‘Literature doesn’t work, and that, ultra-paradoxically, is the condition of its possibility’ – Steve Finbow interviews Tom McCarthy, author of C

Tom McCarthy, General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, conceptual artist, essayist, lecturer, and author of Remainder, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, Men in Space, and the Man-Booker longlisted C, took time out to answer Steve Finbow’s ten questions about his work.

Zehn Fragen an Tom McCarthy:

Steve Finbow (SF): Hi, Tom. Hope you are not too busy with all the Man-Booker hullabaloo. Here we go: In Technics and Time, 1 Bernard Stiegler asks whether the human invents technology or technology invents the human. What are your thoughts?

Tom McCarthy (TMcC): The latter, ten times over.

SF: Your article on technology in The Guardian drew some of its inspiration from Don Quixote and Finnegans Wake; do you see those two novels as the bookends – so to speak – of the novel?

TMcC: Maybe not bookends, but important markers. They’re both surveys, in the archaeological sense, of previous literature, and they both, by paying such attention to the past, manage to do something radically new. Also, they both enact a kind of system-failure: literature doesn’t work, and that, ultra-paradoxically, is the condition of its possibility. Every ten minutes, it seems, some schmuck or other announces the death of the novel – and of course, they’re right: the novel has been living out its own death from before its birth.

SF: I picked up the Hölderlin/Trakl/Witgenstein/Heidegger thread throughout C but in what other way is it your German novel?

TMcC: Big presence of Freud, Thomas Mann, Musil – and, most of all, Kafka, whose insectoid visions people the whole book and whose name is shouted out repeatedly in all the Carrefax-K4-Käfer modulations towards the end. Melancholia (the book’s subject and mode) seems to me to be a very German thing, from Dürer onwards.

SF: Secondly, if Remainder is your French novel, Men in Space your Czech (Kundera?), C your German; do you have any plans for a Russian, Japanese, American novel, or even a British novel?

TMcC: A British novel is an intriguing idea. You could say Middlemarch is a British novel, or Great Expectations – both brilliant, encyclopaedic books grounded in particular social and industrial conditions. But the big London-based Modernists like Conrad and James aren’t really ‘British’ in their sensibility (any more than their nationality), even when they set their novels here: there’s as much Flaubert and Dostoevsky in Conrad – more, in fact – than there is of Dickens. Then, moving forwards: Ballard’s landmark novel Crash is set in London, but it seems to be coming out of and aligned with a more European avant-garde. To answer your question: I have no particular aspiration to write a British novel. Just a novel.

SF: C has a mass, an energy, a speed of thought and communication, a thrum of new beginnings, new possibilities (historical and also of the contemporary novel) – does this derive from your readings of Marinetti and the Futurists and their response to technology? I am thinking of the Futurist concept of universal dynamism and, I suppose, Marinetti’s sexual electricity.

TMcC: Marinetti is a big presence in the second section, ‘Chute’ – particularly in the passages involving flight. It’s not just his sense of exhilaration I wanted to capture, but also the way that, through technology, he understands man as networked rather than self-sufficient: ruptured, dispersed, threaded with communication systems and plugged in generally to space. He has a wonderfully geometric sensibility. And a materialism, something people often miss. He’s almost like Francis Ponge in places: feting simple objects like aubergines and footstools.

SF: How do you go about your research and how do you incorporate it into your fiction? Do you storyboard?

TMcC: With C, I read a lot of books and documents for each section. So, for the last section, for example, I looked at microfilm reels of the Egyptian Gazette from 1922, and read accounts of day-to-day life in Alexandria and Cairo, Forster’s travelogue on Alexandria, Cavafy’s poems, books on Osiris or the Imperial Wireless Chain, Flaubert’s Egyptian journal, etc etc. For each section I made notes, then made a ‘skeleton’ (rather than story-board), then wrote the section, then moved on to the next one.

SF: Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker. Apart from John Berger’s G, which covers a similar narrative timespan to C, I can’t think of any other so-called “experimental” novels on any Booker list – what are your thoughts on the state of contemporary literature?

TMcC: That tag ‘experimental’ is dispiriting. I suspect it just means ‘not humanist and middle-brow’. Someone even called C an ‘anti-novel’. What’s Ulysses then? Or Tristram Shandy? Or Don Quixote which you mentioned earlier? By that logic, all significant novels would be ‘anti-novels’ – which raises the question: what’s a ‘novel’? To answer your question: I get the impression that mainstream contemporary British fiction is not in a good state at all, but then I haven’t read most of it so I might not be the right person to ask. I read much more contemporary American fiction: people like Ben Marcus and Shelley Jackson and Jesse Ball. They’re doing really interesting stuff.

SF: Interconnectedness – there is a sentence in C in which Serge feels that the shell, the plane, and he are interchangeable/interconnected – I saw this as a reference to the 9/11 terrorists but also as a narrative reification of Heidegger’s theories of mankind’s interplay with “things”, equipment. From scarab beetles to iPhones, do you think we invest things with almost religious significance?

TMcC: Yes – and rightly so.

SF: Pornography and war drive technology and enable our 21st century lives. Do you agree with this statement? Which writers would you say were prophets of this military/porno/techno complex?

TMcC: Yes, I agree with the statement. For prophets, there are several obvious figures; but for me Thomas Pynchon stands out as the person who has articulated the conjunction of these things most lucidly and brilliantly. Gravity’s Rainbow was a constant inspiration for me when I wrote C.

SF: What answer would you like to give to a question unasked?

TMcC: The answer is Yes.


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