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Interpretation as a Fine Art

Tom McCarthy interviewed by Anna Aslanyan.

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I seem to be surrounded by Tom McCarthy fans. In a small bookshop, I run into an acquaintance and, after a brief hello, he moves on to McCarthy’s latest novel, C. A friend who, upon reading his first, Remainder, realised her boss reminded her of its protagonist (she herself felt like one of its extras, the lady who is required by contract to fry insane amounts of liver), comes round and asks me what I make of the new book. Another friend tries to predict the author’s trajectory over the next decade and says about C, “You can’t pretend life is a literary quotation any more.” I realise that, when the conversation turns to the book, each of us is talking about a different one, which makes me think of my own perception of it as incomplete, perhaps totally skewed.

A hot summer day, C not yet out, the Booker judges still busy deciding on this year’s longlist, I go to meet Tom McCarthy. On the way to the cafe, I remember the last time I interviewed him, a couple of years ago, when C was but a distant signal in the space, part of the white noise. Back then, Tom said the book was about mourning, quickly adding for my benefit: “Mourning with a ‘u’.” He was the first to burst out laughing, but the memory still does little for my confidence as a critic, so the first question I ask him is: “You’ve read my review of C – what did I get wrong?”

Tom McCarthy: I don’t think you can actually get things right or wrong when it comes to books. As a writer, you can only set up a number of possibilities, things to be interpreted. If there were one interpretation it would probably be a rather one-dimensional book. But then again… who am I to say? I can just share some anecdotes of its production.

3:AM: Let’s do anecdotes then. Your Black Box Transmitter project has been launched a while back. Is it related to the book in any way? I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg question.

TMcC: The precursor of the Black Box was the chicken – it was while I was researching it that I had the idea for C. This link between telephony and death, communications and family structures, which in literature have always been incestuous, from Sophocles onwards. Also, Nabokov is a large presence in the novel. I’ve been reading Ada – I think it’s his masterpiece, the best book by a long, long way. Strangely, a lot of Nabokovians don’t like it… Anyway, it’s all about encryption of some kind or another. Telephony is key – even though it is the one thing completely banned in the book. Again, this is by the same token as sex has been banned in Remainder. That book was all about sex, of course, so having it there in any explicit form would have diluted the message.

3:AM: From sex to technology – a truly Ballardian move; his famous equation, if reversed, reads as “Technology equals future minus sex.” I can’t say I fully understood the latter theme in C. Surely, the protagonist’s father – an eccentric figure by all accounts – is only an amateur tinkering with his copper wires; he may think he is close to actually inventing something, but you don’t take him seriously, right?

TMcC: Oh no, I am serious. He is just always one step behind. For example, he is trying to invent radio, complaining about “that Italian on Salisbury plain”Marconi, who gets the patent before him. You know, it’s like Coca-Cola – for every one who gets a patent there are twenty others who would have got it two weeks later. No, all his would-be inventions are real. Carrefax Cathode – that’s basically a TV he never manages to invent. Even that stuff about radio signals that never fade out and hence can be picked up aeons later – it’s all true. They never go away, just disperse very very slowly, they keep travelling on and on and on. I mean, they are scrambled beyond recognition, but there may be ways of decoding them. There are probably aliens listening to Today as we speak.

3:AM: Quite. Apart from Carrefax Sr, Marconi had other rivals in his day. Every Russian would tell you that radio was, in fact, invented by Alexander Popov, who may (or may not) have got there before the Italian. Nikola Tesla is another favourite; the list goes on. Do you think there is some logic to it – to the fact that many discoveries are made simultaneously by independent researchers?

TMcC: Absolutely. Technology makes certain aspirations possible. But what I find especially interesting is that technology becomes a kind of depository for people’s fantasies and beliefs. Radio comes of age with the First World War, when almost every family in Europe loses a child. In the following years, séances, for example, become hugely popular, a massive thing. If in the 19th century it was all about knocks on a table, now it’s all about mediums tuning in to pick up fragments of electric transmissions from the dead. It was generally believed that our bodies stored electricity and carried on transmitting after death. You find this articulated by people like Oliver Lodge who wasn’t just some crackpot – he was the head of the Royal Institution. This was a mainstream theory, popular among the masses, among intellectuals. Among writers, too – people like Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling were ardent supporters of it. So technology plays the role of a crypt in which the dead get mourned – both the dead and the undead, all those who haven’t been properly buried.

3:AM: Can you think of any analogues of this phenomenon connected to World War II?

TMcC: It’s hard to say… There must be some parallels, I am sure. The great novel of World War II is, of course, Gravity’s Rainbow – I was thinking of it a lot when working on C. It wasn’t written until 1973, but it’s about that period and about technology as a fetish. Pynchon, too, acknowledges that technology has a whole underside to it. For him, though, it’s more about phallic symbols – the V-2 rocket, for one. It’s also about cinema – V-2 is the first missile that travels faster than sound, so there we have the reversal of cause and effect, which he compares to being able to run a film backwards – or run time backwards.

3:AM: In other words, it’s similar to what you are doing in your novel. First there is a burst of violence, a war, which gives rise to a new aesthetic. Do you see a certain pattern in this?

TMcC: Yes, that’s right. Mind you, some people would say that you can’t distinguish between the two World Wars – it’s essentially the same period dominated by technological development. Still, I guess there is a difference there. One only has to look at Marinetti – he is really interesting. Typically, the only kind of response to war we ever hear is that coming from people with liberal views. All they are saying is, “Oh man, war is so bad! Why can’t we all love each other?” and so on. Whereas the really fascinating opinions come from someone like Marinetti – who, of course, doesn’t get taught at school because he’s a total fascist. But he’s a genius. Just imagine – this bombastic celebration of flight paths and missiles, and the new religion of speed. His is actually a much more accurate reading of war experience, of its aesthetic implications.

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[Photo: Erinn Hartman / Knopf]

3:AM: You have always been a fan of the Futurist Manifesto – in your capacity as the General Secretary of INS as well as a writer. Was it a big influence on C?

TMcC: Oh yes. Some of the war scenes are taken straight from Marinetti – especially where the hero gets that sense of geometry when flying over battlefields. Marinetti always talks about this triangle between sport, poetry and war. Ordnance explosions are moving around with the grace of gymnasts, and gymnasts evoke poetic images, so poetry becomes akin to war. Here I should also mention Ernst Jünger – he fought in both wars, on the German side, and died only recently, aged over 100. He wrote things like The Storm of Steel and The Battle as Inner Experience. Jünger is very close to Heidegger in his phenomenological experience of combat. His take on war is this: it’s Homeric, we should celebrate it because it’s something Homer immortalised. Which, basically, is what Hollywood is doing – take that stupid film with Brad Pitt about Troy. I don’t really have any time for this – this liberal rejection of figures like Marinetti. He is, after all, not a dodgy Italian artist who is bombing Iraq or torturing people in Abu Grahib. And yet the regimes responsible for that consider him too dangerous to be taught at school. He is one of the most subversive figures imaginable. Talking about violence, he does pretty much what Warhol does – instead of denouncing it, he makes himself into a kind of grotesque image of this thing and goes all the way, up to the point where it unravels. This is Marinetti’s approach. And you can’t deny that his writing, including the Manifesto, contains an enormous amount of irony.

3:AM: Going back to the protagonist of C, I can’t help thinking of him as a victim, in some sense at least. In this he is similar to the hero of Remainder – who really comes across as a victim before becoming a perpetrator. Would you agree?

TMcC: Victim is probably not quite the word. There is definitely a landscape of trauma – in both books the events take place within and around trauma. In the case of C it is universal. Its hero, Serge, is a traumatised subject and as such can be seen as the face of the 20th Century. It was, you have to admit, a traumatic period – and one that hasn’t resolved its conflicts, not to this day. Serge does epitomise his century in many ways. He doesn’t mourn his sister properly, doesn’t even cry at her funeral, displacing it onto the world. So the world becomes the place where his story is played out. Serge’s trauma is a marker for a bigger set of traumatic behavioural traits. At the end he goes to Egypt to look at the ancient tombs that also serve as incestuous symbols – all these families, dead siblings, dead children… You can almost say it’s completely trans-historical. For Freud trauma is not an historical contingency, it’s the condition of subjectivity. He moves from Traumdeutung — The Interpretation of Dreams — to Traumadeutung. And at the end, in such essays as Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he is saying: what the human subject is at his most basic level – this question boils down to the reality of a repetition machine. The machine responding to the originary traumatism of existence, an existence in a state of lack.

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On this note we part. One day, I think to myself, when I am wiser, I’ll reread this book to comprehend all those comments made by the others. A couple of weeks later I walk into Foyles and find C there, displayed among new fiction (strangely, no Tom admirers this time). And then I go up to the cafe to check my emails and there, in my in-box, is a message from a fellow bookworm telling me about the Booker longlist. C is in. Perhaps I wasn’t too wrong about it, after all.

anna

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 10th, 2010.