Texts for Nothing? On Tom McCarthy

Texts for Nothing? On Tom McCarthy

With C, Tom McCarthy asks us to see fiction as a crafty and adventurous playmate unafraid of its mortality.


The first manifesto came in 1999, declaring boldly, cryptically and with an indeterminate quantity of facetiousness that "death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit." The "we" was the International Necronautical Society (INS), of which the then-30-year-old and still unpublished British novelist Tom McCarthy was founder and self-declared general secretary. "We are all necronauts, always, already," the manifesto continued, winking with those concluding coupled adverbs at the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Other lines echoed Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot ("Let us deliver ourselves over utterly to death, not in desperation but rigorously, creatively"); but for all its Franco- and necrophiliac pomp, the fledgling INS undercut any risked pretentiousness with straight-faced prankish glee.

The art world lapped it up, opening galleries, museums and residencies to McCarthy’s INS, which for the next decade would waggishly skewer and exalt its avant-garde heritage with each new document and event. In 2003 McCarthy announced a purge of the group’s First Committee, expelling most of its founding members—two of them for "reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics" (they got book contracts) and another, the playwright Matt Parker, for the crime of "not being dead." Parker would be officially reinstated upon his death in 2009, two years after McCarthy and INS "chief philosopher" Simon Critchley (of the New School and, lately, the blog-ed page of the New York Times) issued a "Joint Statement on Inauthenticity," in a few opening breaths squeezing in references to Heidegger, Empedocles, Baudelaire, Joyce and Wile E. Coyote.

The declaration, read at an event that may or may not have transpired by men who may or may not have been McCarthy and Critchley, was at once a Derridean assault on all philosophical notions of being-as-presence and an attack on any pretense of authenticity in art. The necronaut officials cast their lot, as good Modernists have for the past fifteen decades, with art as artifice, imitation, play. "Art’s dirty secret is inauthenticity all the way down," they announced, ceremoniously opening a bag from which the cat had long ago fled. From Baudelaire to Warhol to Bowie to Prince and giddy, giddy Gaga, that secret’s all over the dial.

This would all be so much clever art world frippery if McCarthy were not also a formidable talent as a novelist. And literature—or at least its English-language market-prose variant; poetry’s not quite so daft—is the one contemporary popular art form that still falls for its own naturalist swindle. It’s the only dupe so credulous (or cynical) as to require occasional reminding that even, and especially, in the sparkling heights of realism, art is naught but theft and apery and con, and its transient truths are wrought from chains of falsities. To tear dark Saint Bataille gently out of context: "Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so." You don’t have to embrace Bataille’s goofball mysticism and fetishization of violence—or McCarthy’s tongue-half-in-cheek adaptation thereof—to join them both in asking literature to acknowledge itself as a far craftier and more adventurous playmate than even the most faithful of mirrors.

* * *

In 2005 McCarthy published an odd, smart and viciously funny novel called Remainder with the small French art press Metronome. Despite the title’s nod to Derrida—as in, ahem, "the non-present remainder of a differential mark cut off from its putative ‘production’ or origin"—Remainder wore its theory lightly. For all McCarthy’s prêt-à-porter avant-gardism, the novel’s prose is straightforward, univocal and relatively unself-conscious, its plot linear and unadorned. This is not to say that Remainder is a simple book, but McCarthy took pains not to announce its mischievous intents too boldly. It wore pressed khakis in lieu of black leather.

McCarthy’s philosophical rejection of authenticity and presence has consequences for the novel as a form. It implies a repudiation of the basic mythological structure undergirding what gets called "realism" in literature: the transit through time of more or less stable entities known as characters, generally toward the revelation of previously hidden and potentially redemptive truths about themselves. Contrast that with Remainder‘s nameless and almost featureless narrator, recently recovered from an accident about which he can say nothing except that something—"Technology. Parts, bits"—fell on him out of the sky. He is awarded an £8.5 million settlement about which he evinces no excitement. Mainly he is struck (and stuck) by an unshakable feeling of inauthenticity, as if he is acting in his own life, and acting poorly. Beckett’s Watt ("who had not seen a symbol, nor executed an interpretation, since the age of fourteen, or fifteen") he’s not, but he lacks the usual set of carefully crafted psychological motivations. He begins the book a blank and ends it even more so. McCarthy couldn’t care less about his past.

One evening, suffering through a cocktail party, the narrator takes refuge in the bathroom and, staring at a crack in the paint beside the mirror, has a vision (or a memory, or a déjà vu) of another bathroom in another apartment with identically cracked paint. Details flood in: the smell of liver drifting up from the old woman’s flat beneath his; the piano music from the flat below that; the black cats on the roof across the street. And in that remembered or imagined apartment, he is certain he felt "real": "Not awkward, acquired, second-hand, but natural." So he hires a team to search out the building from his vision, then goes ahead and finds it himself. He buys it and the building across the street, and has both renovated to precisely match every recollected detail. He hires another team (not actors but "re-enactors") to play the piano player, the "liver lady," other bit players from his déjà vu. He has the roof across the way stocked with cats. (They keep sliding off, requiring frequent replacement.)

The irony will not be missed that the most absurd and elaborate artifice is necessary to create the illusion of the real. As McCarthy puts it elsewhere: "the counterfeit is the pre-condition of the ‘real’: the very notions of the ‘real’ and ‘natural’ are generated and sustained through an elaborate economy of cultural conventions—artificial signs that, having done their job, pretend merely to represent the very thing they have created."

His novel, rest assured, is more fun than the theory behind it. The narrator’s obsession builds. He enacts other re-enactments: re-creating a banal encounter in a tire shop; a gang murder a few blocks from his flat; the moment just before the re-enactment of the gang murder (for which he must hire new re-enactors to play the re-enactors). In each, he aims with unmitigated absurdity "to be real—to become fluent, natural, to cut out the detour that sweeps us around what’s fundamental to events, preventing us from touching their core." Then things really get weird—a bank heist, a hijacking, re-enactments of events that have not yet transpired—and gloriously so.

Through all of this, McCarthy doesn’t stray far from the INS’s original bullet-pointed mission. (One of the Necronauts’ early happenings involved the meticulous restaging of a mob shootout on an Amsterdam street.) I won’t be giving anything away if I say that death haunts these re-enactments. The man killed by gangsters, McCarthy’s narrator says, "had become a symbol of perfection…. He’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him." Hunger for the real, McCarthy suggests, is the death drive reconfigured.

In the two years that followed the initial publication of Remainder, something almost miraculous occurred, something that isn’t supposed to happen anymore to obscure and eccentric novels with a rigorous intellectual bent. The book became a hit. It leapfrogged from its tiny French art press to a small, well-respected British press (Alma) and thence to a large and prestigious American press (Vintage). It was reviewed twice in the New York Review of Books, once by Joyce Carol Oates and a second time by Zadie Smith, for whom it proved something of a revelation; it typified the less traveled of her "Two Paths for the Novel," the other being the well-trod path of "lyrical Realism" epitomized for her by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. (Zadie, are there really only two paths?) A film version of Remainder is reportedly in the works. McCarthy must be pleased: actors will re-enact his re-enactments and the re-enactments of their re-enactments. Whither goes the real?

* * *

In 2007, the year Remainder appeared in the United States, McCarthy published two books in Britain: a novel called Men in Space, much of which predates Remainder, and hasn’t yet found a New World release, and a delightful work of literary criticism called Tintin and the Secret of Literature, published here in 2008. Ostensibly a deconstruction of, and affectionate tribute to, the Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s cowlicked serial adventurer, McCarthy’s Tintin study also functions as a convenient guide to some of the obsessions that animate his new and most ambitious novel, C: Freud’s Wolf Man, crypts and cysts and codes, transmission and static, technology and death.

C stands first of all for Carrefax, the surname of McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge—as in the silken fabric; as in a surge or wave or sudden burst of current; and as in Sergei Pankajev, the subject of Freud’s case study in infantile neurosis, who is better known as the Wolf Man and to whom our Serge bears more than a passing resemblance. We’ll get to that. For now forget Remainder‘s stark nouveau roman minimalism. In C, Nabokovian wordplay abounds. The characters not only have names, but each name is a web of echoes and allusions. So let Carrefax lead you to "carapace"—insects are important here—or to "caracole," with its spiraling, cryptlike depths, even to deathly "catafalque." Dig in deeper and you’ll find "fax," of course, short for "facsimile" and denoting not only technology and transmission but replication—key concerns in C‘s cosmography. And in that prefix you might hear kara, Turkish for "black," or perhaps even kar, Syldavian for "king" (Syldavian being the language spoken in the fictional Balkan nation of Syldavia, where, you may recall, brave Tintin foiled a Bordurian plot to steal King Ottokar’s scepter). Jam these associations together if you like—"black king of technological transmission" is not a bad descriptor for young Serge—or let the allusions drift and frolic, as McCarthy suggests in his Tintin study, as a "dynamic set of overlayings and cross-encodings…that resonate at levels far beyond that of any individual, re-encrypting themselves as they speak."

The basics: Serge is born in 1898 on his family’s country estate, Versoie (cf. ver à soie, "silkworm"), somewhere outside London. His opiate-addict mother oversees the estate’s proto-industrial silk works while his scientist-humanist father runs a school for the deaf and invents various wired and wireless contraptions, always one step behind Marconi and Bell in the patent game. Already we have a short history of human communication: from the stubborn tongues of old man Carrefax’s students to the Huguenot looms on which Madame Carrefax’s workers weave elaborate tapestries, to the electrical pulses leaping the wires strung around the estate by Carrefax père. Add a brilliant older sister, Sophie—obsessed with cryptography, bugs and poisons—who plays telegraph operator with Serge’s prepubescent privates, and a mysterious godfather, Widsun, who is more than likely also Sophie’s lover and, shhh, Serge’s bio-dad.

McCarthy thus provides all the makings for a toothsome family drama, which C decidedly is not. Nor is it a Bildungsroman or a historical novel, though it might masquerade as either. What matters here is not Bildung or fidelity but return, structured repetition, flickery overlays of pattern. All narrative advances are also descents and reversals. No sooner do we meet the cast of Carrefaxes than McCarthy tosses in another family, then another. Each year old man Carrefax directs his students and children in a pageant cribbed from the classics. One year it’s the primal patricide. (Earth Mother Gaia persuades Cronos to castrate his father; little Serge, playing Cronos, wanders in need of a scythe.) Another year it’s Persephone’s abduction by the lord of the dead. Sophie takes charge of the special effects and Serge is Ascalaphus, who witnesses Persephone’s fateful indulgence in pomegranate seeds. An errant player places Hades’ crown on Widsun’s head. Later that night, Serge sees the shadow of a copulating couple cast on a sheet by a lantern. (Plato’s cave, anyone?) Not long thereafter, Sophie, pregnant, goes mad and swallows poison.

If this sounds familiar from undergrad psychology seminars, recall Freud’s Wolf Man, who provides yet another set of mythic resonances. Sergei Pankajev, like our Serge, was born with a caul (another C) and seduced as a boy by a brilliant, scientifically inclined older sister who loved Lepidoptera and later took her life. And Serge, like Pankajev, allowed himself to feel no grief at this loss; instead he buried it and came to suffer for this original encryptment. But in McCarthy’s fictions, unlike in Freud’s case study, no primal scene unlocks the secrets of the symbolic order. Behind every sign is another sign, an intersection in a web of linked associations. Meaning, such as it is, lies scattered across the network.

* * *

C stands also for "carbon," the associative superhero of the periodic table, the basis for all known life, the substance of the sludge that we will all become, akin in its blackness to ink and to void, to "the distance between planets, the space across which signals travel." Black gook coats the pages of C, and not just the actual ink. Having fallen ill after Sophie’s death—like Pankajev he suffers from constipation and blurry vision—teenage Serge takes the waters at a Balkan spa. His Mittel-European doctor diagnoses "morbid matter…black bile: mela chole." Serge is not the only one. World War I is right around the corner. "Blood of Europe poisoned and cathectic," the doctor declares. "All have clouded vision, just like you."

The war arrives. Serge befriends it. He is trained in cartography and codes and sent up in a plane, not as a pilot but as an "observer" tasked with transmitting the coordinates of German batteries to artillery on the ground. His companions, nearly all of whom are killed, are terrified of enemy gunfire, of becoming "a flamer, carbonisé." Not Serge: "The idea that his flesh could melt and fuse with the machine parts pleases him." Archetypal Modernist that he is, he reads Hölderlin between flights (the others wallow in A.E. Housman) and loves flying with a technophilic glee right out of a Marinetti manifesto. He loves the staticky crackle of gunfire, the vapor trails that cross the sky like wires, the way flight flattens perspective and tears away the earth’s horizon line. He loves watching the sun drown each evening in the marshes and imagines himself "a new, tar-coated orb around which all things turn."

Things do happen in C. Serge has adventures. Characters die, travel, go off to war, get laid—no one exactly falls in love—but you couldn’t call the novel plot-driven. There are no hooks really, except the most basic mysteries of meaning. What suspense McCarthy provides is driven more by the momentum of his language and the layered elegance of his ideas than by events. Midway through the war section, Serge returns from a mission and finds the recording officer waiting for him with a stack of papers. "Narrative, Carrefax," the officer reminds him.

"What?" asks Serge.

C also stands for cocaine, which the flyers rub in their eyes to sharpen their vision. Serge learns it’s more fun to snort the stuff, that it heightens the associative reveries to which he’s already given. Among the squadron’s medical supplies he discovers diacetylmorphine—also known as heroin and, in the US street slang of the day, "sister"—and soon can’t fly without it. The war’s horrors register at a dulled, aesthetic distance: "detached arms semaphore quite randomly across the ground; torsos, cut off at the waist, mimic the statues of antiquity."

The war ends. Serge survives. He studies architecture in London, a task made difficult by his peculiarly Modernist handicap: an inability to render perspective, to perceive depth, to see the world as anything other than surface, veil, dark ribbon unspooling across time. It doesn’t help his study habits that he falls in with an actress who teaches him how to score cocaine and its slow sister, to decode the secret languages of postwar London’s demimonde. The postwar section is called "Crash" for a reason, but even as Serge unravels, he is affectless, flat as a map. He is, as Freud said of Pankajev, "unassailably entrenched behind an attitude of obliging apathy." If you’re still holding out for catharsis, for some moral or sentimental breakthrough, McCarthy makes it clear that you won’t get one.

When the Architectural Association’s provost, Burnet, tries to empathize with Serge for all he must have suffered, Serge protests that he enjoyed the war. Burnet, stunned, searches Serge’s face for some more soothing explanation, but, McCarthy writes, "Burnet and his like will never disinter what’s buried there, will never elevate or train it; Serge hasn’t made himself available for his team, never will." Neither, McCarthy implies, will he.

* * *

Cstands for many other things besides, but let’s stop with "crypt," a word McCarthy has great fun with, implying as it does both burial and coded speech. The novel’s final section finds Serge in Egypt, dispatched by Widsun, his godfather and guardian angel, now an imperial spymaster of sorts. The postwar scramble for hegemony is on, and the British Empire is showing cracks. Egypt is on the cusp of independence. The Brits are packing up but at the same time planning for another, less material form of domination. They’re building pylons for the Empire Wireless Chain, a new empire in the air. Pause to note, as McCarthy does, that a pylon can be either a radio tower or the gate to an ancient Egyptian temple, a doorway to the underworld, and that Serge is soon nicknamed "Pylon Man." Empire, death and technology all walk hand in hand.

Serge travels south, and into the past. He starts in Alexandria, "where it all began," exploring the layers of the city’s history with a Cavafy-like polymath named Petrou. Soon he’s dispatched up the Nile on a river journey that evokes both Heart of Darkness and The Confidence-Man. Everyone on board is spying for someone, or might as well be. Even Serge isn’t sure if he’s a spy or not. He has reports to write, but what about? He ends up in the cemetery complex of Sedment. ("This is where it all began," he stands corrected. "Alexandria is where it ended.") The book’s hallucinatory climax begins within and under a pyramid, with beetles, scarabs and bones scattered all about. The walls are smeared with bitumen.

Freud used Egypt as a metaphor for the psyche, "which is so unintelligible to us because it preserves the earlier stages of its development side by side with the end-products, retains the most ancient gods and their significations along with the most modern ones." For McCarthy, the Upper Nile is not just Serge’s unconscious. It’s modernity. It’s us. It’s where signification explodes in its own endless echo. Sedment becomes sediment. One could complain about Orientalism here, a charge McCarthy does his best to pre-empt. He parodies the imperialist myopia of Serge’s colonial acquaintances ("The home of Egyptology is London," one huffs. "What’s Cairo got to do with any of this?") and describes Egyptology—and by extension all modes of knowing—as a history of looking that in its arrogance assumes it is "somehow definitive, standing outside of the long history of which it merely forms another chapter." Self-consciousness, though, does not get him off the hook.

One could also kvetch that for all its cerebral pleasures, C suffers from a certain lack of playfulness. It’s not that Serge is a cipher; it’s that he’s not quite cipher enough. He’s too overdetermined a symbol, and one that signifies too precisely. What’s wanting is not sentiment or realism but mess, ferment, a bubbling over in excess of the rhetorical lines. Despite McCarthy’s insistence on semiotic flux, the novel’s myriad puzzle pieces snap smartly into place, as if chaos had been chalked out with a T square or the eternal recurrence of counterfeits managed by a central bank. The message—that all meaning recedes into static—can come in just a little too clear. So clear that it can be hard to hear the weird, whimsical songs of the static itself.

For all its ingenuity and elegance, C at times feels too straightforwardly polemical, as if McCarthy had internalized the false dichotomy that Zadie Smith mapped out at his expense, as if he felt his chosen literary path required illumination, landscaping, cobblestones and even asphalt. (To be fair, Smith’s folly has also been John Barth’s, Jonathan Franzen’s and Ben Marcus’s, all of whom have variously insisted on analogous bifurcations for a form whose greatest virtue from the beginning has been its flexibility, its slippery resistance to all imposed confinements.) In his best moments, his offhand jests and visionary riffs, McCarthy writes with well-earned swagger, confident that the novel—not just this novel but any novel, the novel—is expansive enough to hold whatever he might wish to stuff it with, as if it needed no justification save the freedoms that it claimed.

It feels worse than petty, though, to fault McCarthy for his control. He has written an extraordinarily smart, complex and entertaining novel, a real rarity. Amid all the hair-pulling about the death of the book and literature’s grim future—topics with which McCarthy is in constant if subtextual conversation—this novel, at least, is alive and unafraid of its mortality. Even as it declares the demise of literature’s most ancient hopes, from pylon to pylon C positively hums.

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