom McCarthy, one of the leading contemporary exponents of the novelistic avant-garde, is a case study in the application—and misapplication—of theory to fiction. I mean “theory” in two senses: McCarthy’s own ideas, as elaborated in the manifestos of his “semi-fictitious” International Necronautical Society, as well as, more recently, in a series of essays (e.g.,”Writing Machines” and “‘Ulysses’ and Its Wake”); and their principal source, capital-“t” Theory, postmodern philosophical thought of the largely French variety, as expounded severally by Derrida, Lacan, Bataille, Blanchot, et al.
The former goes something like this: Faced with the classical opposition of form and matter, Western philosophy has traditionally privileged the first—Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s essences. But form—order, pattern, information—is a fiction imposed by the mind, “a mathematical frock coat,” in the words of Bataille, that we give to what is. The world, in truth, is formless—the Formless (l’Informe), in Bataille’s term—flat matter, figured variously in McCarthy’s fiction as dirt, shit, oil, blood, soot, vapor, and static.
What does this do to the self? “Human existence,” McCarthy writes, “is formed in relation to a brute material facticity that cannot be mastered.” Cannot, that is, be escaped. The old notions of metaphysical transcendence, grounded as they were in the divine, are illusions, of course, but so too, he insists, is the one that replaced them: “the modern dream of authenticity,” of a unitary, autonomous self in contact with the Real. We are not individuals, self-consistent subjectivities replete with Being, the heroes of our own epic narratives. We are “dividuals”: self-divided, self-opaque—empty at the center, inauthentic to the core. We fall into death, fall back into matter, and not tragically, with dignity and meaning (death mastered, transcendence in a different guise). Rather, we pratfall: comically, mechanically, like so many Wile E. Coyotes.
Inaccessible to the self, the Real, the Formless, is also inaccessible to art. It can be pointed to but never represented. At best—think of the whale in Moby-Dick—it functions as a kind of black hole, a central absence that the work revolves around, and that threatens always to implode it from within. The Real is a trauma (in the Lacanian sense), “the traumatic event of materiality,” “the forgotten origin…that clefts the self in twain.” So art, like the self in response to trauma, can only repeat. Originality is a chimera, and realism a delusion. Art operates “through theft, forgery, copying”—Warhol, Burroughs, Beckett—returning always to its missing source.
None of this is new, as McCarthy gleefully insists. (Everything is repetition, after all.) The reason that it matters, at least for fiction (McCarthy is also, and was first, a figure in the world of art, an installationist, interventionist, and provocateur), is that it has enabled the creation of one very good novel, Men in Space, and one masterpiece, Remainder. The first was drafted in the late 1990s but not published until 2007. The second was completed in 2001, rejected by commercial houses, and brought out in Paris in 2005. More recently he’s published C, in 2010, and this year, Satin Island. The former is a lengthy failure; the latter is a briefer one. Fiction based in theory tends to have diminishing returns.
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* * *
One great novel is enough to ask of anyone, however, and that is what Remainder unmistakably remains. Great and strange, great in its strangeness: as perfect as a corpse, as lovely as a mathematical equation, as final as a bullet to the brain.
Trauma and its repetitions are the novel’s very subject. A man has been hit by something that has fallen from the sky—nameless man, nameless thing. He tells his story, though he can’t remember much. The accident leads to a settlement, 8½ million pounds. (The “½” bothers him, that “leftover fragment,” spoiling the smooth perfection of the infinitely looping “8.”) What will he do with the money? A friend and a potential girlfriend make the obvious clichéd suggestions: fill up a bathtub with coke and snort it off a woman’s tits (him); give it to starving Africans (her). The protagonist doesn’t know. All he knows—about anything, it seems—is that since the accident he’s felt completely inauthentic, numbly going through the motions, living life at second hand.
One day he goes to a party (at a place on Plato Road). In the bathroom, staring at a crack in the wall, he is overwhelmed by déjà vu. The moment is parody Proust. From the crack, as from the madeleine, a buried memory unfolds: an apartment, a building, the smells of liver cooking in another flat, the sounds of a musician practicing piano, black cats on a red roof. Most of all, the feeling that then he’d felt real, felt natural, at one with his movements, at one with the world. He cannot place the memory, but he can, he realizes, re-create it. He’s got the money, after all. He can buy a building, hire some actors, step inside his memories again.
Like Kafka working out the practicalities of living as a bug, the rest of the novel proceeds, with poker face, from this lunatic premise. The narrator hires a manager, an Asian guy called Naz. (“He looked just like I’d imagined him to look but slightly different, which I’d thought he would in any case.”) Naz commissions contractors, holds auditions, handles all the intricate logistics. The first “reenactment” leads to a second and third, drawn not from memory but happenstance: an incident at an auto shop, a neighborhood killing. Each is performed not merely once, not merely till it’s perfect, but continuously, in an infinite loop, even when the narrator isn’t present. Sometimes he watches; sometimes he takes a part himself; sometimes he’s content to simply know they’re going on.
What makes the novel such a marvel, first of all, is the aplomb with which McCarthy keeps the game aloft. So improbable, so artificial, is the whole proceeding, so conscious are we of the novel as authorial performance, balanced on a razor’s edge between profundity and put-on, that a single slip would bring the whole thing crashing down. But there is no slip. The prose is taut and letter-perfect. The post-traumatic tone—stunned, Aspy, unintentionally comic—is utterly consistent. Conceit is heaped upon conceit, image upon image, narrative ideas flowing in unstoppable profusion. The central figure’s disconnection from the world around him makes not only for an ever-growing moral pressure, as he carries out his will, but also for a deadpan Beckettian black situational humor. The cats keep falling off the roof and plunging to their death:
“What do you want to do?” asked Naz.
“Get more,” I said.
“How many more?”
“At a loss rate of three every two days, I’d say quite an amount. A rolling supply. Just keep putting them up there.”
“Doesn’t it upset you?” Naz asked two days later….
“No,” I said. “We can’t expect everything to work perfectly straight away.”
But the more Remainder succeeds as a novel, the less it succeeds as illustrated theory, which is exactly what it’s meant to be. Despite the narrator’s attempt to impose a form upon the world, to fit it to his preexisting mental patterns, there are invariably fragments—remainders—that evade his control. Images of l’Informe are everywhere (plaster dust, beer spill, wiper fluid, grit), traces of materiality that will not transubstantiate. There is a final reenactment, though this is more a pre-enactment, a pretend bank robbery, endlessly rehearsed, that the narrator decides at last to stage for real. The scheme appears to go as planned until materiality literally trips it up, with murderous results. (Not by accident does the narrator resemble Don Quixote—hero of the first novel, which is also the first metafiction—an innocent dreamer, or maybe a violent psychopath, who likewise seeks to make his fancies real.) Remainder concludes in midair, aboard a plane that’s running out of fuel, a final act of failed transcendence. QED.
Yet everything about the novel contradicts what it asserts. It is not a copy; it is blazingly original. It isn’t formless (in the way that Burroughs, for example, is); it is highly patterned, highly wrought. The narrator repeats, but the book proceeds by incremental variation and continuous invention. Psychology or subjectivity is one of the great bugbears of the avant-garde tradition in which McCarthy works—the nouveau roman and its Anglophone allies—but the central figure here is not precisely blank; he’s been erased. He has a psychology: the psychology of post-traumatic disassociation. (McCarthy made a point of researching the phenomenon, as the book’s acknowledgments make clear.) His personality, in other words, is indeed explained by his history, in classic realistic fashion, even if that history is inaccessible. It’s not that there’s nothing inside him; he just can’t get to it. In fact, there is something inside him, which is exactly what breaks out when he beholds the crack. All that, too, is a remainder, a survival from his former life. He may have forgotten, but his body remembers—the body and memory being traditionally the great guarantors of identity, the earnests of our continuity as individuals through time.
Most of all—and this is what raises the novel from a brilliant exercise to the status of art—Remainder, far from being self-enclosed within its own aesthetic procedures, refers insistently, if indirectly, to the shared world of social experience, what in ordinary language we would call the real. It is, to begin with, an allegory of art itself, of the arts. The narrator is a novelist, manipulating his characters; a theater director, hectoring his actors; at various moments an architect, designer, filmmaker. His assistants, accepting the premise like good readers or viewers, go along with the madness wherever it leads.
The novel, of course, is also an allegory of memory, of the ways we replay the past in thought and action. (If the narrator is Don Quixote, he is also Humbert Humbert, who seeks in every nymphet his original beloved.) Like any decent work of art, the novel is in fact about a lot of things. If its intention is to deny the possibility of meaning, it luckily fails rather badly. It is about control, compulsion, insanity, time. For Jonathan Lethem, its subject is happiness. (“I felt really happy,” says the narrator—the stewardess is screaming, the pilot is shouting, Naz is catatonic by his side—as the doomed aircraft makes its final figure eights.)
It is also about money, of a particular contemporary sort: the kind that falls out of the sky and lands on people at random. It’s no coincidence that the narrator invests his settlement in “telecommunications and technology” (he likes the sound of them), or that the one specific sum he cites on the expenditure side of the ledger involves a real-estate transaction, or that no matter how much he spends, he always seems to have more than when he started. His power, and his attitude about it, are also of the modern money kind: “It wasn’t his business to make me explain what I meant by ‘capture.’ It meant whatever I wanted it to mean: I was paying him to do what I said. Prick.” That’s a passage any self-respecting realist would love to be able to write. Remainder succeeds in spite of itself, an anti-novel too astutely representational for its own good.
* * *
Much the same can be said of Men in Space, a volume full of realistic charms. The book is a Prague novel, of all things—one of those coming-of-age stories of Westerners at loose in the former Soviet bloc that sad young literary men were drafting in the 1990s—though it’s certainly not as simple as that makes it sound. We get a large cast of young Czechs and, mostly, expats (English, Americans, Dutch) as well as a clutch of Bulgarian petty gangsters. There is sex, art, drinking, dreams; ambition, pretension, insecurity, confusion. The technique, for the most part, is conventional realism—interior monologue, exterior description—with sections told from different characters’ perspectives.
It is the novel’s themes and images that are, in retrospect, identifiably McCarthyan. The story centers on a work of art. The gangsters are smuggling a Byzantine icon, but to bring it off they need to make a copy (art as forgery, art as theft). Anton, the most pacific of the crew, approaches a painter, Ivan, whom he knows through his art-world connections. As for the image itself, which depicts a saint in presumptive mid-ascent, hovering uncertainly above a town (failed or faltering transcendence), an analysis is offered by Ivan’s lover, Klárá, an art historian, in a passage printed as the novel’s epigraph:
Executing a rigorous set of formal procedures, lines never allow themselves to become mere accessories to the expression of volume, to imply depth or to confer realism: instead, they help present the world they depict as unreal, flat and dematerialized.
Depth and realism, bad; unreality and flatness, good: It doesn’t take much wit to see this as a rather strong interpretive shove. The Vintage paperback edition of the novel carries an afterword by the philosopher Simon Critchley, McCarthy’s partner in crime at the International Necronautical Society. Critchley takes exactly this tack. The characters in Men in Space, he instructs us, “drift through the debris of an inauthentic world,” a world that is “lonely, desolate and desertlike…a space that is radically abandoned, destitute.” Picking up on something Klárá says within the novel—“rather than collaborating with one another to provide visual cohesion, [the figures in the icon are] discontiguous…each willfully oblivious to the presence of others”—he adds that “each character in Men in Space seems to occupy his or her own zone of aloneness and pursues an idiosyncratic line of flight.”
So that is the official version. The problem is it’s plainly wrong. It is true that the novel is strewn with images of debris. It is also true that the characters largely follow individual trajectories (though most of these are bent around the gravitational field of the icon). But it is radically untrue that the world of the novel is lonely or desolate or destitute of values, in the way, for instance, that the worlds of Beckett are. The characters are certainly not oblivious to one another. In fact, the novel is replete with, dare I say it, relationships: another major avant-garde taboo. Anton loves his partner, Helena. Helena loves her children, who are trapped in Bulgaria. The gangsters share a rough camaraderie; when one of them rats to the cops, their leader actually chokes up before they whack him. If most of the novel’s relationships are fleeting, if most of its characters do their own thing, that’s not because its world is desolate or inauthentic; it’s just because those characters are young.
Many things end in the book, but many other things begin. Exactly halfway through the novel comes the stroke of midnight, New Year’s 1993—the moment of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into separate republics. Something dies in Prague that night (a year, a country), but something is born as well (another year, another country). Birth itself is also, after all, a separation. Things fall apart, and from their pieces other things are made. Ivan is a collagist; another artist makes assemblages from broken sculptures. Ivan dies (falling, it seems, while attempting to fly), but not before he impregnates a young American woman. “What it makes her feel is what Ivan made her feel in the first place: real.” A couple of the other Americans run into her at JFK. “She’s smiling so much,” they think, “it seems she could just float to Vermont.”
Float, not fly (or, in this case, flying figured as floating): a key distinction in McCarthy’s imagistics. Moving by sea, horizontally; not air, hubristically. He and Critchley and their fellow travelers are “necronauts.” “Navigation,” goes a favorite slogan, “is a difficult art.” Their founding document announces: “Our ultimate aim shall be the construction of a craft.” McCarthy, always intensely attuned to the multiple meanings of words, is well aware of the final term’s alternative significance. Craft, indeed—creative skill—is one of his principal positive values (yes, he has them; everybody does). In Men in Space, its chief exponent is Ivan. A long scene renders his meticulous replication of the icon. He mixes pigments, burnishes gold leaf, “waits until his breathing’s deep and regular” before he paints the halo with a single perfect stroke. He is copying, but he is also creating: making not faking, as theater people say. So is the novel’s other master craftsman, McCarthy himself. Craft is a craft; it carries you feelingly forward.
Men in Space, the novel’s acknowledgments tell us, “started as a series of disjointed, semiautobiographical sketches written in what seems like another era, and grew into one long, disjointed document.” (The autobiographical element survives in the figure of Nick, a young English art critic.) In other words, the story developed organically, without initial plan or direction, and for all its frequent pessimism, it retains—like its young characters, like the new Czech Republic itself—a sense of possibility. The icon carries a text, written in a script that no one can identify. At last, Helena figures out the secret: It is mirror writing—ancient Greek. Agapé, sympatheia, erémia, it reads: love, understanding, solitude. That sounds pretty hopeful, given that it seems to be positioned as the novel’s motto, but more to the point, Helena struggles to fit the words together into a syntax, to interpret the complete idea.
The moment is emblematic. The novel as written is semantically open. Only in retrospect does Critchley—and, implicitly, McCarthy—stamp it with a single meaning. (Critchley’s afterword speaks of “the key character” and “the key word.”) A cage of theory has descended on a work of art. The gesture points to what is most unsatisfying in the novel, and looks forward to what vitiates both C and Satin Island. As the narrative progresses, pattern begins to take over from plot. By the last few sections, the story has largely become an excuse to record as many instances as possible of McCarthy’s habitual images: boats and planes, codes and signals, conduits and networks, detritus, mirrors, stars. We start to see them everywhere, as if the novel had developed a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rather than inviting contingency into his work—the messy particulars of experience, those unpredictable remainders that disrupt our mental schemes (as Joyce, his chief artistic hero, makes a point of doing)—McCarthy seems intent on squeezing it out. In Remainder, the impulse is ironized. In Men in Space, eventually, and in C and Satin Island, unrestrainedly, it is simply indulged. For someone who insists that order is a fiction, McCarthy is quite the control freak.
* * *
Just how much becomes apparent when you open C. The book, by far McCarthy’s longest, is a historical novel, the story of Serge Carrefax from his birth around the turn of the 20th century to his early death—unlamented even by himself—shortly after World War I. Serge grows up on a country estate. His father is an inventor (he is working on wireless telegraphy when the novel opens) who also runs a school for the deaf (in case the “communication” theme wasn’t obvious enough). His mother oversees the family silk-making business (insects are another big motif). His older sister is an intellectual prodigy who gets involved with chemistry (matter), ciphers (codes), insects (again), and one of their father’s old friends, who knocks her up. She dies, Ophelia-like. Serge, in a funk, is sent to a continental spa, where he recovers after a regime of enemas and a sexual encounter with a crookbacked nurse in a pit in the woods. Later he serves in the war as an aerial spotter, gets involved in London’s demimonde (showgirls, séances, drugs), then goes out to Egypt to work on the Empire Wireless Chain, where he ends up having sex again (he prefers to enter from behind) in the deepest reaches of an ancient catacomb.
There are several things to say about all this. The first is that the book is very badly written. The prose is lifeless and clumsy, with a knack for overexplanation (e.g., “on the desk’s surface,” instead of “on the desk”) and occasional spasms of “fine writing” (“Her sounds are feline: quiet wails that lose themselves among the shadows on the wall”). Accents are rendered orthographically (“‘You others, stend beck’”). A character “tuts.” Another character “whoops for joy.” There are clunky time stamps, lumbering devices, hackneyed plot points, and long stretches of numbing exposition. The novel manages to be the one thing I would never have imagined that McCarthy could be: boring.
But none of this, undoubtedly, is unintentional. McCarthy always knows exactly what he’s doing. So what is he doing? Sending up the historical novel, perhaps the realistic novel altogether, by showing how bad it can be? Which proves precisely what? That bad novels are bad, not that realistic ones necessarily are. Besides, the novel’s badness is tendered in bad faith. The plot may be transparently contrived, without a single moment that responds to psychological or sociological plausibility, but it is nothing but a vehicle for a giant load of ideas, a vast structure of themes, a thesis in the guise of a novel—and these McCarthy clearly means to have us take in deadly earnest.
Serge has no interiority at all, but not in an interesting way, as in Remainder, just in a convenient one. He has no inner life to get in his creator’s way, offers no resistance to impede his plans—is nothing more than a set of eyeballs designed to move around the world observing image-patterns, a set of ears created to receive instruction as to their significance. By the time we reach the denouement in Egypt, the novel has largely devolved into a series of lectures (“‘The sun itself entered the body of Osiris,’ Laura’s saying. ‘He’d swallow and pass it, bringing about the repetition of creation…’”), delivered by authorial hand puppets.
As for what this information all purports, the central theme is death. Remember that McCarthy calls himself a “necronaut,” a voyager into death: death as the final, the only reality, the return to l’Informe. There is a mysticism here, as there so often seems to be with these tough-minded rationalists. Death is not just a fact, it is a realm, “the darkroom of all history,” the negative from which our lives are printed off. In the sound of the radio—not the signal, but the noise—McCarthy hears “a static that contains all messages ever sent, and all words ever spoken.” (He seems to mean this literally.) As for the titular “C,” it is carbon, the universal element of life and death. (It is also the sea, that all-receiving tomb on which we navigate our brief existence.) In the novel’s finale, a series of fever-dream visions aboard a ship from Alexandria, Serge enters the kingdom of death, reunited in a pharaonic insect-incest wedding with his sister Sophie, whose name is Greek for “wisdom”; is injected back through time (or, rather, with it); then dissolves in an ocean of static.
The sequence, which goes on for pages, is admittedly cool. But finally, I thought, so what? Because Serge is a blank, because he’s not a character in any traditional sense (McCarthy abjures the creation of characters), he neither experiences emotions nor inspires them. And emotions are the difference between messages and meanings—between a radio and a novel. A meaning is a message that you feel something about. It is cognitized emotion, affective intellection. No feeling, no meaning. Otherwise you’re just creating illustrated manifestos.
* * *
Which is pretty much what Satin Island is as well. McCarthy’s latest novel is certainly a vast improvement over C. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter. For another, the author’s pen is back in working order, and quite an instrument it is. The wit shimmers and snaps. The numbered sections, each a single paragraph, are polished little jewels. The humor tilts toward bathos, tumbling from the sublime to the demotic. We’re back in the present, in London, with a first-person narrator, a young man who works as an anthropologist (yes, an anthropologist) for a large corporation. He delivers a bravura lecture to his lover on the “double-bind” of anthropology—he is explicating Claude Lévi-Strauss, and in particular the latter’s epic travelogue-cum-ethnographic-meditation, Tristes Tropiques—by which “the mystery that drew the anthropologist towards his subject in the first place vanishes” as soon as he arrives to study it. “Wow,” she remarks, “that’s kind of fucked.”
Lévi-Strauss is indeed the novel’s presiding spirit, Tristes Tropiques its countertext. Colonialism is much on the narrative’s mind, the technological conquest of the earth by the West. The corporation calls itself the Company, as in Heart of Darkness. Its CEO and mastermind, a quasi-mysterious figure called Peyman, recalls both Kurtz and Ahab. (The name is Persian, like Fedallah, Ahab’s alter ego.) As the novel opens, images of an underwater oil spill, “a broken pipe gushing its endless load into the ocean,” begin to flood the planet’s television screens. Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness both, we might reflect, revolve around the extraction of raw material (whale oil, ivory) from what the second calls “the dark places of the earth.” The protagonist of Satin Island watches footage of the hajj in Mecca, the procession around the Kaaba—a cube of black, built around a lump of rock, images of death and l’Informe—the central scene of contemporary geopolitics, and yet a place where Western infidels can literally not go. As for the protagonist himself, he tells us this: “Me? Call me U.”
After Ishmael and “you,” as we unpack that literary coup, we get to the symbol—if C is carbon—of uranium, in turn a symbol of decay. Underneath the novel’s verbal pyrotechnics, sad to say, we mainly find the same old deconstructive tropes, the familiar McCarthyan talking points. Repetition, mediation, failed transcendence (there’s a parachutist, much pondered, who plummets to his death), the inaccessibility of the Real. “Satin Island,” as you might have feared, does indeed turn out to be an adolescent pun on “Staten Island,” of interest to McCarthy as the site of the Fresh Kills landfill, the junk heap that entombs the rubble of the World Trade Center, our modern, fallen Tower of Babel.
McCarthy saves a step this time by making the protagonist himself a pattern-hunter and professional explicator. U compiles dossiers (on e-mail scams, tattoos, Japanese game avatars—the “recurring meme[s]” of postmodernity) for the sake of writing what Peyman calls the “Great Report,” an opus that will sum up the contemporary world, “speak its secret name.” He fails to get it done, you won’t be shocked to learn—he fails to even start—but not before regaling us with a volume’s worth of potted disquisitions: on cargo cults, Vanuatan bungee jumpers, the Shroud of Turin. McCarthy is nothing short of brilliant at creating these concatenated symbols, then holding forth about them to the reader’s fascination, but the novel is far less than the sum of its parts. That’s intentional, of course, another emblem of disintegration, just as the narrative’s self-referential dimension—fortysomething English intellectual sifts the culture’s garbage for its missing key—is also intentional. But when McCarthy takes us all the way to the Staten Island Ferry, then shrugs and turns around before we get on board, we might suspect we’ve come too far for nothing but a philosophical shaggy-dog story.
* * *
McCarthy’s reputation in this country was cemented by Zadie Smith in an essay in 2008 for The New York Review of Books, “Two Paths for the Novel.” Remainder, she says, constitutes a “strong refusal” of “lyrical realism,” the kind of writing that purports to represent experience unproblematically in well-turned, evocative prose: the dominant mode of contemporary fiction, she claims, and “a literary form in long-term crisis.” We might ponder the apparent oxymoron of that final phrase: If it’s long-term, is it really a crisis, or just an endless round of carping over something that is actually functioning perfectly well? But never mind. Smith has read McCarthy’s manifestos, and she knows what he is driving at. She understands the “radical deconstructive doubt which questions” both “the capacity of language itself to describe the world in any accuracy” and “the (often unexamined) credos upon which realism is built.”
But here’s the thing. Smith isn’t really against realism. She’s against bad realism. Later in the piece, she reels off a string of rhetorical questions, directed at the essay’s representative of the dominant mode, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. “But is this really what having a self feels like?… And is this how memory works?… Is this how time feels?… Is this really realism?” Time, memory, the having of a self (not to mention feeling)—all the things we are supposed to disdain. “Really”? Yes, really. Realism is dead; long live realism.
And here’s the beauty part: McCarthy and Critchley agree, however much they try to disavow it. In “Writing Machines,” McCarthy quotes a long passage from Ford Madox Ford that criticizes the stale conventions of Edwardian realism and that describes how experience and recollection actually work instead. “This is, of course,” McCarthy comments, “exactly how events and memory both proceed: associatively, digressing, jolting, looping.” Yes, exactly: Ford has captured it (in language) to a T. Or again, Critchley in his afterword remarks that McCarthy’s work “is a critique of writing that conspires to create the illusion of realism. But—and here’s the rub—[his] ‘flat, unreal and dematerialized’ surfaces are arguably more realistic than any purported realism.”
Realism is like nature: Drive it out the door and it comes back through the window. Searching for a realer realism is what the novel, at its best, has always done: in Woolf, James, Flaubert, Austen, Fielding—in Grandpa Cervantes himself. It’s how the novel got to be the novel. Besides, the attack upon contemporary fiction—in Smith or McCarthy or Critchley—depends on a false dichotomy. Smith’s is right there in her title. “Two Paths”: You have to choose O’Neill or McCarthy. Critchley speaks of “stories of supposed subjective depth where characters with whom we can ‘identify’ move heroically from crisis to redemption”; McCarthy, of “the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction.” If that is your conception of everything that’s happening today except your own version of the avant-garde—of Coetzee, Bolaño, and Petrushevskaya, to name just three—then you only have yourself to blame.
I love how people publish long, eloquent, closely reasoned essays that deny the capacity of language to create meaning. Reading these specimens is like driving across the country with somebody who keeps insisting that internal combustion will never work. I’ve met plenty of people who claim that the self is a fiction (in other words, I’ve been to graduate school), but I’ve never met anyone who acted as if they believed it. A philosophy of meaninglessness is also a meaning. Smith acutely notes that although McCarthy demands that we abandon “cults of authenticity,” the avant-garde is itself an authenticity cult. So is “revolution,” that old standby, another favorite term of his. Critchley even remarks that the protagonist of Remainder “keeps all intimacy at a distance.” Keeps all what at a distance? All intimacy? You mean that state of feeling that depends on individuals, with subjectivities, entering into relationships? How naive and uncritical. Everybody has a ground they stand on somewhere. Everybody has a metaphysics.
McCarthy certainly does. Pure matter is just as metaphysical an entity as pure form. Neither can be found in nature, in reality. Oil and blood may figure the Formless, but both are structured, both are formed, even if it takes a chemist or a biologist to show us how. Reality is both matter and form, each inextricable from the other. McCarthy’s favorite image of the Formless is the mushy seedcake in Ulysses that Molly tongue-pushes into Bloom’s mouth, a token of her sexual assent. But McCarthy ignores the most obvious thing about it: It’s a seed cake—a symbol of fertility, not death. Somebody is buried in Ulysses, and chapters later someone else is born. The world is not death; it is life and death, creation and destruction. Comedy is not just repetition (Bergson’s notion, which McCarthy likes to cite); it is rooted in ideas of community and continuity—which is why the genre classically ends with a wedding.
As for inauthenticity—the sense of being exiled from the Real, the specter that besets McCarthy’s work—Smith remarks that maybe his actual problem, as a white Englishman, is that the “authenticity baton” has passed to people of different races, genders, and national origins. I think that Smith is right to point to McCarthy’s demographic profile, but for a different reason. I don’t believe in the problem of inauthenticity. I believe that other people believe in it, and that itself is the problem. Inauthenticity occupies the same position in postmodernity that alienation did in modernity. (Note that people rarely talk about the latter anymore.) Alienation meant dissatisfaction with the world: the dissatisfaction of a strong self, which consequently sought to change the world. Inauthenticity means dissatisfaction with the self: the dissatisfaction of a weak or empty self, which consequently seeks to adapt to the world.
But alienation and inauthenticity do have this in common: They belong especially to one particular kind of self. Remainder, C, and Satin Island all revolve around the consciousness of disaffected, disconnected young men. Of course the world does not seem real to them; they haven’t encountered it yet—which means they haven’t given themselves over to it yet. But once you’ve entered into genuine relationships, of any kind—connections that involve responsibility, commitment, and the relinquishment of some degree of freedom—once time has had its way with you (once, as Chris Rock puts it, life has punched you in the face), then you find the world becoming altogether real enough. Until then, it’s all just theory.