“The Absence of Any Purpose Is the Starting Point for My Work” | An Interview with Roman Muradov

I’ve been a fan of Roman Muradov’s strange and wonderful illustrations for a while now, so I was excited late this summer to get my hands on his début graphic novella, (In a Sense) Lost and Found (Nobrow Press). In my review, I wrote: “I loved Lost and Found, finding more in its details, shadowy corners, and the spaces between the panels with each new reading.” The book is a beauty, so I was thrilled when Roman agreed to discuss it with me over a series of emails. We also discussed his influences, his audience, his ongoing Yellow Zine projects, his recent cover for Joyce’s Dubliners, and his reaction to some of the confused Goodreads reviews his novella received. Check out Roman’s work at his website. You won’t be disappointed.

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Biblioklept: When did you start working on (In a Sense) Lost and Found? Did you always have the concept kicking around?

Roman Muradov: The idea came to me in 2010 in the form of the title and the image of a protracted awakening. I wrote it as a short story, which had a much more conventional development and actually had some characters and plot movements, all of them completely dropped one by one on the way to the final version apart from the basic premise. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what was to be done with that premise, but the idea kept bothering me for some time, until I rewrote it a few times into a visual novella when Nobrow asked me if I wanted to pitch them something. Since then it went through several more drafts and even after everything was drawn and colored I had to go back and edit most of the dialogues, which is a nightmarish task in comics, since it involved re-lettering everything by hand.

Biblioklept: When you say you wrote it as a short story, I’m intrigued—like, do you mean as a sketch, or a set of directions, or as a tale with imagery? Part of the style of the book (and your style in general) is a confidence in the reader and the image to work together to make the narrative happen. When you were editing the dialogues, were you cutting out exposition, cues, contours?

RM: No, I mean a traditional pictureless short story. I was struggling with forms at the time and didn’t feel confident with any of them. In a way this still persists, because my comics are often deliberately deviating from the comics form, partially in my self-published experiments. The story itself was still ambiguous, I never considered showing what she lost, or how. With time I edited down all conversation to read as one self-interrupting monologue.

Biblioklept: I want to circle back to (In a Sense) Lost and Found, but let’s explore the idea that your work intentionally departs from the conventions of cartooning. When did you start making comics? What were the early comics that you were reading, absorbing, understanding, and misunderstanding?

RM: I came to comics pretty late; I only discovered Chris Ware & co around 2009. As a child I spent one summer drawing and writing little stories, ostensibly comics, then I stopped for a couple of decades. I’m not really sure why I started or stopped. In general my youth was marked by extraordinary complacency and indifference. I followed my parents’ advice and studied petroleum engineering, then worked as a petroleum engineer of sorts for a year and a half, then quit and decided to become an artist. I still feel that none of these decisions were made by me. Occasionally certain parts of my work seem to write themselves and I grow to understand them much later, which is weird.

Biblioklept: Was Ware a signal figure for you? What other comic artists did you find around that time?

Ware, Clowes & Jason were the first independent cartoonist I discovered and I ended up ripping them off quite blatantly for a year or so. Seth was also a big influence, particularly his minute attention to detail and his treatment of time, the way he stretches certain sequences into pages and pages, then skips entire plot movements altogether. Reading Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius was a huge revelation, it felt like I was given permission to deviate from the form. Similarly, I remember reading Queneau’s “Last Days” in Barbara Wright’s translation, and there was the phrase “the car ran ovaries body” or something like that, and I thought “oh, I didn’t know this was allowed.”

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Biblioklept: Your work strikes me as having more in common with a certain streak of modernist and postmodernist prose literature than it does with alt comix. Were you always reading literature in your petroleum engineer days?

RM: That’s certainly true, nowadays I’m almost never influenced by other cartoonists. I wasn’t a good reader until my mid-twenties, certainly not back in Russia. I stumbled upon Alfred Jarry (not in person) while killing time in the library, and then it was a chain reaction to Quenau, Perec and Roussel, then all the modernists and postmodernists, particularly Kafka, Joyce, Nabokov and Proust.

Biblioklept: How do you think those writers—the last four you mention in particular—influence your approach to framing your stories?

RM: From Nabokov I stole his love for puzzles and subtle connections, a slightly hysterical tone, his shameless use of puns and alliteration, from Kafka–economy of language and a certain mistrust of metaphors–it always seems to me that his images and symbols stretch into an infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation by default, from Joyce and Proust the mix of exactitude and vagueness, and the prevalence of style over story, the choreography of space and time. I should’ve say “I’m in the process of stealing,” I realize that all of these things are far too complex, and I doubt that I’ll ever feel truly competent with any of these authors as a reader, let alone as a follower.

Biblioklept:(In a Sense) Lost and Found begins with a reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and then plunges into a Kafkaesque—to use your phrasing—“infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation.” How consciously were you following Kafka’s strange, skewed lead?

RM: I wanted the reference to be as obvious as possible, almost a direct copy, as if it’s placed there as an act of surrender–I’m not going to come up with a story, here’s one of most famous opening lines that you already know. Usually I know the beginning and the ending and I often downplay their importance, so that the work becomes focused mostly on the process and so that readers don’t expect any kind of resolution or satisfactory narrative development. In the password scene the phrases are copied directly from Eliot’s Wasteland, which itself refers to Paradise Lost in these passages. It’s a bit like a broken radio, shamelessly borrowing from the narrator’s visual and literary vocabulary, the way it happens in a dream.

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Tom McCarthy & D.T. Max Discuss David Foster Wallace

I Review Tom McCarthy’s Essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”

Telephone Picture EM 3 — Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

In an interview published back in 2010 (coinciding roughly with the release of his excellent novel C), Tom McCarthy evaluated his work:

I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature. For me, that’s what literature’s always done. If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.

McCarthy’s new essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix” explores the idea of artist as DJ, as remixer, as synthesizer. It’s a brief, fun read—28 pages on paper the publicity materials claim, but it’s only available as an etext, so its length is hard to measure in terms of pages. It took me less than an hour to read it on my Kindle Fire. Then I read it again. Although publisher Vintage kindly sent me a copy, I’d argue that it’s well worth the two bucks they’re asking.

“Transmission” is playful and discursive, as befits its subject. The essay is not nearly as pretentious as its subtitle (“How Literature Works”) might suggest. McCarthy riffs on a few subjects to illustrate his thesis: Kraftwerk, the Orpheus myth (and its many, many retellings and interpretations), Rilke, Alexander Graham Bell, “Blanchot, Barthes, or any other dubious French character whose names starts with B,” Ulysses, Kafka, Beckett, etc. But what is his thesis? What does he want? He tells us:

My aim here, in this essay, is not to tell you something, but to make you listen: not to me, nor Beckett and Kafka, but to a set of signals that have been repeating, pulsing, modulating in the airspace of the novel, poem, play—in their lines, between them and around them—since each of these forms began. I want to make you listen to them, in the hope not that they’ll deliver up some hidden and decisive message, but rather that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll enable you to listen in on listening itself.

McCarthy’s concern here is to point out that nothing is original, that all creation is necessarily an act of synthesis. To read a novel is to read through the novel, to read the novelist’s sources (or, to use McCarthy’s metaphor, to listen through). McCarthy’s insights here are hardly new, of course—Ecclesiastes 1:19 gives us the idea over 2000 years ago, and surely it’s just another transmitter passing on a signal. What makes “Transmission” such a pleasure is its frankness, its clarity. Unlike so much postmodern criticism, McCarthy doesn’t trip over jargon or take flights of fancy into obscure metaphor. And even when he does get a bit flighty, he manages to clarify so many ideas of basic deconstructive theory:

This is it, in a nutshell: how writing works. The scattering, the loss; the charge coming from somewhere else, some point forever beyond reach or even designation, across a space of longing; the surge; coherence that’s only made possible by incoherence; the receiving which is replay, repetition—backward, forward, inside out or upside down, it doesn’t matter. The twentieth century’s best novelist understood this perfectly. That’s why Ulysses’s Stephen Dedalus—a writer in a gestational state of permanent becoming—paces the beach at Sandymount mutating, through their modulating repetition, air- and wave-borne phrases he’s picked up from elsewhere, his own cheeks and jaw transformed into a rubbery receiver . . .

Amazingly, the name Derrida doesn’t show up in “Transmission,” even as McCarthy gives us such a clear outline of that philosopher’s major ideas, as in the above riff’s explication of différance and iterability (with twist of Lacanian lack to boot). Or here, where McCarthy deconstructs the notion of a stable self:

All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying—and always reactionary—notions of the (always “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

So I read Derrida through McCarthy’s reading of Robbe-Grillet. This is all transmission, writing as remix, but also reading as remix.

I could go on, but I fear that I’ll simply start citing big chunks of McCarthy’s essay, which is supremely citable, wonderfully iterable. Recommended.

Tom McCarthy: “All Writing Is Conceptual”

From Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:

All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying—and always reactionary—notions of the (always) “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

“This Is What All Good Writers Are Doing” — Tom McCarthy on Library as Source Code

A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:

This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been. Here I’d part company even with Robbe-Grillet: there is nothing “new” about this. Shakespeare was remixing Ovid, Plutarch, Holinshed, not to mention the authors of the King Leirs and Hamlets already in circulation when he penned his versions. Cervantes was remixing Montalvo, Ariosto, Apuleius, and any number of picaresque authors—and doing this with such delirious selfconcsiousness that at one point he even makes the characters of Don Quixote pause to take stock of the library, the engine room behind their mad associate’s reenactments, perusing it as though it were some kind of source code—which it is. Pound was remixing Villon, Daniel, and Sordello; De Mailla, Marco Polo, and Malatesta; Jefferson, Adams, and Jackson, merging all these feed together as he wound them through his typewriter, splicing them in with fragments of newsprint, shards of radio transmissions—merging them yet in a manner that made no attempt to mask their fragmentary, collated character, to “naturalise” them. With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”

Tom McCarthy on William Burroughs’s Verbal Remix Software

A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix:”

It might be inferred, from what I’ve said, that any old remix will do. Not so: there are good and bad ones. Tristan Tzara cutting Shakespeare sonnets up and pulling their words from hats is an exercise in randomizing. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin mixing poems in with sliced-up pages of The New York Times is quite another matter: it is assiduous composition—composition understood in all its secondary nature: as reading, tracing, reconfiguring. Using the same technique, Gysin comes up with a few clumsy permutations along the lines of “Rub the Word Right Out . . . Word Right Rub the Out” and so on—whereas Burroughs generates such gorgeous sequences as:

Visit of memories. Only your dance and your voice house. On the suburban air improbable desertions . . . all harmonic pine for strife.

or

The great skies are open. Supreme bugle burning flesh children to mist.

Why does Burroughs conjure so much more richness from the same source material? Because (unlike the painter Gysin, whose skill lies primarily in the domain of images), he has uploaded the right verbal remix software. He has read and memorized his Dante, his Shakespeare, his Eliot—to such an extent that his activity as a composer consists of giving himself over to their cadences and echoes, their pulses, codas, loops, the better that these may work their way, through him, The New York Times and any other body thrown into the mix, into an audibility that, booming and echoing in the here-and-now, transforms all the mix’s elements, and time itself.

This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been.

“Alexander Stole an Ear from a Morgue” (Tom McCarthy on the Haunted Telephone)

If technology in general is at once a form both of self-extension and of amputation, then the branch of it that concerns itself with information and its relay—communication technology—is a true field-hospital operating -theater floor of hacked-off limbs, of bereaved bodies. A quick glance at the history of almost any comm.tech device will illustrate this perfectly.

Take the telephone: Alexander Bell, its inventor, grew up in the shadow of his father who ran a school for deaf-mutes and was continually inventing machines to substitute their powers of hearing and speaking. As a student, Alexander stole an ear from a morgue so that he could try to reproduce its inner workings mechanically; a few years later he brought home another defunct ear and, attached to it, the woman he’d marry, deaf like his mother. After his first brother died when his lungs gave out on him, he made a pact with the remaining one that if a second of them should die, the survivor would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the afterlife, should such a thing turn out to exist. The second brother did die, and Bell invented the telephone. He would probably have invented it anyway, and in fact remained a sceptic vis-a-vis the question of existence after death—but only because his brother never called. The desire for the call was there, wired into the very apparatus, haunting it.

From Tom McCarthy’s forthcoming essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix.”

“Death in the Comic Tradition” — Tom McCarthy on Heroism and Authenticity

A passage from Simon Critchley’s new collection of interviews and meditations, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying in which author Tom McCarthy (Critchley’s partner in the International Necronautical Society) talks about the question of an authentic, heroic self—

. . . in the heroic tradition in literature, which pits the self against death in a way that produces authenticity, you find a hero that runs into death like a fly slamming into an electric field, and which goes out in a tremendous spark of authentic apotheosis. There’s a lot about that, aesthetically, which is very seductive. However, we at the INS strongly reject that. Instead, we feel more seduced by the comic tradition in which the fly can’t even reach the electric field. It keeps tripping over its legs, or becomes distracted by something — dog shit, for example. So death in the comic tradition is not that of authentic self-mastery, but rather of a slippage; it’s about the inability to be oneself, and to become what one wants to be. And we think that that kind of tradition or logic is much more rich and fruitful.

“Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future'” — The International Necronautical Society

At The Believer, you can read the entirety of “Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future’by The International Necronautical Society (aka Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy (although we’re pretty sure that the essay’s authorization code TMcC010910 indicates that McCarthy is its author)). Playful and provocative stuff. A sample–

5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”

6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.

 

Heroes of 2010 — Tom McCarthy

We loved Tom McCarthy’s novel C. We also loved how willing he was to do the author-junket thing, and how open he was about his novel’s literary sources.

The Best Books of 2010

Here are our favorite books published in 2010 (the ones that we read–we can’t read every book, you know).

Sandokan — Nanni Balestrini

A dark, elliptical treatise on the mundane and inescapable violence wrought by the Camorra crime syndicate in southern Italy.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — Wells Tower (trade paperback)

Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.

The Union Jack — Imre Kertész

Kertész’s slim novella explores a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth against the backdrop of an oppressive Stalinist regime.

BodyWorld — Dash Shaw

Shaw’s graphic novel is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic/post-apocalyptic visions. It’s a sweet and sour subversion of 1950’s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Witty and poignant, it advances its medium.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

An unexpected historical romance from postmodern poster boy David Mitchell. Thousand Autumns is a big fat riff on storytelling and history and adventure–but mostly, Mitchell’s Shogunate-era Japan is a place worth getting lost in.

C — Tom McCarthy

“I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature,” McCarthy said in an interview this year. “For me, that’s what literature’s always done.” C, our favorite novel of 2010, seems plugged into the past and the present, pointing to the future.

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel (trade paperback)

Who knew that we needed to hear the Tudor saga again? Who knew that Thomas Cromwell could be a good guy?

The Ask — Sam Lipsyte

A mean, sad, hilarious novel that simultaneously eulogizes, valorizes, and mocks the American Dream.

X’ed Out — Charles Burns

Charles Burns does Tintin in William Burroughs’s Interzone. ‘Nuff said.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – Lydia Davis

An epic compendium of, jeez, I don’t know, how do you define or explain what Davis does? Inspection, perception, mood, observation. Tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms. Great stuff.

“It Comes Straight from Freud” — Tom McCarthy Talks about His Novel C

The National Post profiles Tom McCarthy about his new novel C. Here are a few choice lines from McCarthy–

  • “I think the historical thing is a red herring. I don’t see C as a historical novel. I see it as completely contemporary. It’s about media and our relation to media and to emerging new media and to networks.”
  • “It comes straight from Freud. Trauma is the condition of our identity. Trauma is the most basic condition of our existence.”
  • “It’s a dual trauma, Serge’s seduction by Sophie his sister and then the loss of the sister.”
  • “The way I got the idea with the book was I had a long-standing fascination with this movie by Jean Cocteau, Orphée, his retelling of the Orpheus myth.”
  • “Orpheus in this movie interfaces with the underworld via a radio and what he picks up are the voices of the dead poets.”

From Cocteau’s Orphée–

Tom McCarthy on KCRW’s Bookworm

Listen to Tom McCarthy on KCRW’s Bookworm program.

Read our review of Tom McCarthy’s new novel C.

Read our rant against Michiko Kakutani’s lousy review of C.

Tom McCarthy Reads from His Novel C (. . . and We Gripe about Michiko Kakutani)

At The Guardian, Tom McCarthy reads from his novel C. Here’s Biblioklept’s review of C.

And, while we’re on reviews of C, I want to gripe about Michiko Kakutani’s negative review of the book at The New York Times. If you don’t like a book, fine. But if you’re a critic at an organ that purports to be the nation’s beacon of journalistic excellence, you need to practice better criticism than what Kakutani’s done here. I think it’s pretty much a given that a critic should judge a book on its own terms–in terms of what the author was trying to do. Instead, Kakutani faults McCarthy’s book for not living up to a standard she finds in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, of all things–

But unlike Mr. McEwan’s masterpiece “C” neither addresses larger questions about love and innocence and evil, nor unfolds into a searching examination of the consequences of art. Worse, “C” fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text.

Kakutani provides no real evidence for that second claim but I’ll let that alone for a moment, simply because I think she’s wrong, and that she doesn’t bother to back her subjective judgment reveals a rushed reading. What really bothers me though is this idea that C was supposed to address “larger questions about love and innocence and evil”–where did she get that idea? She tells us where she got it: a novel by Ian McEwan.

Here she is again dissing McCarthy for not meeting the Kakutani standard–

Although Mr. McCarthy overlays Serge’s story with lots of carefully manufactured symbols and leitmotifs, they prove to be more gratuitous than revealing.

Just what was the novel supposed to reveal to Kakutani? The same mysteries that McEwan plumbed in his earlier novel? Why, exactly? One of C’s greatest pleasures is its resistance to simple answers, to its willingness to leave mysteries unresolved (I believe this is what Keats meant by negative capability).

Kakutani devotes a few sentences to C’s dominant theme of emerging technology and communication–

As for the repeated references to radio transmissions and coded messages sent over the airwaves, they are apparently meant to signal the world’s entry into a new age of technology, and to underscore themes about the difficulties of communication and perception, and the elusive nature of reality. But while the many technology references also seem meant to remind the reader of Thomas Pynchon’s use of similar motifs in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Mr. McCarthy’s reliance on them feels both derivative and contrived.

Notice how instead of talking about McCarthy’s novel she retreats to another novel? Why? Why does she assume that C is echoing Gravity’s Rainbow? This isn’t a rhetorical question–she doesn’t bother to tell us. She just uses Pynchon’s book to knock McCarthy’s, not to enlarge any analysis of it. That is the laziest form of criticism.

The New York Times did better by publishing a review of C by Jennifer Egan this weekend. Egan’s review is positive–and I loved C–but that’s not why the review redeems the Times’ standard. Egan’s review actually considers the book, discusses its language and themes, and tackles it on its own terms. When Egan does reference another book–Dickens’s David Copperfield–she does so in a way that enlarges a reader’s understanding of McCarthy’s project–not her own ideal of what a book should be.

Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular

Welcome to Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular*

*Not guaranteed to be spectacular.

777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–

The Children’s Hospital–Chris Adrian — A post-apocalyptic love boat with metaphysical overtones, Adrian’s end of the world novel remains underrated and under-read.

The Road — Cormac McCarthy That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.

A Mercy — Toni Morrison –Slender and profound, A Mercy should be required reading for all students of American history. Or maybe just all Americans.

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.

2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.

Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.

C – Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.

“I’m Suspicious of the Term ‘Avant-Garde'” — More Intelligent Life Interviews Tom McCarthy

More Intelligent Life interviews Tom McCarthy about his new novel C. From the interview–

MIL: It seems many avant-garde works rely on a single conceit. “Tristam Shandy” used lies, “Motherless Brooklyn” used a tourettic narrator. Must avant-garde literature have a single mechanism to be intelligible to its readers?

TM: What’s the conceit of “Finnegans Wake” then? I’m not sure “Tristram Shandy” has a single conceit. I suppose there’s an inversion of the ‘Life and Adventures of’ tradition into ‘The Life and Opinions of—plus an obvious refusal of certain narrative conventions, for example in Tristram’s inability to get himself born for the first third of his own book. But Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is equally full of such refusals: it subverts just about every dramatic convention that it purports to buy into. I’m suspicious of the term ‘avant-garde’. I think it should be restricted to its strict historical designation: Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists etc. “Tristram Shandy” and “Motherless Brooklyn” aren’t avant-garde novels; they’re novels. And very good ones too!

C — Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s marvelous, confounding new novel C tells the life story of Serge Carrefax and his strange adventures at the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel begins with Serge’s birth on his parents’ estate Versoie; he’s born with a caul, a “veil around his head: a kind of web,” a mystic mark that both disconnects and, paradoxically, joins him to the world. At Versoie, Serge’s father Simeon experiments with wireless technology and runs a school for deaf children while Serge’s deaf mother farms bombyx mori moths for silk. Serge and big sis Sophie are left to the care of their tutor Mr. Clair, but they manage to get into trouble with their chemistry set when he’s not looking. In addition to offering the Carrefax kids a classical education, Mr. Clair, a proto-Marxist, teaches them a game akin to Monopoly. In a particularly inspired scene, they soon dispense with the game board to recreate the game on the real-live grounds of Versoie, eventually incorporating the aid of a wireless communication system. Then, when moving from wireless receiver to wireless receiver becomes too much hassle, they simply co-ordinate the game in their collective imagination, managing properties in the pure abstract. The game elegantly emphasizes the siblings’ development from playing via symbolic representation, to enacting those symbols on a one-to-one scale, to finally internalizing and encapsulating the real world. It’s as if they’ve swallowed Versoie into their very beings.

Versoie initiates and enacts its own strange culture and mythology, one that intertwines inextricably with Serge and Sophie’s childhood. It’s a rich, detailed world, at once magical and unsettling, bustling with bizarre pageants (part of Simeon’s curriculum), eclectic experiments, and visitors like Widsun, a British intelligence code-breaker/code-maker who serves as a mentor first to Sophie and later Serge. While Sophie delights in secret codes and chemistry (particularly poison-making), Serge experiments with wireless technology, spending late nights on his homemade wireless set with other “bugs.” In one scene, Serge listens to “an RXer in Lydium who calls himself ‘Wireworm’ [who] is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General’s plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.” Tech geeks with hyperbolic handles griping over minutiae in the wee hours–sound familiar? McCarthy describes Serge’s reaction: “Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm’s not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word ‘fashion.’ The spacing’s a little awkward also: too studied, too self-conscious.” We get text messaging a century before text messaging, and as Serge searches between news reports and chess games and distress calls, we see that the world wide web is far older than we might have thought. Later in the novel Simeon writes a letter to his son where he describes a proto-internet, claiming his ambition is “to transmit moving pictures over distance, such that life in all its full, vibrant immediacy may be relayed without any delay.” This isn’t steampunk though, it’s simply a reminder that wireless technology isn’t an invention of our own time. C is an historical fiction deeply concerned with technological fact. It’s also a bildungsroman, too, so let’s return to young Serge, who soon ventures to a Bohemian spa with Clair as chaperon.

The adolescent Serge is ill. He perceives the world through a “guazy crepe” that blackens his vision, recalling the amniotic sac that webbed his head at birth. At the spa, Dr. Philip diagnoses Serge’s problem: “You . . . have got blockage. Jam, block, stuck. Instead of transformation, only repetition.” He accuses Serge of enjoying his illness, of enjoying “to feast on the mela chole, on the morbid matter, and to feast on it repeatedly, again, again, again, like it was lovely meat–lovely, black rotten meat.” The Burroughsian image of black meat pops up again and again in C, perhaps suggesting the human limitation to transcend–or in Philip’s words, transform–the mortal condition. However, Serge manages, through his own devices, to break through the blockage; if his epiphany is ultimately negative, at least it is real, a semi-Cronenbergian sexual awakening with a hunchback.

Like Versoie, the Bohemian spa is both a rich and alienating setting; McCarthy’s great gift to the reader is crafting enough detail in his set pieces to make them seem utterly real, yet to withhold enough so that the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps that might exist outside of Serge’s proximity. C is only 300 pages long yet feels much deeper–not longer, but deeper. This is most evident in the novel’s next milieu, the Great War, where Serge serves as a Royal Air Force aerial observer. War novels, histories, and movies have given us so much information about WWI that it would be easy for McCarthy to rely on stock tropes and received wisdom in communicating his set-piece, but instead he gives us something startlingly new. For example, how were the drugs in WWI, McCarthy asks. It’s in the Air Force that Serge first uses cocaine, rubbing it into his retinas to improve his eyesight while he’s spotting for German artillery batteries. He quickly moves to snorting mounds of the stuff before each take off. Here’s a lovely passage, where we see Serge’s nascent addiction blurring his perspective, ultimately leading to an autoerotic climax–

Higher up, the vapour trails of the SE5s form straight white lines against the blue, as though the sky’s surface were a mirror too. Scorch-marks and crater contours on the ground look powdery; it seems that if he swooped above them low enough, then he could breathe them up as well, snort the whole landscape into his head. The three hours pass in minutes. As they dip low to strafe the trenches on the way back, he feels the blood rush to his groin. He whips his belt off, leaps bolt upright and has barely got his trousers down before the seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine’s tail and falls in a fine thread towards the slit earth down below.

“From all the Cs!” he shouts. “The bird of Heaven!”

Serge doesn’t bother to reflect much on this episode and McCarthy’s third-person narrator is so effaced in the novel as to seem almost invisible. McCarthy shows and never tells, even when he allows some insight into Serge’s psyche. We learn that–

Of all the pilots and observers, Serge alone remains unhaunted by the prospect of a fiery airborne end. He’s not unaware of it: just unbothered. The idea that his flesh could melt and fuse with the machine parts pleases him. When they sing their song about taking cylinders out of of kidneys, he imagines the process playing itself out backwards: brain and connecting rod merging to form one, ultra-intelligent organ, his back quivering in pleasure as pumps and pistons plunge into it, heart and liver being spliced with valve and filter to create a whole new, streamlined mechanism.

Serge’s indifference toward death (or life) and his frequent drug-use aren’t the manifestations of a death-wish–although C does pull its hero to a mortal end, as a bildungsroman should–rather, we see in Serge’s cyborg fantasy a wish for transhumanist transcendence. Serge’s job as a flying observer grants him some measure of transcendence, reducing the landscape to a flat two-dimensional perspective that he can easily process and read. At the same time, the novel tropes against the motif of two-dimensional perspective, repeatedly pushing Serge into interior excavations, like a worm or beetle digging in to the earth. This happens in the most literal sense at the end of the Great War, when the Germans capture Serge and hold him as a P.O.W. Serge is fine though, happy to tunnel underground (as long as his morphine hookup remains unimpeded).

Serge’s drug addiction continues into his postwar years in London. Nominally an architecture student, he spends most of his time scoring heroin and coke and partying with would-be actresses. Serge’s inclination to two-dimensional perspective inhibits his architectural aptitude. He can only plan tombs. McCarthy’s evocation of 1920s London is dark and strange, a drug-addled fever dream riddled with ciphers and ghosts. The set-piece comes to a head when Serge’s girlfriend takes him to see a psychic medium who purports to channel the spirits of those who died in the war. An enraged Serge uses wireless technology to reveal the scam, but puncturing the fantasy effectively brings an end to his relationship.

Serge soon reconnects with his father’s friend Wisdun, who sends the young man to Egypt. Serge’s mission is to scout sites for the wireless pylons that will unite the world, but he’d really rather puzzle out the cultural, historical, and linguistic mishmash of Alexandria and explore unopened tombs in the desert with an archeologist’s sexy assistant. I’ve perhaps revealed too much of the book’s plot so far, and while I think I’ve avoided spoilers, I’ll hope that you simply take my word that the Egyptian set-piece at the end of C is a masterful, disturbing climax to a rich and rewarding book. C culminates by tying together its central juxtapositions of sex and death, connection and disconnection, excavation and total, flat perspective with its many motifs: bugs, tombs, art, drugs, language, time, communication, spirit. The book’s final pages are stunning; it’s the kind of linguistic storm that demands immediate rereading.

And you’ll want to reread the book: McCarthy gives us so much to unpack. There’s that enigmatic title, of course. What is the “C” in C for? C is for Carrefax, of course, but that’s too obvious. In his blurb, Luc Sante rightly points out that “C is for carbon and cocaine, Cairo and CQ.” I might also add that C is for see and sí and sea; C is for call and caul; C is for communicate and communion; C is for the c that slips from “insect” to “incest.” (I could go on of course; a third reading of the book will undoubtedly yield more). C seems to call to Thomas Pynchon’s V., a novel littered with historical episodes that dances with a bildungsroman’s structure. C also calls to Voltaire’s satirical bildungsroman Candide. And while I’m lazily name-dropping authors and books, I might as well favorably compare C with Joyce’s Portrait and much of J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs. It’s also thoroughly soaked in Freud and continental philosophy.

C is the best novel I’ve read in a long time, and the first novel I’ve immediately reread in full in a very long time. It will leave many readers cold (or even disgusted, perhaps), but isn’t this always the way for writers who push their audience?  (Consider my lazy name-dropping above). You probably know by now if this is for you, but if I haven’t been clear — very highly recommended.

C is available in hardback in the UK on August 5, 2010 from Jonathan Cape, and available in hardback in the US on September 7, 2010 from Random House.

“An Archeology of Literature” — The Guardian Profiles Tom McCarthy

The Guardian published a great profile of Tom McCarthy today. Topics include Freud, the avant-garde, archeology, and his forthcoming novel C. From the article, here’s McCarthy on his book’s setting:

“It’s the great period of emergent technology,” McCarthy explains. “The book is set between 1898 – when Marconi was doing some of his earliest experiments – and 1922, which is the year the BBC was founded, and also the great year of modernism: The Waste Land and Ulysses. I wanted C to be a kind of archaeology of literature. But I think all ‘proper’ literature always has been an archaeology of other literature. The task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I’m not trying to be modernist, but to navigate the wreckage of that project.”

The Guardian has also run a review of C. Biblioklept’s review runs tomorrow. It was a struggle to write–it’s always a struggle to review a book you absolutely love. You always end up sounding a bit too breathless.

Tom McCarthy Talks C