Tom McCarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. He is known for the reports, manifestos and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. His nonfiction book Tintin and the Secret of Literature will be published by Granta Books in 2006. Remainder is his first novel.
Mark Thwaite: I wouldn't normally ask a writer about their publisher, Tom, but Metronome Press seem like such an interesting outfit that I'm intrigued as to how you got involved with them and why you decided to place your manuscript with such a new, small and untested house?
Tom McCarthy: It's very simple: all the corporate houses rejected it. Either the editors simply didn't 'get' it or they did but couldn't push it past the marketing people who run these places nowadays. When Clementine Deliss, who I knew from my involvement in the art world, set up Metronome Press with Thomas Boutoux, she asked to read Remainder, and decided it was the sort of book they wanted MP to promote.
MT: Clementine (Deliss) recently said (in an interview with 3:AM) that "fiction within art practice might be the way forward". Is that a sentiment you would agree with?
TM: When Remainder got stonewalled by the conglomerates in 2001-2 I turned my attention to art and started doing more and more art projects. And I noticed pretty quickly that, whereas the editors - and, indeed, writers - I'd come across on the mainstream publishing circuit were more or less ignorant about literature and its history, artists and curators were extremely literate. They'd all read people like Faulkner and Beckett and Joyce, and some of them were doing work based on the novels of Huysmans or Robbe-Grillet. In the current climate art has become the place where literary ideas and themes are creatively discussed and transformed - not publishing. On top of that, Metronome Press is itself a kind of art piece: a reprise of Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press, even down to their look and the way they bring out these little 'Teaser' booklets which mix erotic photography with excerpts from their novels. You could almost say it's a re-enactment, which obviously ties in very nicely with the subject-matter of Remainder. But Remainder isn't a piece of conceptual art, or curating or anything like that. It's just a straight-up novel.
MT: You are an artist yourself, Tom. Do you see a conflict or a tension between the two sides of your artistic endeavours? Is writing your first love?
TM: I became an artist by accident. I have no training in visual art: my entire background is in literature. The art thing started when I got interested in the early twentieth century art manifesto as a literary form and wrote a close pastiche of Marinetti's 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, but substituting his fetishisation of technology with a fetishisation of death (I was reading a lot of Blanchot and Derrida and stuff like that at the time). Gavin Turk gave me half a table at this 'Articultural Fair' he was organising, a kind of mock village-fete, and I handed out my International Necronautical Society or INS manifestos, and pretty soon all these galleries were going: 'This is conceptual art; have an exhibition.' So I set up a huge bureaucracy, with INS committees and sub-committees of philosophers and writers and artists, and got them to present reports in public session, and we'd arraign other artists in front of INS Hearings that very self-consciously reprised the format of Soviet show-trials or Un-American Activities Hearings, and the art press would all come and sit in special 'press' boxes in the galleries and report on it, and so on. What I was doing, in effect, was using art as an arena to play out the fictions of Kakfa, Conrad, Burroughs - people like that. Last year the INS had a whole radio station running out of the ICA, a giant control room in which more than forty assistants harvested lines of text picked up from newspapers, tv and other radio stations, cut them up and re-ordered their fragments into lines of poem-code which were transmitted over FM around London, like the secret radio messages in Cocteau's 1950 film Orphée. Basically, it was a huge Burroughsian cut-up that lasted ten days. So, yes, writing is my first love and there's nothing better than really good literature - but art has one advantage in that it provides an active space, a space of becoming-active. You can actually do the thing rather than just represent it. Not if you're a painter, of course - but in process-based art you can, and that's a really powerful thing.
MT: Did Remainder take you a long time to write? (And how do you write? Longhand, directly on to a computer?)
TM: It took about a year to write. I did lots of research into trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and interviewed a couple of people who had been in bad accidents. I also researched forensic procedure and the formalities of bank robberies (thank God for the British Library's subject-searchable catalogue!). Plus I walked around Brixton with a camera and a dictaphone, studying the patterns on the pavement in the strip where the protagonist re-enacts the gangster shooting and capturing the details of the apartment building that would become Madlyn Mansions. I'd print all my notes out, then write skeletons for each chapter on a laptop, then print these out, add to them by hand, then write the draft itself back on the laptop.
MT: The plot of Remainder involves your (nameless) main character being traumatised "by an accident that involves something falling from the sky and leaves him eight and a half million pounds richer; our hero spends his time and money obsessively reconstructing and re-enacting memories and situations from his past". So, where did that come from then!?
TM: It came just like it does to the main character: I was in a friend-of-a-friend's bathroom, staring at a crack on the wall, and I got a sense of déja-vu. I half-remembered having been in a place like this, looking at an identical crack - but this other place had had a window looking over a courtyard at facing roofs around which cats were lounging; and there'd been the smell of liver frying, piano-music looping and so on. And I thought: if I had all the money in the world, I could hire architects and designers and actors to recreate and re-enact this memory. I realised straight away that this was the premise of a novel, and within an hour I'd jotted the whole plot down - apart from how he gets the money. I thought initially that he could win the lottery, but when I sat down to actually begin writing a few months later I decided that was a bit naff and that he should be a trauma victim instead. Trauma is intimately tied in with re-enactment: it brings about a compulsion to repeat. But I never thought of Remainder as just a psychological drama. What excited me right from the crack-moment onwards was that the premise clearly had much wider implications: it was about history and time, simulation, questions of authenticity and, by extension, of our whole state of being-in-the-world. And it was about the world's state of being-in-the-universe as well: the world, matter, this shard left over from some unnameably violent disaster - a remainder.
MT: Did you set out to write a self-consciously literary novel? What does that - literary novel - really mean to you?
TM: The themes of Remainder have a huge literary back-history. Reviewers have picked up on Huysmans's Against Nature and Ballard's Crash as influences, plus virtually anything by Beckett (think of Vladimir and Estragon re-enacting Pozzo and Lucky's antics in Waiting for Godot, or Winnie going through the same gesture of taking objects from her hand-bag day after day while fully aware that she's repeating the same gesture-loop in Happy Days). But it goes further back, right to Cervantes: Don Quixote is a guy who obsessively re-enacts certain situations. For that matter, so does Hamlet, getting the court actors to replay his father's death-scene. It goes even further. All the masks my protagonist makes his re-enactors wear, the looks of dread on their faces even when they take them off, the way he keeps inducing ponderous, slow states that tend towards stasis: I was thinking of Greek tragedy. But - and this is really important - it wouldn't have worked if the book had been self-consciously literary. Imagine him standing in front of the crack going: 'Hmm, I'm experiencing something similar to what Proust describes with the madeleine…' It would have been dreadful. So I was very careful to make sure the narrator had absolutely no literary sensibility. Similarly with art and philosophy: his activities have been read (and not wrongly) by one reviewer as an allegory for the experience of art, but the book would have been no good if he'd been an artist or a thinker. So I made sure he had no interest in or awareness of these things. He's not an intellectual: he's a bloke, an Everyman. I did leave a few little pointers if you really want to look: he lives off Ruskin Park, the flat with the crack in is on Plato Road… These are real places in Brixton, although 'Madlyn Mansions' isn't. But that stuff is for literary train-spotters: it doesn't matter at all to the book. Writing has to do its thing as directly and credibly as possible, I reckon, not retreat into a rarefied back-zone of references - unless, of course, that is the thing it's doing, like in Finnegans Wake for example. To put it another way: in good writing, the whole history of literature is at play, but it's being actively transformed into something with real immediacy, and that immediacy doesn't have to be complex.
MT: You say that Remainder was inspired by Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster. I'm fascinated by this. In what way did Blanchot - such a difficult writer and critic many think - inspire you and your work?
TM: The Writing of the Disaster is a brilliant, mesmerising book. I don't know what the fuck it means, but I read it like poetry: all these lyrical invocations of a 'patience that is the passivity of dying whereby an I that is no longer I answers to the limitlessness of the disaster, to that which no present remembers' and of 'repetition, the ultimate over and over, general collapse, destruction of the present.' All the repetition in Remainder, those scenes in which he does nothing, or at least nothing active, but just passively delivers himself over to some process, to the ripples of an 'event' which has already happened, never happened, never stopped happening and is forever yet to come - that's very Blanchot. And the whole trauma premise, the accident he can never name which 'involved something falling from the sky': as Blanchot points out, the word 'disaster' comes from des astre, 'from the stars'. It's fate, it's gravity, it's time and, of course, death. I used 'Desastre' as a working title for the novel, until Remainder suggested itself.
MT: Have you been pleased with the response to your novel?
TM: I've been delighted. There have been intelligent reviews in places like the TLS, The Indy on Sunday, Time Out and 3:AM, who kindly named it their Book of the Year; I've been whisked over to Vancouver to do a reading at the art school where they're studying the whole question of re-enactment, invited to give a seminar on it at the Central School of Speech and Drama here in London - and so on. It seems to have by-passed the commercial sector and gone straight into the critical one, which is exactly where I wanted it to play out. Distribution is a problem, though. A corporate publisher would get your book into all the bookshops - but then to be with a corporate publisher it seems to me that your book would have to execute the kind of brief dictated by their market research teams, which would make it not worth writing in the first place. You may as well go into advertising and become a copywriter instead. You'd make more money that way, that's for sure!
MT: Do you think anything can be done about the dominance of nescient bookshops and huge corporate publishers?
TM: Yes. I think the solution is very simple: the Arts Council needs to fund independent literary publishers directly. They fund non-commercial art spaces in order to guarantee that quality artworks which aren't commodity-based get produced and circulated. They need to do the same with publishers. I'm not a Marxist, but it's blindingly obvious that if you apply the logic of commodity marketing at an editorial level you just churn out bland, middle-brow products that can't in any meaningful sense be called 'literature'. Maybe writers should take a cue from artists, who have been setting up independent, artist-run galleries for a decade or so now, and applying for funding so the spaces can gather momentum and status. To an extent, that's what Clementine Deliss and Thomas Boutoux have done: they set up Metronome Press in Paris, where they can get direct public funding, and also hit on major arts patrons for support. The response to Remainder has made me think that enough people believe in proper writing to make something dynamic happen here - they just need a strategy. I hope someone from the Arts Council is reading this. Hey you - yes you! - start funding independent publishers directly, or else the country with the strongest literary tradition in the world will have a 'lost generation' as big as Stalin's!
MT: What are you working on now? What is coming next?
TM: I'm working on a novel about family secrets, incest and telephony. It's very influenced by the autobiography of Sergei Pankajev, the real figure behind Freud's case history 'The Wolf Man'.
MT: What is the best book you have read recently? Who is your favourite writer/what is your favourite book?
TM: I'm reading this amazing new book by Stewart Home called Tainted Love. He is the single best writer in the UK in my opinion - although he'd hate to be called that as he's a kind of anti-writer. My favourite books are probably the Usual Suspects I'm afraid: Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses - plus some less obvious ones like Nova Express, Ada or Ardor, Updike's Rabbit books. I'm sorry for being predictable - but if you ask people who their favourite footballers of all time are you'll be told Pele, Maradonna, George Best: they do things with the form that are incredible, make and unmake the world at every moment. That's what literature at its best can do.
MT: Has the internet changed the way that you read and write?
TM: No. These people who do online 'hypertext fiction' are completely missing the point. Literature was hypertexted up way before HTML came along. They'd realise that if they bothered to read Chaucer, let alone Raymond Roussel. What has been really interesting, though, has been discovering literary e-zines like yours in the wake of Remainder's publication. They're for the most part run by people with a considerable knowledge of literature, who are also editorially independent, unlike the broadsheets who have to largely plug the conglomerates' products which they offer at special reader-discount prices under the reviews. I noticed the BBC and Guardian sites have started linking to Britlitblogs.com. It's almost as though they were listening in to get the dope. You've become like Huggy Bear to their Starsky and Hutch!
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
TM: No - just thanks for your interest in Remainder and good luck with RSB.