A Betrayal of All Perfection

David Foster Wallace, “David Foster Wallace on ‘The Nature of Fun’,” The Guardian Friday 16 November 2012 [extract from Both Flesh and Not]

…The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction writer feels for something he’s working on. The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it — a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception — yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect. And yet it’s yours, the infant is, it’s you, and you love it and dandle it and wipe the cerebrospinal fluid off its slack chin with the cuff of the only clean shirt you have left because you haven’t done laundry in like three weeks because finally this one chapter or character seems like it’s finally trembling on the edge of coming together and working and you’re terrified to spend any time on anything other than working on it because if you look away for a second you’ll lose it, dooming the whole infant to continued hideousness. And so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it — hate it — because it’s deformed, repellent, because something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page; hate it because its deformity is your deformity (since if you were a better fiction writer your infant would of course look like one of those babies in catalogue ads for infantwear, perfect and pink and cerebrospinally continent) and its every hideous incontinent breath is a devastating indictment of you, on all levels… and so you want it dead, even as you dote and love and wipe it and dandle it and sometimes even apply CPR when it seems like its own grotesqueness has blocked its breath and it might die altogether.

So you’re in a bit of a dicey position: you love the infant and want others to love it, but that means you hope others won’t see it correctly. You want to sort of fool people: you want them to see as perfect what you in your heart know is a betrayal of all perfection.

(Wo)men Without Qualities

Tim Parks, “The Chattering Mind,” The New York Review of Books (NYRblog), 29 June 2012.

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

[…] I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. […] But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.

There were plenty of forewarnings. Hamlet is the most notable. To take action would be to confirm his identity as his father’s son, his father’s avenger, but Hamlet thinks too precisely on the event, he’s too smart, and so fails to become anyone at all, either his father’s son or Ophelia’s husband. He suffers for that failure and spins out unhappy procrastination in fine poetry. In a comic vein, Tristram Shandy is another forerunner, too aware of his narrative performance to narrate anything coherent, let alone act. Both Hamlet and Tristram are characters who didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the twentieth century. We had become like them.

Prone to qualification, self-contradiction, interminable complication, this new kind of character finds his most sinister early manifestation in the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “I am a wicked man,” this nameless individual introduces himself, then reflects “but as a matter of fact, I was never able to become wicked. I never managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”

Again, the reason for this indeterminacy is an excess of intellectual activity; so the cause for failure is also a source of self-esteem: “An intelligent man of the nineteenth century,” Doestoevsky’s narrator tells us, with a mixture of complacency and despair, “must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure — primarily a limited being.”

Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.

Looking back, what surprises how enthusiastically the literary world welcomed this new hero. Prufrock’s mind might be trapped, inept and miserable, but it is wonderfully poetic. I’ll never forget how my high school teacher gushed. Bloom may be incapable of imposing any direction on his marriage, drifting between fantasy and frustration as his wife prepares to betray, and Stephen Dedalus may be marooned in an impossible relationship with his father and jobs that give him no satisfaction, yet Ulysses is a celebration of the inexhaustible fertility of their minds as they move through the commercial flotsam and jetsam of Dublin against the vast backdrop of world literature and myth. It’s all quite reassuring, even self-congratulatory. What wonderful minds we have, even though they don’t seem to get us anywhere, or make us happy.

Virginia Woolf sounds darker notes, warning us that the mind risks being submerged by the urgent blather of modern life, yet in the end even the crazy, shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith gives us paragraph after paragraph of poetic prose before he throws himself to his death from a high window, something that Clarissa Dalloway will think of as an act of impulsive generosity. It’s as if the stream of consciousness had been invented to allow the pain of a mind whose chatter is out of control to be transformed into a strange new beauty, which then encompasses the one action available to the stalled self: suicide.

The way this aesthetic consolation is constructed shifts constantly through the century. Faulkner has no time for the easy lyricism of the mind adrift on the ebb and flow of urban trivia. Now the unending voice revolves obsessively around the traumas that block any positive forward movement: past wrongs, sexual violence and betrayal, incest, the disgrace of institutionalized discrimination. Still, there is grandeur in the sheer scale and awfulness of the mind’s shipwreck, individual and collective. Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility. Our twentieth century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterwards.

Beckett resists and confirms the formula. He understands its perversity: pleasure taken in the performance of unhappiness: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he has the aptly named Hamm remark in the first moments of Endgame. Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

[…] I suspect our destiny is to pursue our literary sickness for years to come. It is hard not to congratulate oneself on the quality of one’s unhappiness. “Every word,” Beckett told us “is an unnecessary stain on silence”…

Reverse Striptease

This is the phantom foreword to H. P. Tinker’s short-story collection, The Swank Bisexual Wine Bar of Modernity (2007). It went through several incarnations, before the author finally decided he wanted the book to stand alone; forewordless. And this is me in La Baule, on 21 July 2006, writing the aforementioned piece whilst shamelessly flaunting my bald patch (picture taken through the open window by my now-phantom spouse, Emilie Gallix).

Reverse Striptease

…’Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,’ the Consul liked to say…
– Malcolm Lowry,
Under the Volcano

Privately Paul Gauguin considers himself an undiscovered genius. “But,” he tells Woody Allen over the phone, “What happens to an undiscovered genius when his genius is finally discovered? What is that all about? Where does he go then?”
– HP Tinker, “Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”

In one of the stories collected here, the mourners attending the funeral of an anonymous writer suddenly wonder: “So, what do we know of the author? Do we really know anything at all?” (“The Death of the Author” p. 105). The same question could be asked of HP Tinker himself. Despite the occasional circling Trewin or Prosser, he remains elusive; a cult figure on the literary fringes (1). This self-styled “Thomas Pynchon of Chorlton-cum-Hardy” claims that “writers should be read, not seen” and that “the work should speak for itself” (2). The work itself, however, is wilfully keeping shtum… (3)

…”Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”, for instance — which mimics the clapped-out conventions of celebrity documentaries — takes Joe Orton’s satire of tabloidese and vox pops to its illogical conclusion. A voiceover-style narrative is interspersed with the Post-Impressionist’s impressions and snippets of interviews: “Paul loves to laugh and to make other people laugh. He also loves to dance. He has been blessed with the gift of tap. Not a lot of people know that” (p. 7). These soundbites come courtesy of a gaggle of friends and acquaintances ranging from the plausible (Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec) to the risible (Edith Piaf, Carl Jung or Nico). Such glaring anachronisms serve to break down the barriers of rationality and conjure up a world of promiscuous commingling where the pleasure principle runs riot (4). The mockumentary format is ideally suited to the episodic nature of Tinker’s stories with their air-tight paragraphs à la Flaubert, their picaresque jumpcuts from one incident to the next, or their wild goose chases “via a chain of wholly convoluted plot developments” (“Kandahar!” p. 19).

Direction, or the lack thereof, is a leitmotif throughout this anthology and, indeed, the author’s entire corpus to date. Consider “Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker”, with its self-reflexive Jules Verne-meets-Todorov-on Sarah Records title and disconcerting final sentence: “…I decide to solicit legal advice on precisely which direction I should be proceeding in” (p. 117). “Where are we going?” (p. 17) wonders Paul Gauguin mirroring the reader’s bafflement as the opening story careers towards its unlikely close. The artist’s question echoes the paragraph composed solely of the word “lost” repeated (for some reason) 92 times (p. 14) which, in turn, reflects the labyrinthine “Morrissey Exhibition” with its disorienting carpet scheme: “You can certainly get lost in there. Totally lost. Completely lost. Utterly lost. Horribly, horribly, lost. So horribly lost that you fear you might never find yourself again” (p. 128). The narrator of the ironically-titled “You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” confesses, “I needed to find myself, or at least somebody similar” (5) only to find himself (or at least somebody similar) accidentally in Stockholm where “the streets thronged with lost sports commentators asking for directions”. The “oddly convoluted directions” (p. 27) he is himself offered give rise to a Proustian travelogue (6) which — as is common in Tinker’s fiction — reduces locale to bare toponymy: “I licked my wounds in Lisbon and Tangiers. Then ate surprisingly badly in Madrid. Next, the warm air of Dakar stang my lungs. (I ignored Istanbul completely.)” (p. 30). “Son of Sinbad” concludes with the very thought that the only uncharted territories are indeed those of the imagination: “‘There’s nothing out there,’ he says, ‘you understand that, don’t you?’ and you say, ‘Yes, oh yes,’ eyes swimming with disappointment, knee-deep in thoughts of yawning oceans, uncrossed beaches, man-made islands, wine-dark women, unfashionably family-orientated coastal resorts…” (p. 49).

Angst proving resistant to geography, the itinerary morphs into a “search for experience”, a “quest for something different” (“Kandahar!” p. 22); rerouted inwards it thus becomes a journey of “self-discovery”, as the peripatetic protagonist of “Vic Chews It Over” — Vic, presumably — puts it (p. 38). However, all this experimentation only leads to an aporetic cul-de-sac that is strangely reminiscent of the fate of post-Symbolist Western literature: “I fell into abstraction. I travelled through complex textures, however dense and demoralising they became. I dug down, deep into the langue and parole of the situation. Words that once meant an awful lot to me, now held little or no meaning in my current context” (p. 30). In a few deft sentences, HP Tinker charts the far-reaching (philosophical as well as literary) consequences of the (Mallarmean but also Barthelmean) disjunction between signifier and signified.

When the misguided anti-hero of “Kandahar!” follows the directions of a Firbankian monk he discovers in his hotel bathroom (eating gazpacho and listening to Limp Bizkit), we know that his odyssey is bound to come full circle: “…and following his directions, I set off on a journey, following and swimming his directions, swimming across an open sea from one island, and jumping from the top of a 120-foot waterfall, swimming his directions from one island to another, crawling past armed guards…but swimming back because it got late, so late the monk was already sleeping in my bed by the time I got back to my room…” (pp. 23-24). We have now reached the “literary pottage” of postmodernism (“Death of the Author” p. 108), the eternally-recycled primordial alphabet soup — and a very weird soup it is too.

Placing undecidability at the heart of his work, HP Tinker positively revels in the negativity of this impasse. “Nobody,” we are told, “is quite sure” what “exactly took place between the paper-thin walls of the Mexican sex hotel” (“Mexican Sex Hotel” p. 52). If Robert Rauschenberg transformed the erasure of a de Kooning drawing into a work of art, the author goes one step further by erasing a non-existent original. His short stories? Allegories pointing — most impolitely — to a subtext which is not really there (8). Rites of passage leading nowhere, except up their own ars rhetorica, like so many quests without grails. Hatfuls of hollow — without hats. The literary equivalent of losing something you never actually had in the first place, and then going looking for it again. At great length.

Most characters here are hankering after some ever-elusive — oft-illusive — goal. The General, for instance, inhabits “an intricate warren” of rooms which form “a mysterious labyrinth he can wander through, dusting and hoovering the narrow passageways as he goes about his business, as if in search of some unknown land” (p. 31). Entering the Mexican sex hotel is “like stepping into another world” of passages “shelving off into mysteriously-darkened chambers” (p. 51). The quest for an “unknown land”, “another world” — the “Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity” itself, if you will — leads one into a maze from which there is no escape, a “corridor of illusions” (“Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker” p. 114) built to baffle: “What level am I on? You may well ask, on occasion. Is that way up or down? What’s through that door? Where in the name of Jesus am I?” (“The Morrissey Exhibition” p. 128). Spatial topsy-turviness provides a perfect metaphor for the mock-heroic (8) reversal of high and low registers which so often contributes — mainly through incongruous juxtapositions — to the mind-boggling confusion of reader, character, narrator and author alike: “You are totally confused and understand nothing” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 80).

This descent into nothingness (“The next morning, in the shaving mirror: an empty space,” “You Can Go Home Again” p. 120) is perhaps best illustrated by Tinker’s penchant for pulp pastiche. Take “The Investigation”, a story which brazenly advertises its mock-epistemological dimension: “It is an investigation into meaning…meaning, do you see?” (p. 79). Unlike your run-of-the-mill whodunnit — where the criminal is eventually brought to book — this (clearly ontological) investigation reveals nothing whatsoever. On the contrary, refusing to let in daylight upon magic, Tinker adds layer upon layer of opacity as if performing one of his characters’ customary reverse stripteases (9). Unsurprisingly, we learn in fine that “The investigation goes on”, a denouement as open-ended as Tinker’s fiction itself (p. 68)…

So what exactly will you find inside the Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity? Bawdy moustaches. The wildest of similes (10). Donald Barthelme rutting with a buxom Oulipian in the pale fire of a Nabokovian footnote. Morrisseyspotting aplenty. Devastating satire of Swiftian proportions (11). Lashings of hardcore gastroporn (12). Bewildering Lynchian filmic devices. Uncanny Orton pastiches (13). A recurrent association between artistic creation and immoderate masturbation. Relentless self-reflexivity; postmodernism gone mad (14). A very British brand of Surrealism that owes as much to the Goon Show, Monty Python or Glen Baxter as to the Continental heavyweights. At times, the feeling of Woody Allen stranded on a Carry On film set. Whereas his absurdist forebears could only gratify us with a sardonic grimace, Tinker does laugh-out-loud. Whereas much “experimental” fiction is deserving of study yet tiresome to sit down and read, he reconciles — seemingly effortlessly — the avant-garde with the plaisir du texte. His thrilling “A-level Surrealism” (“You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” p. 29) — as far removed from the cosy world of Amis or Barnes as it is possible to get (15) — manages the feat of being at once experimental and accessible. The book you are (probably) holding in your hands is what French critics would describe as un OVNI littéraire: nothing less than a literary UFO…

(1) Susan Tomaselli claimed in Dogmatika that “If HP Tinker didn’t exist, you’d have to make him up”.

(2) Quoted from a rare interview published in 3:AM Magazine in 2001.

(3) Significantly, an early abandoned Tinker novel was entitled “The Man Who Would Be Mute”.

(4) This Paul Gauguin (whose works include Jacob Wrestling Grandma Moses and Woman Chasing Bagel Down Fifth Avenue) designs Clarice Cliff’s corporate logo, ogles Russ Meyer’s Vixen! on TV (“The heroine has unfeasibly large breasts, Paul Gauguin notes, unable to take his eyes off the screen” p. 8), crashes on Willem de Kooning’s sofa bed (after attending Jackson Pollock’s housewarming party — with Man Ray), receives an erotic postcard from Yoko Ono and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from Vivien Leigh (“I was merely struggling with the baby shrimp” p. 11).

(5) After all, “I is another” in these post-Rimbaldian times.

(6) See also this characteristic extract from “The Countess of Monte Cristo”: “Heathrow. Rio. Lisbon. Brussels. Bruges. Rome. Venice. Barcelona. Madrid. Prague. Parma. St Petersburg. Moscow. Cape Town. Then Heathrow again” (p. 87).

(7) The subtext is either distanced and stylised into oblivion, or so obscure that it might as well not exist. “The General”, for instance, was inspired by a real person, but the story is obviously more than a private joke. So: is this objective correlation gone mad, or something else? Perhaps a clue can be found in “You Can Go Home Again” where Noël Coward reflects upon his work-in-progress which is “going nowhere”: “I wonder, he thinks to himself, is the subject too close to home?” (p. 118).

(8) The scuffle described like a Homeric epic in “[Just Like] Tom Paulin’s Blues” is a prime example of Tinker’s take on the mock-heroic (p. 96).

(9) “Every young Parisian girl wore woolly tights and thick overcoats, their pert, erect nipples completely hidden by several layers of obtrusive material” (“Vic Chews It Over” p. 39).

(10) Tinker is the master of weird similes: “…the plot thickening around you the way a good pasta should” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 78).

(11) 12 “Kandahar!” provides a scathing attack on the collateral damage of the so-called War on Terror: “Everywhere was bombed. My street was bombed. Then the street next to mine. Then the street next to the street next to mine. Night and day, they bombed all the wrong places….they were quite methodical about it” (p. 24). “(Just Like) Tom Paulin’s Blues” is one long, brilliant exercise in pricking an intellectual bubble of pomposity.

(12) The anthology is awash with Fluxus caffs, Franco-Pakistani bistros, Zen-like seafood platters, “media-friendly virtual tapas bars” and “funky post-coital noodle eateries” (“Kandahar” p. 23). Food frequently stands for the victory of base instincts over lofty ideals — a staple of comedy: “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What are we doing here? What are we going to do next? How can we escape everything that is artificial and conventional? What can we have for lunch? Why is there no food in this house? Did I forget to visit the supermarket? Are these potato cakes stale? Where is the green curry I was freezing? Am I all out of seaweed fasoli? Is a Brie sandwich at all feasible in the circumstances?” (“Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor” p. 17).

(13) The recurrent Ortonesque mixture of American Psycho-style granguignol and laugh-out-loud comedy is perfectly illustrated by the opening scene of “The Investigation” which describes a detective contemplating a gruesome murder scene. A woman, hanging from a light fitting has been “expertly skinned”, one of her hands has been chopped off and her mouth is “full of shit”. The detective observes that this is the “sickest sight” he has seen “since he chanced upon the contents of David Niven’s fridge in 1972” (p. 59).

(14) There’s the guy in “Kandahar!”, for instance, who wants to produce a machine “to go back in time and kill the inventor of the funky bassline” thus giving rise to “a better world, one without the Red Hot Chili Peppers” (p. 20).

(15) Among his contemporaries the most obvious points of comparison are David Foster Wallace and, perhaps, William T Vollmann.


“Every love story is a ghost story.”
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King 2011. [The same line appears in “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko”, a story included in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. D.T. Max, DFW’s biographer, explains that the author would attribute the phrase to Virginia Woolf, but it apparently comes from Christina Stead.]

We Are All Bartlebys

An extract from Tom McCarthy‘s “David Foster Wallace: The Last Audit,” The New York Times Sunday 14 May 2011:

…Which brings me to the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward — properly and rigorously forward — in an age of data saturation. The Jesuit presents “the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the real world’s constituent info generated . . . now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling and organizing that torrential flow of info.” He could just as well be describing the task of the novelist, who, of course, is also “called to account.” It’s hard not to see in the poor pencil-pushers huddled at their desks an image of the writer — nor, given Wallace’s untimely end, to shudder when they contemplate suicide.

Lost childhood pools, by this reading, would constitute a kind of pastoral mode cached (or trashed) within the postmodern “systems” novel — which, in turn, is what the systems-within-systems I.R.S. really stands for. The issues of emotion and agency remain central, but are incorporated into a larger argument about the possibility or otherwise of these things within contemporary fiction. The data-psychic character Sylvanshine can glean trivia about anyone simply by looking at him, but is “weak or defective in the area of will.” Nor, due to endless digressions, can he complete anything. No one can; in “The Pale King,” nothing ever fully happens. That this is to a large extent a metaphor (for the novel in general, or this novel in particular) becomes glaringly obvious when we hear one unnamed character describe the play he’s writing, in which a character sits at a desk, doing nothing; after the audience has left, he will do something — what that “something” is, though, the play’s author hasn’t worked out yet. […]

…Wallace’s writing is haunted by modernism’s (very plural) legacy. One of the nicknames for the David Wallace character in “The Pale King” is “the young man carbuncular,” a moniker straight from Eliot’s “Waste Land.” Kafka’s “Castle” is explicitly invoked; and so, implicitly by the unfinished clerk-at-desk play, is the entirety of Beckett’s drama.

But there’s an older ghost haunting “The Pale King” even more, I think, one whose spectral presence combines both the political and metafictional ways of reading the book: Melville’s Bartleby, the meek and lowly copyist who cannot will himself to complete the act of copying — or, to put it another way, the writer who cannot will himself to complete the act of writing. In effect, all the I.R.S.’s clerical serfs are Bartlebys; through them, and through this book, he emerges as the melancholy impasse out of which the American novel has yet to work its way. America’s greatest writer, the author of “Moby-Dick,” spent his final 19 years as a customs officer — that is, a tax inspector. To research “The Pale King,” Wallace trained in accounting. We’re moving beyond haunting to possession here. Bartleby, of course, ends up dead, leaving a stack of undeliverable papers. This is the inheritance that Wallace earnestly, and perhaps fatally, grappled with. The outcome was as brilliant as it was sad — and the battle is the right one to engage in.

Illicit Frequencies, or All Literature is Pirated

Here is my interview with Tom McCarthy that appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 13 July 2006.

3:AM: It’s very rare, these days, to see a work of literary criticism being given such prominence. Do you agree that this is probably largely due to the fact that the main subject is not Balzac or Baudelaire — two key references here — but a comic-strip hero?

TMcC: First of all, I’m not sure I’d describe Tintin and the Secret of Literature as ‘criticism’. More as an essay. I like the idea of the essay as a primary literary form. You can trace it from David Foster Wallace through Blanchot all the way back to people like Hazlitt. But yes, the fact that it revolves around Tintin and not just Balzac and Baudelaire has certainly helped it get attention — although it wasn’t strategic to do this. I genuinely rate Hergé’s work, and wanted to read it alongside Balzac, Baudelaire, Bergson, Bachelard and all the rest, hopping from one to the other in a set of playful, serendipitous detours — which is exactly what the essay format allows.

3:AM: Your book is very much in the tradition of Barthes‘s Mythologies (an anthology which you fail to mention). I can’t remember if Barthes actually mentions Tintin anywhere, but he certainly could have done. In a way, the two figures go curiously well together: Tintin’s heyday corresponds roughly to that of Barthes and both, today, appear a little quaint. Was it Barthes who inspired this book? After all, your Tintin is primarily a semiologist who “can navigate [a key word in the McCarthy canon] the world of signs” (Tintin and the Secret of Literature p. 22), a deciphering cipher who embodies (along with Snowy?) the presence of absence — the Melvillian “whiteness of the whale” (p. 161) — but also, of course, Barthes’s “écriture blanche”.

TMcC: I do kind of mention Mythologies when I refer to wrestling and tomato tins early on in the book. I love Barthes: he’s a beautiful, generous writer. He never mentions Tintin directly as far as I know, although Derrida, another big presence (or present absence or whatever) in my book, does, glancingly, in The Post Card. Hergé read Barthes; you can see his influence very directly in the final book, Tintin and Alph-Art, in which language becomes a set of physical signs, giant letters which are held up and scrutinised by his characters.


3:AM: Are you the first to draw a parallel between Sarrasine and the Tintin corpus? I haven’t read Balzac’s novel, but, from what you write, La Zambinella seems to bear a resemblance to Proust’s Odette de Crécy. Am I mistaken?

TMcC: As far as I know I am the first to draw a parallel between Tintin and Sarrasine. I re-read Barthes’s S/Z, which turns around that particular novella, initially because I wanted to write about Hergé’s total mastery of plot: the way he misdirects, doubles, occludes, jams and so on, all these devices Barthes describes so well in his take on Balzac. But as I did I realised that there were loads of points of correspondence between Sarrasine and the Tintin books. Balzac’s eponymous artist becomes obsessed by the opera singer la Zambinella, like Captain Haddock does with Bianca Castafiore; he copies her, like the sculptor Balthazar does the fetish in The Broken Ear; he’s murdered, as is Balthazar; the copy is copied and these copies are themselves copied, in both. Fundamentally, it’s about entering the realm of denatured simulation that is art. La Zambinella’s voice draws Sarrasine backstage, into a world of artifice, just as la Castafiore’s voice draws Haddock backstage and on into a world of inauthenticity. And these worlds prove fatal: the castrato la Zambinella effectively kills Sarrasine, and ultimately the not-really-pubescent Tintin effectively kills Hergé.

With Proust, I’ve got to admit I’ve never got as far as the Odette bits in the Remembrance. There are passages I find completely compelling, like the bit about how you can construct a composite memory of a house from various other houses you’ve known or read about or seen in pictures (which is more or less what my hero does in Remainder, but other bits lose me, and I put it down again for two years, then re-read as far as the house bit, then same again: a kind of incomplete repetition loop. Perhaps that’s what Old Marcel would have wanted.


3:AM: Given that the literary status of the Tintin books is uncertain/debatable, isn’t it a little perverse to analyse them in order to uncover the “secret of literature”?

TMcC: Yes — and that’s why I wanted to do it. It would be easy to identify literary motifs in Faulkner or Dickens or someone. But what does it tell us when a corpus that makes no claims to being ‘literature’ displays a symbolic register as developed as Faulkner’s and characters as deep and rich as Dickens’s, not to mention themes and plots more or less identical to Sophocles’s and Shakespeare’s: the fall of the noble house, family secrets coming out into the open, the relation between host and guest gone disastrously wrong and so on? So much of the very best literature opens up illicit frequencies so that meaning can travel along channels other than the obvious or rational. The Tintin books are full of these frequencies, these channels; they even dramatise their setting up, hunting down, rumbling and relocating. And then it struck me that literature as a whole might hide its most intimate secrets in the most illicit of all zones, one tucked away ‘off-stage’, ‘aside’, below the radar of literature proper, which is of course the kind of zone that cartoons lurk in.

3:AM: Could you tell us about the cover of the book and Tintin’s absence from the illustrations inside?

TMcC: The cover is by Jochen Gerner, a French artist. I saw a book he’d done called TNT en Amérique, in which he buried the whole of Tintin in America under black ink but left a few symbols, mainly of money, divinity and violence (i.e. dollar signs, crosses and guns, all done in cartoony style) as markers for what he’d erased — all on the correct pages, corresponding to frames in the original book. So I contacted him and asked him to do the cover, and he was really into it. We looked at the main motifs in The Castafiore Emerald — the window, the piano, the cameras and spotlights that, ultimately, occlude more than they reveal — and he applied his technique (which, after Bataille, he calls ‘déformation’) to these. And in the foreground, as on Hergé’s, the tufted figure with his finger to his lips, saying ‘Shhhh!’ — what in the book I call “the condition of the secret become visible”.

To answer the second part of your question: I didn’t want images directly from the Tintin books inside my book. I was more interested in showing how these images (which I’m assuming most people who read my book will be at least slightly familiar with) mutate into and out of other ones: eighteenth-century portraits of castrato singers, stills from Buster Keaton films and, not least, ‘detourned’ versions of the Tintin books themselves. These last images break down into political activist ones, pornographic ones and ‘art’ ones: an interesting triangle.


3:AM: Given your chapter devoted to “Castafiore’s Clit” (if you ever form a band, promise me that you’ll use that name) and your comments about Tintin’s androgyny, I was surprised you didn’t devote at least a few lines to the once-ubiquitous gay Tintin haircut…

TMcC: A band called Castafiore’s Clit is a great idea. Kind of Jane’s Addiction meets The Thompson Twins. Yes, it’s funny that Tintin has lent his haircut to gay culture. I found out recently that the Rocker quiff of the Fifties was taken directly from Jean Marais’s haircut in Cocteau’s Orphée, another big presence in my book.


3:AM: During the Second World War, Hergé had no qualms about publishing his comic strips in Le Soir, a newspaper that was under Nazi control and had clear Nazi sympathies. Interestingly enough, as you point out, Paul de Man also wrote for Le Soir. However, I was surprised that you did not make more of this coincidence. Paul de Man’s undermining of meaning and values having been reinterpreted (and partly discredited) in the light of the posthumous discovery of his youthful far-right views, should not we also be somewhat wary of Hergé’s “retroactive wiping-out of history” (p. 41), the erosion of Rastapopoulos’s “Semitic status” (pp. 44-45) or his reinvention as a “liberal leftist” (p. 46)? After all, anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism which, in your view, testify to the author’s “right-to-left trajectory” (p. 47) are common tenets on the far right as well as the far left…

TMcC: I never went with the argument that Paul de Man’s shameful youthful secret undermines all of deconstruction (is Derrida, a Jew, a secret anti-Semite too?), not least because when I was at university one of this argument’s main advocates serially harassed his female students while simultaneously espousing feminism, which for me kind of discredited anything he had to say. Yes, the anti-consumerist thing can serve a right-wing position as much as a left-wing one, and I point out in the book that Hergé kept the same villains in place throughout his career (secret cabals, men in hoods). But I think his right-to-left trajectory was a genuine one, as was Paul de Man’s. Things are connected. Fascism is a moment that the twentieth century goes through, in the arts as much as anywhere else. Think of Yeats, Spengler, Hamsun, Pound, Céline — brilliant and hugely influential writers who were fascists. Do we discount anything that’s come after them? Of course not: you trace the fallout of the disaster, how it mutates and develops. Think of Heidegger, a one-time Nazi out of whose thought the incredibly compelling ethical vision of Levinas (another Jew) has emerged. Anyway, it would be naive and liberal to want all our artists to be nice Guardian readers. Some people are arseholes. And another thing: Paul de Man doesn’t undermine meaning and value — just certain tired and reactionary notions of both.

[Just for the record: I didn’t mean to imply that Hergé’s, Céline’s or Yeats’s works should be rejected because of their political views, although I clearly gave that impression. Like Tom, I subscribe to a resolutely politically-incorrect conception of literature. My point simply concerned anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism (which the far left certainly has no monopoly over) along with the fact that certain thinkers’ seemingly-rational ideas are so obviously linked to individual history (Maurras’s deafness or Foucault’s masochism, for instance) that one should sometimes approach them with a little caution. Another issue we could have raised here is the Arendt-Heidegger relationship, but that would probably have been one serendipitous detour — to quote McCarthy — too many!]


3:AM: Remainder — the best novel of 2005 which, due to its republication by Alma Books, looks set to be the novel of 2006 (ironically enough, given the theme of the book) — could be described as the best French novel ever written in English by an Englishman. With Tintin and the Secret of Literature, your approach is once again resolutely French. Almost all of your major references are French (Balzac, Baudelaire, Barthes, Derrida…), and even the vocabulary you use is Gallicized (“fictive,” for instance, which is far closer to the French “fictif” than “fictional”). Where does your familiarity with French culture and the French language come from? Was it deliberate on your part to largely avoid references to British or American literature? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to give a more English perspective on Tintin since Tintinologists have a habit of being Belgian or French?

TMcC: First of all, thanks for your kind words about Remainder, and I’ll try to persuade my French publisher, Hachette Littératures, to use your “best French novel in English” line as a blurb for their edition that’s coming out next September — I couldn’t think of better praise! Yes, most of the points of reference in Tintin and the Secret of Literature are French, although Defoe, Bunyan, Behn and other Anglo early novelists get a look in — plus there’s a big digression through Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I guess I just really like French literature. The English were going really well from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, producing poets like Donne and Marvell and novels like Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, but it all went horribly wrong somewhere in the late nineteenth/early twentieth and, while the French (and Americans) embarked on the wildest adventures with thought and form — Mallarmé, Breton, Cendrars, Faulkner etc etc — we got Thomas fucking Hardy and DH fucking Lawrence. The only top-class twentieth century English writers are the ones we claim spuriously: Americans like Eliot and James, Poles like Conrad, Irishmen like Joyce and Beckett…

3:AM: At the same time, there is a sense of humour and earthiness which are very un-French, as it were. After the publication of a strange review in The Economist which presented your book as a send-up of French theory, you spoke to me of the astounding “idiocy of English empirical culture”: do you think Tintin and the Secret of Literature is going to reignite the critical Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes of the 80s and 90s?

TMcC: I think to ignite any thought at The Economist you’d need to stick a ton of semtex up their arses. That review was quite funny, though: it perfectly captured the red-faced, vein-popping fury of Little England once the values on which it bases its entire identity are ever-so-slightly “solicited”, as Derrida would say. English takes on Tintin always present Hergé as a ’satirist’ and only that: a self-sufficient, rational subject who uses words and images as tools to tell us something he knows because he’s worked it out, rationally, you see. That’s the empirical line on literature tout court: the rational expression of a self-sufficient subject — as though we weren’t constantly made and unmade within language, desire, history, symbolic networks and so on. It’s as moronic as crediting a surfer with creating the wave which carries him and allows him to ply his craft — and back into which he’s eventually going to sink.


3:AM: You say that you were introduced to Tintin by your mother at the age of seven. That, in itself, probably says a lot about your social background — that and your early encounter with Hugo Williams (mentioned by the poet in an article he wrote in the TLS about your International Necronautical Society). In France, in the 70s, Le Journal de Tintin tended to be read in Catholic and conservative circles whereas kids from Communist families usually read a comic called Pif. What sort of social and cultural milieu were you raised in, Tom?

TMcC: I come from a liberal arts-steeped middle-class family. My mum would tell us the stories of The Odyssey and The Merchant of Venice on car journeys. My parents were left-ish but not radical. They voted Labour but I went to a private day-school from the age of twelve.

3:AM: You write that “Everybody wants to be Tintin,” but I get the feeling that that everybody applies, first and foremost, to you. You even bear a slight physical resemblance to Hergé’s hero…

TMcC: I went to a fancy dress party dressed as Tintin once…

3:AM: Susan Tomaselli rounds off her review with the claim that Tintin and the Secret of Literature made her feel like re-reading Remainder (your debut novel) rather than the Tintin books themselves. Do you see this as a success or a failure?

TMcC: Success — although she should read the Tintin books too. In a way, I used Tintin and the Secret of Literature to work through some of the themes in Remainder in a more conscious way: the relationship between trauma and repetition, for example, or the idea of inauthenticity which emerged from the de Man essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality”, which I hadn’t read when I wrote Remainder even though it could almost be describing that book. It’s great to be able to switch modes, and come at the same territory from a different angle.


3:AM: Your whole oeuvre seems to be contained within this critical essay: Tintin and the Secret of Literature could thus be read as a work of internal intertextuality. First of all, there’s the importance of meridians which points to Greenwich Degree Zero, your recent artistic collaboration with Rod Dickinson…

TMcC: …when we blew up the Greenwich Observatory, or at least produced the documentation of having blown up the Observatory, completing the task of Martial Bourdin, model for Conrad’s Stevie in The Secret Agent. We wanted to blow up time itself. Funnily enough, there’s a scene in The Broken Ear where a secret agent like Stevie carries a time-bomb around and gets blown up by it because he doesn’t realise the town clocks have broken. I love the sequence in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin carries a broken clock around and rides trams in different directions in a sub-Einsteinian attempt to escape time — then dies…


3:AM: Then you’ve got the references to Cocteau’s Orphée and, more generally, your fascination with the “transmission-reception figure” (as you put it elsewhere): “[Tintin] will also be aware, as a radio operator, that the waves which carry his transmissions will travel outwards endlessly through space. Who knows where the signals will end up, or what they will end up meaning?” (p. 91).

TMcC: If I had to select five things to put in a space capsule to show aliens what we were capable of, Orphée would be one of them. It’s the most perfect piece of art, which lays out our existence as being in relation to death, technology, transmission-reception and desire — not to mention repetition. Death, a beautiful princess (and arts patron) falls in love with Orphée so she has another poet snatched to the underworld so he can send illicit, looping radio messages to Orphée which draw him towards her, through a mirror. Cocteau based his radio messages on the ones sent to occupied France during World War Two: these short lines of poetry. Most of them meant nothing, but one in every two hundred meant — only to those who knew — ‘blow up the bridge’. A man or woman in London reads a line of poetry into a microphone and in France a bridge blows up — or not. Poetry — real poetry — should harbour that potentiality somehow.

3:AM: You talk about Alph-Art, the eponymous avant-garde movement of Hergé’s posthumous book, which is “a cover for a giant forgery operation” (p. 158). Couldn’t this also be a fitting definition of your own “semi-fictitious” avant-garde movement, the International Necronautical Society?

TMcC: The INS had its own radio transmission network, operating out of the ICA two years ago, generating messages like Cocteau’s and actually transmitting them over the radio London-wide (and, via collaborating radio stations, world-wide). It looked like a giant factory floor, with workers running everywhere carrying lines of text — lines which, having been plucked from other media sources, were kind of second-hand if not fake. The INS is itself semi-fake, as you point out. Although the fake can hide the real.


3:AM: On page 84, you explain that, according to Freud, trauma produces “a desire for repetition mixed with a need to disguise the scene being repeated”. Could you comment on this sentence with reference to your novel Remainder?

TMcC: It’s not just Freud who says this: even his most positivist counterparts concur. Under ultra-extreme stress, the part of the mind that processes raw data into the narrative thread we call ‘memory’ simply goes on strike and refuses to process. It’s called ‘dissociation’. So the data’s present, but not dealt with, and therefore keeps bobbing up and demanding to be incorporated somehow. As it can’t form part of normal memory, it plays itself out in weird ways — ones that contain elements of the original event but are also scrambled, disguised. And it will keep repeating, albeit in modulated form, until it is accommodated properly. Well, in Remainder the hero has undergone a traumatic event which he hasn’t retained as straight memory but rather as fragments of data: the sense of being about to be hit, blue lights, railings, being held above a tray or bed and so on. These induce a propensity to repeat stuff in him. Another interesting thing about post-trauma is that (to return to a motif we touched on a moment ago) it makes people feel inauthentic, fake, because everything is of a lesser magnitude of experience than the trauma-moment itself, the only ‘real’ thing. And then the subject back-projects for himself a time when he wasn’t fake, and longs for that time. That’s what my guy is doing with his re-enactments: repeating backwards to an imagined era of authenticity — but repeating, more accurately, towards the trauma-moment itself, the true, unnameable moment, the moment of truth and unnameability itself.


3:AM: The re-enactments in Remainder or in your artistic work: mimesis or simulacrum?

TMcC: Aha: very good question, bang on the money. In Remainder, he wants the authentic, so he sets up a zone of mimesis, paying architects and designers to recreate his ‘remembered’ building and re-enactors to ‘be’ the lady he remembers frying liver on the floor below him, the pianist he remembers practising Rachmaninoff and so on. He wants to accede through these re-enactments to a mode of authenticity, of simply ‘being’ rather than simulating. But of course it doesn’t work: the re-enactments tend more towards the status of simulacra, what Plato defines as ‘a copy without an original’. But then, paradoxically, the most jarring and obviously inconsistent things, the ‘extra’ bits, the ones with no originals of any type at all, are what catapult him into ultra-authenticity — which, not coincidentally, is also pure violence. It’s the little chink on the carpet of his re-enacted bank heist that flips the whole re-enactment over into all-too-real-ness, when the re-enactor trips on it, or rather on its absence, and his gun goes off…

[Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy at 3:AM Magazine‘s Xmas Bash, London 2005]


3:AM: Barthes writes that “…the ‘realistic’ artist never places reality at the origin of his discourse, but only and always, as far back as can be traced, an already written real, a prospective code, along which we discern, as far as the eye can see, only a succession of copies” (quoted on p. 55): this is also, unwittingly, what the protagonist of Remainder does, right?

TMcC: Remainder has been read by some critics as an allegory of realism and of the realist mode of art, and this isn’t an entirely wrong reading — although if the hero had actually been an artist rather than an Everyman, some bloke, it would have been an entirely different, and inferior, book. But yes, it definitely turns around his copying, and even (as he sets about getting his re-enactors to re-enact the moments when they prepared for the previous re-enactment) his copying his moments of copying, endlessly regressive. We can try to work it out together, but ultimately I can’t give the definitive schematic meta-reading of the book any more than you — perhaps less. It was intuitive: I was looking at a crack in a wall and had a moment of dejà-vu and wished I had loads of money to re-enact this moment and there was the novel.


3:AM: When discussing tobacco throughout the Tintin books, you explain (following Derrida) that it “goes up in smoke” but “also leaves remains, ashes, which maintain symbolic links to memory, death and inheritance. Baudelaire’s story takes off from the change left over from the two friends’ luxury expenditure: like the coin itself, it proceeds from the remainder” (p. 135). Why are remnants so important in your work?

TMcC: It’s what’s left. After the disaster, after thought, interpretation, writing itself. It’s like when Wallace Stevens says “The plum survives its poems”. Writing has to deal with this remainder, and good writing has to deal with the fact that it can never fully deal with it. Francis Ponge knows this. He writes brilliant prose poems about, for example, oranges: the texture of their cells, the way they leave goop on your hands so that even when you’ve ‘expressed’ them there’s a residue that’s not contained. If Susan Tomaselli or anyone else really want to do themselves a favour, they should re-read neither Remainder nor the Tintin books but rather Ponge’s Le Parti pris des choses (you can get it in dual text). It’s everything writing should be.

[This interview was initially posted here.]