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.