ReadySteadyBlog

I presume y'all are all over this, but if not: Tom McCarthy's essay collection Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish is out now from NYRB.

Fifteen brilliant essays written over as many years provide a map of the sensibility and critical intelligence of Tom McCarthy, one of the most original and challenging novelists at work today. Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish explores a wide range of subjects, from the weather considered as a form of media, to the paintings of Gerhard Richter and the movies of David Lynch, to Patty Hearst as revolutionary sex goddess, to the still-radical implications of established masterpieces such as Ulysses (how do you write after it?), Tristram Shandy, and the unsung junky genius Alexander Trocchi’s darkly beautiful Cain’s Book. The longer “Recessional” examines the place of time in writing—how writing makes a new time of its own, a time apart from institutional time—while the startling “Nothing Will Have Taken Place” moves from Mallarmé and Don DeLillo to the ball mastery of Zidane to look at how art, whether that of a poet, novelist, or athlete, destroys given codes of meaning and behavior, returning them to play. Certain points of reference recur with dreamlike insistence—among them the artist Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, a photographic documentation of the roadside debris of a Royal typewriter hurled from the window of a traveling car; the great blooms of jellyfish that are filling the oceans and gumming up the machinery of commerce and military domination—and the question throughout is: How can art explode the restraining conventions of so-called realism, whether aesthetic or political, to engage in the active reinvention of the world?

In a recent Guardian article, ReadySteadyBook reviewer (and author of The Canal) Lee Rourke speaks to our friend Tom McCarthy about Tom's novel C, about art and culture generally, and about Modernism:


LR: You recently reviewed Gabriel Josipovici's latest book What Ever Happened to Modernism? for this paper, calling it a cure for our conservative times. What did you mean by this?

TMcC: It's a wonderful book. We've had over a century of these radical writers such as Beckett, Celan and Kafka, and in philosophy people like Bataille, Levinas and Derrida, and in psychoanalysis Freud and Lacan, and in film Godard and Lynch, and so on. It's incredibly dynamic stuff, and unleashes a vertiginous set of possibilities – not to mention the amount of anguish and trauma that's gone into producing it. I mean, Paul Celan virtually walked out of Auschwitz to write his poetry. For us to dismiss its legacy as if it was just some irritation that got in the way of an ongoing rational enlightenment is negligible to say the least. In fact, I think it's actually offensive. It's an ethical thing: to brush all this aside and to regress to sentimental humanism is almost like revisionism: it's the cultural analogue to historical revisionism, it's just ethically wrong and aesthetically rubbish. Modernism is a legacy we have whether we want it or not. It's like Darwin: you can either go beyond it and think through its implications, or you can ignore it, and if you do that you're a Creationist (more...)

Via Sponge! (the new name for our friend Lee Rourke's Scarecrow blog) I note that Tom McCarthy has been writing in the LRB about Jean-Philippe Toussaint:


For any serious French writer who has come of age during the last 30 years, one question imposes itself above all others: what do you do after the nouveau roman? Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon et compagnie redrew the map of what fiction might offer and aspire to, what its ground rules should be – so much so that some have found their legacy stifling. Michel Houellebecq’s response has been one of adolescent rejection, or, to use the type of psychological language that the nouveaux romanciers so splendidly shun, denial: writing in Artforum in 2008, he claimed never to have finished a Robbe-Grillet novel, since they ‘reminded me of soil cutting’. Other legatees, such as Jean Echenoz, Christian Oster and Olivier Rolin, have come up with more considered answers, ones that, at the very least, acknowledge an indebtedness – enough for their collective corpus to be occasionally tagged with the label ‘nouveau nouveau roman’. Foremost among this group, and bearing that quintessentially French distinction of being Belgian, is Jean-Philippe Toussaint (more...)

More on this over at 3:AM too.

Our friend the author Tom McCarthy is on the road:


First, Tom is in conversation with with Jonathan Lethem about his new novel Chronic City at the LRB Bookshop on 7th Jan. Details at the LRB site.


Second, Tom is discussing how European fiction has influenced his writing and "English" fiction in general in a three-header with AS Byatt and Aleksander Hemon at the South Bank on 18th Jan. Details on the South Bank Centre site.


Third is an appearance at the Grand Palais in Paris, with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jacques Roubaud, on 29th Jan. Details at monumenta.com.

Guess who is in the Tournament of Books final? Yup: Tom McCarthy ... and he could well be pitching up against Roberto Bolaño. Interesting!

More interviews with the lovely Mr Tom McCarthy: this time over on the Raincoast books blog.

Computer problems meant that my five-part interview with Tom McCarthy didn't go up as smoothly as possible last week -- sorry about that. But all five parts are now online -- part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5. To make things easier, I'll collate all the parts of Tom's interview later this week.


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Below is the fifth and final part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Are you dismayed by the current state of the world!?


Tom McCarthy: How could I not be? Beckett’s answer to this question was ‘Let it burn!’ – but then he has Vladimir in Waiting for Godot say ‘Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?’, which I think is the single best and most moving line ever written by any writer, ever. Everything’s political, ultimately – but I think good writing disengages from politics at a superficial level in order to experience it more profoundly.


MT: What are you writing now?


TM: Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.


MT: Anything else you would like to say?


TM: Keep on keeping up the good work. RSB’s become a staple of my daily meander through cyberspace: the criticism, the links, it’s all good – apart from the announcements of various great writers’ and critics’ deaths, which I always read first on your site. Stop killing off our heroes!

Below is the fourth part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Who should we be reading from way back when and who should we be reading who is writing now? Why!?


Tom McCarthy: You gotta read the Greeks if you want to understand how the whole symbolic order fits together; it’s like the main-frame from which all subsequent literature springs. Read the Oresteia, Oedipus, Antigone. Then the Renaissance writers, obviously. And the big modernists. Not reading Joyce if you want to be a serious writer would be kind of like not looking at Picasso if you want to paint. In terms of now, I think some of the most interesting literary figures (as I suggested earlier) aren’t necessarily writers. The films of David Lynch, for example, have an extremely literary logic; his latest, Inland Empire, is structured like Finnegans Wake or the novels of Robbe-Grillet, with a set of repetitions regressing inwards, modulating as they repeat. He’s grappling with questions of narrative and representation and identity in a way that mainstream novelists simply aren’t, and is therefore much more interesting as a ‘writer’, even if he isn’t strictly speaking one.


MT: You've established yourself as a writer, but you still see yourself as an artist -- what non-writing work are you involved in at the moment?


TM: I’m heading off to New York this week to present the International Necronautical Society’s (INS) Declaration on Inauthenticity, a joint statement with INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley, who I see you’ve interviewed on these pages in the past. It’ll be delivered in the form of a White House-style press conference, at the Drawing Centre on the 25th Sept. There are also INS projects coming up at the Museet Moderna Kunst in Stockholm, where we’re going to install an audio ‘crypt’ in the gallery, at Tate Britain here in London and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. I’m also working with the artist Johan Grimonprez, who made this brilliant film called Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, all about airline hijacks, which won the Documenta prize a few years ago. He’s working on a new film about Hitchcock and the double, a theme obviously very close to my heart, and I’m writing a kind of voiceover-narrative for it.


MT: Are you dismayed by the current state of writing/publishing?


TM: Nes and yo. I think it’s a great time to be a writer; it’s just an awful time to publish. But, as I suggested earlier, a result of the closing out of literature by corporate publishing here in the UK has been that literature runs underground and bubbles up elsewhere: art, film, philosophy and so on. The borders between these disciplines get blurred, there’s hybridization, new forms emerging. That’s a good thing.


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Below is the third part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:


Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your novels? Have you learned anything from them?


Tom McCarthy: I’m interested in people’s readings of the books. A novel doesn’t end when it’s written; in a way, that’s just the beginning: the ‘meaning’ isn’t enclosed within it but emerges from its meeting with other texts, other moments – all textbook deconstruction stuff, I know, but no less true for that. Having said that, some readings are much more productive than others. Ones that interpret Remainder, for example, as a straight allegory or ‘solve’ it by suggesting that the hero’s dead but doesn’t know it yet are interesting but limited. The critic Andrew Gibson, who’s just put out a book on Beckett and Badiou, told me that my work is about ‘the radical death of the world,’ adding that this is the theme of twenty-first century philosophy. I’m not sure I understand what he means but it sounds really good.


MT: Remainder is a very philosophical novel. What first drew you to Continental Philosophy, to Blanchot et al?


TM: It’s such great stuff. The English empirical tradition is just bean-counting; it’s got nothing to do with proper thought. Real philosophy throws us radically and dynamically into the world, into language and experience, through desire towards death and so on. That’s why Heidegger, Levinas, Blanchot, Derrida – and Badiou too – are real philosophers. What draws me also is the centrality of literature to this tradition. Heidegger develops half his ideas from the poetry of Hölderlin or Gottfried Benn, Derrida from exquisitely close and creative readings of Genet, Ponge and Baudelaire. Where does the ‘philosophy’ end and ‘literature’ begin? The Post Card is a love-poem to rival anything by John Donne – only it’s not a poem; so what is it? And how do we categorise Edmond Jabès’s work? Criticism? Prose-poetry? ‘Meta-writing’? In good philosophy, the question of literature is always ‘live’, and ditto the other way round.


MT: You've said that you think the novel is safer in the hands of artists than with writers -- what did you mean by that?


TM: I don’t think that’s always the case; it’s all contingent. But with mainstream UK publishing becoming just the middle-brow branch of the corporate entertainment industry, the writers promoted by the big houses tend to be ones who are using the format of the novel to serve up nicely-packaged but quite unambiguous ‘thoughts’, or pat liberal ‘questions’ that bring their own answers with them – in other words, purging literature of the slipperiness, recalcitrance, abjection and a million other things that make it literary. Conversely, art’s become an arena where these very things are valued, and artists (as I think I said in our last conversation) are becoming more and more literate – and even using text and narrative in their work. Things move in cycles; maybe in fifty years time art will be all dumb and corporate and publishing dynamic and subversive, who knows? But at the moment, yes, it’s art and its networks that are curating literature – ‘curating’ in the classical sense of keeping it safe, letting it develop.

Yesterday, I posted the first part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy. Today, Tom lists his Top Ten Novels over on The Book Depository ... and I give you the second part of my interview with Mr McCarthy below:


Mark Thwaite: What do you see as the main fundamental differences between Men in Space and Remainder Tom?


Tom McCarthy: Superficially, they’re very different novels: dispersed third-person versus monomaniacal first, eclectic overabundance versus pared-down minimalism and so on. But ultimately they’re concerned with the same things. Repetition, for example, and the idea of inauthenticity. Also, as I hinted earlier, they’re both about failed transcendence. In both novels, there are two directions, two pulls: up, and down. Things get sent up towards the sky, the heavens; they come crashing down again. In Men in Space these things are people, eras, whole societies; in Remainder it’s blue goop from a windscreen-wiper reservoir – and also, of course, an aeroplane and whatever piece of hardware fell on the hero in the first place. In both novels, there’s a battle between an abstracting, idealist tendency and a material one that leads to clutter and detritus – and in both the latter wins hands down (go and look at Yeats’s The Circus Animals’ Desertion and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about). And both end in a kind of suspension: the hero of Remainder doing aerial figure-of-eights, or Nick stuck on the roof holding the rope while history’s wheel loops round and round...


MT: What were the biggest challenges of writing MiS? How did you overcome them?


TM: How do you write a novel about disintegration that’s not disintegrated, that’s coherent? And how do you write about things you’ve experienced while simultaneously configuring it all from a novelistic point of view? In the first draft, there were episodes in there simply because they’d happened to me and seemed important at the time; then you realize that that doesn’t matter: everything has to play a role within the novel’s architecture, its staging posts, relays and correspondences. Also, more prosaically (and it is prose we’re talking about, after all), how do you get a character into and out of a room? I find that hard enough.


MT: I understand the film rights for Remainder have been sold? What does this actually mean!? When might we see a film?


TM: A partnership of FilmFour and Cowboy Films have bought the rights and are producing the movie. They’re the partnership behind the recent adaptation of The Last King of Scotland, which was a huge success and won an oscar for Forrest Whittaker. The first draft of the script has been written, by John Hodge, who wrote the script for Trainspotting. I’m not technically involved, but the producer gave me a peek and it looked really good. Next they decide who the director will be. So maybe 2008/9 for the release date. It always takes longer and costs more than you think, apparently...


Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space


Back in July, I did a five-part interview with Dan Hind (collected here). Doing the interview over the course of a week seemed to be very well received, so now it is time to do it again, this time with our pal the author Tom McCarthy (who I've interviewed before, of course).


Tom's novel Remainder has become hugely successful. His lastest novel is Men in Space.


Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Men in Space, Tom?


Tom McCarthy: I lived in Prague in the early nineties, just after the Velvet Revolution. As though half-realising Plato’s vision of a philosopher-led state, this absurdist playwright, Havel, had come to power and filled parliament with his friends. The city was also a magnet for young would-be Bohemians from all over the world, and there were parties that went on for days, spilling from club to loft to opening to club again. Beyond the drunkenness, there was a real excitement, a sense that something new, a new Europe or new type of Europe, was emerging from the ruins of the Easter Bloc. A few years later, back in London, I wanted to write about it – or at least use it as the setting to write about something more entrenched. The image of the floating saint in the stolen icon painting that serves as the book’s ‘MacGuffin’ helped solidify some of the themes of regeneration and transcendence – or its failure – I was trying to get at; and of course the abandoned cosmonaut who doubles him in ‘contemporary’ (rather than ‘archaic’) time, orbiting above the stratosphere while the ex-Soviet states argue who should bring him down, did the same. These things came together slowly, though. There was no single Eureka-moment, like there was with Remainder when I got struck by deja-vu while looking at a crack and the whole novel was there in half an hour.


MT: How long did it take you to write it?


TM: I finished a version of it before writing Remainder, a really long time ago. Fourth Estate were going to publish that version, but the editor got blocked from above, and then the same thing happened at a couple more big publishers; so I put it aside and wrote Remainder. After that book took off I looked at the manuscript with Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books here and Marty Asher of Vintage in New York and we decided we’d do it. But by this time it was pretty old, and I wanted to rework it thoroughly before putting it out; so I spent the first three months of this year heavily rewriting, cutting loads and adding new stuff. So, to answer your question, it was written over two and a half years seven years ago and three months seven months ago. Got that?


MT: What is it about Central Europe at the moment just after the Soviet Union collapsed that you find so fascinating?


TM: An order of things disintegrating, all the old parameters being stripped away, or, to put it in drier philosophical terms, a grand narrative being fragmented (which, for the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, is the defining feature of the ‘postmodern’). It’s the vertigo, the exhilaration, the terror and the expectation – not to mention the eventual disappointment: they wanted The Republic and got Starbucks.