“Plugging Literature Into Other Literature” — Tom McCarthy on His New Novel, C

British Cover for C

Surplus Matters has reprinted last week’s edition of The Sunday Times interview with/profile of Tom McCarthy about his new novel C, our favorite new novel of 2010 (The Sunday Times is not free, so thank you, Surplus Matters). The author of the article, Robert Collins, situates McCarthy’s C as an indirect answer to David Shields’s argument in Reality Hunger that the successful modern novel must be a synthesis or remix. We’ve been critical of Shields’s argument, which ultimately rests on aesthetic assumptions that allow Shields to pick what texts will count in his reality canon. To put it another way, great works of literature, from Homer to Ovid to Shakespeare to Henry Miller have always been appropriating and recontextualizing the texts that came before them. McCarthy’s C doesn’t respond to Shields’s would-be manifesto; it obliterates it, following in the (counter)tradition of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and William Burroughs, writers who navigated the treacherous straits of history, art, representation, and reality. C is rich and inventive, telling the life story of Serge Carrefax in the early part of the 20th century. We follow Serge through his strange youth, where he experiments with wireless technology, to the skies of WWI, where he maps the terrain below him; we follow him through his drug-soaked twenties in the ’20s and eventually to the tombs of Egypt. C isn’t a response to the demands of a marketplace that increasingly demands gimmicky concepts and reality-soaked memoirs; instead, to use McCarthy’s term, C plugs into the reservoir of literature that precedes it. From the article:

If McCarthy — as [Zadie] Smith has suggested — presents a radically fresh prospect for the future of the novel, it is probably, paradoxically, because he has instinctively ignored contemporary literature almost completely. He would argue, in fact, that it is only by immersing oneself in all that has gone before that any contemporary novelist has even the faintest chance of coming up with something new. “I don’t think most writers, most commercial middlebrow writers, are doing that,” he says. “I think they’ve become too aligned with mainstream media culture and its underlying aesthetic of ‘self-expression’. 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.”

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