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  • An Interview with Tom McCarthy
  • Conducted by Matthew Hart and Aaron Jaffe, with Jonathan Eburne

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Tom McCarthy

Erin Hartman

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Born in London in 1969, Tom McCarthy is a well-known operator in the world of conceptual and performance art and, most famously, the author of three novels: Remainder (Metronome, 2005), Men in Space (Alma, 2007), and C (Cape, 2010). He has also written a nonfiction book, Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Granta, 2006), the title of which combines a fan’s homage to Hergé with the suggestion that it will unlock the dark truth of the literary enterprise. This is a typical McCarthy gesture. Happily obsessed with the notion that literature, like all forms of transmission or communication, is inherently occulted and cryptographic, his writings combine big ideas with a Beckettian sense—repeated often by his philosopher friend and collaborator Simon Critchley—that, in the end, artistic meaning amounts to very little, almost nothing.

Consider the Booker Prize–nominated C, which begins at the end of the nineteenth century, amid the invention of radio, and ends in the 1920s, with the death of its protagonist, Serge Carrefax, from an insect bite suffered inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. Serge has journeyed to Egypt so as to help build the Empire Wireless Chain of radio transmitters. His fate is sealed during his journey into a rubbish-filled grave in which “[e]verything’s written on: pottery, bandages, even the walls themselves” (296). As McCarthy discusses in our interview, Serge’s story yokes together a Victorian bildungsroman narrative of maturation with a Marinetti-inspired smashup through the future ruins of the early twentieth century. Telecommunications, pageant plays, [End Page 657] spiritualism, aerial warfare—let a thousand modernist studies dissertations bloom. The crucial thing, as McCarthy explains, is that for all its debt to the novel of development and the master tropes of modernity, Serge’s trajectory is resolutely antiprogressive. His birth and death crash together the newest and the most ancient technologies of transmission. Although the creature that bites his ankle and infects his blood is only implied, never seen, we cannot help but think of the scarabs Serge earlier sees in a New Kingdom tomb, stone beetles to which the living would confess their secrets before dying—“so that they won’t come out at judgement and weigh down the heart” (290)—but which are carved with spells that censor the very information with which they have been encoded. Spoken into being by the living in anticipation of their own death, simultaneously recording and obscuring the truth of a human heart, the scarabs embody McCarthy’s sense that language and literature resist the very communicative function by which they are nevertheless defined. If this is a novel of and about modernity, then it is one that, as McCarthy and Critchley wrote in a 2009 declaration, is “interested in the way that the modern has always, and very selfconsciously, been devoted to failure” (“The Tate Declaration: Joint Statement on Inauthenticity”).

C is therefore poised between two apparently contradictory notions of “how literature works”—a phrase we place in quotation marks because it serves as the subtitle to McCarthy’s short e-book, Transmission and the Individual Remix (Vintage, 2012). There is the idea of literature as a radio network, a technology that helps us listen “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.” And then there is literature as crypt, an occult zone within which, as Nicolas Abram and Maria Torok argued in The Wolf Man’s Magic Word (1976), inadmissible or unsayable losses are encoded and preserved.

Transmission and entombment. Broadcast and burial. These seeming antinomies come together because, for McCarthy, the crypt is not so much a space of silence as it is the deathly “nonplace” in which meaning is mutilated and, therefore, made—what [End Page 658] he calls a “hidden fold or enclave from which coded transmissions come but that itself remains out of earshot” (The Mattering of Matter 179). Likewise, the radio...