Tom McCarthy at the British Library

‘Happy Bloomsday’, began Tom McCarthy at the British Library this evening (16 June). He was here to launch his collection of essays, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. His talk was typically broad in reference, including some of his acknowledged favourites – Mallarmé, of course – among Edward Ruscha (whose ‘Orphic’ dismembered typewriter of Royal Road Test provided the opening image), Don DeLillo, cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, Georges Perec, Zinedine Zidane (as in the 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait), plus Hamlet, Don Quixote, Bartleby, Yeats, Freud, Auden, and Beckett. Written down like that, it looks awfully male, but I guess that’s several centuries of patriarchy for you.

Edward Ruscha, page from Royal Road Test (1967, printed 1971): Tab Key Top (photographed as found in bush)

As elaborated in the post-talk discussion, McCarthy’s concern centred on the idea of writing after Mallarmé (and indeed since at least the sixteenth century) as rewriting, as inauthentic, as mediated. Even the best writing is still inauthentic, but radically so. The ironic self-consciousness of this stance is evident in McCarthy’s fiction, which is written dispassionately, like a Freud case study, all emotion circumscribed or in suspension. Equally, politics is experienced on an alienated globalised or geopolitical level. Questions of visceral emotion, or political action, or spiritual transcendence are not relevant. It validates Ballard’s assessment of modernity as the time of ‘the death of affect’. It’s a style of writing that I enjoy tremendously, and it touches on many of my own interests, even though, at the same time, I am aware of something that I feel should be cracking through the surface of the prose. What is this lack – a cry of lamentation? the nauseous sense of urgency? (Perhaps my sense of this was highlighted on this occasion – still in the week of Grenfell.)

I read McCarthy’s last novel, Satin Island, in a state of tickled jealousy: the opening pages in particular present a hilariously vertiginous forging of links, associations, patterns, and structures in the modern technological environment, linking oil, tragedy, myth, and structural anthropology – a combination of topics that I addressed in my PhD thesis. But then, as if to make it more personal for me, there is a meditation on a ventilation system, the like of which is only equalled by my favourite song by The Beale (a group I later joined), ‘97 Circular’, in which the criminally underrated singer and artist, Adrian R. Shaw, proclaimed ‘I’m in love / With a ventilation shaft’, his voice cracking as he recalls ‘all its elaborate brickwork’.

Reading the opening pages of Satin Island was simply one of those sequences of chances which we all experience from time-to-time with an artwork which shares our outlook. In the case of Satin Island, anyone who casually observes the effluvia of globalisation and has an interest in structural readings of myth and tragedy (Lévi-Strauss is a prominent presence) will recognise themselves to some degree on the page.

Stéphane Mallarmé, pages from Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897)

McCarthy’s protagonist, named U, sees networks, randomness, designs, patterns, primal scenes, abstractions, complicity, and traumas, all resonating and repeating in his experience of the world. The novel chooses not to push the political or ethical demand that some will find inextricable from this network. It remains the novel of the protestant individual and not of the collective spirit: Dionysian ekstasis as synthesized MDMA that we come down from all too soon and re-atomised. So too in McCarthy’s talk at the BL, the constellation-patterns of Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés’ constitute a semiotic mark not an affective symbol, and Zidane’s famous headbutt of Materazzi is replicated in a playful GIF of colliding ‘Z’s. McCarthy’s stance definitively avoids kitsch and the emotiveness that occludes insight and reflection. And yet I am nagged by the cyclopean strength of this ironic posture of studiousness and play. In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (the film which follows Zidane throughout the ninety minutes of a 2005 football game), at half-time, the film presents a montage of the day’s global news. McCarthy shows as a still from the aftermath of a car bomb in Iraq, in which a boy wears a football shirt with Zidane’s name. But this queasy conjunction cannot disturb the reflective repose of the British Library ‘Knowledge Centre’. How could it? Too remote in time, place and context.

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