C By Tom McCarthy

This appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2, issue 89, p. 196):

C by Tom McCarthy

Incest, spies and coke-fuelled adventures

Let’s not beat about the bush: Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C, is a masterpiece: a sprawling associative web that keeps generating new meanings as though of its own volition. “That’s the beautiful thing about what literature does to language,” says McCarthy. “You stick these slippery terms in and they start cross-fertilising in ways you never anticipated — incestuous ways.” C takes us from a fairytale English silk farm to spy-ridden Egypt by way of a central European spa town, aerial warfare and a coke-fuelled London filled with bright young Amazons. It is a comedy of errors, a gothic mystery, a boy’s own story; a traditional 19th-century novel seemingly rewritten by Burroughs or Ballard. You’ll find geometry, technology and trauma. Loops, repetitions and mutations. Incest, insects and radio bugs. And phantom words emanating from subterranean worlds half-glimpsed “at the dial’s far end”. Tune in…

DAZED & CONFUSED: C could be seen as a futurist novel. Serge, the protagonist, even seems to be partly modelled on Marinetti himself…
TOM MCCARTHY: I love Marinetti, and, yes, he’s part of Serge’s make-up, particularly in the war section. But Serge is equally a mixture of Freud’s Wolf Man, the beautifully fucked-up melancholic eternally grieving for his dead sister; and Alexander Bell, inventor of the phone (who also lost two siblings); and Howard Carter, the Egyptologist who disinterred the ur-family tomb; and a bunch of other people. I’m interested in the places where technology and mourning intersect.

There’s also a strong retro-futurist — even steampunk — element to C. Did you feel the need to revisit the early 20th century in order to reinvent the future of the novel?
Yes. Walter Benjamin says that the angel of history faces backwards. I think it’s the same for literature: you’ve got to look back in order to move forwards. It’s not just the foundations of contemporary technology that are being laid in the early 20th century (the code radio bugs used exactly anticipated text speak, just as lots of their output anticipated Twitter), but also literature’s period of high modernism that’s coming to a head. Not for nothing does the novel end in 1922: it’s the year that Ulysses and The Waste Land came out. The task for the contemporary writer (sadly, one which many writers of today are shirking) is to work through that period’s legacy — dynamically and radically, but attentively too.

All the major themes in C — from wireless technology to the discovery of Tutankhamun — come from your early experiments with the International Necronautical Society (INS), don’t they?
I had the idea for C while I was working on the INS project at the ICA. There, we had a radio station modelled on the illicit one in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (where the person transmitting is already dead), sending out all these coded poetic messages. I was looking at writing around encryption, and the concept of the ‘crypt’ that you get in psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Incest lies at the heart of C: this, for you, is the source code of western literature, right?
Yes. You go back from Nabokov through Faulkner through Racine right back to Sophocles, and incest is the central theme that keeps recurring. For Freud, the incest prohibition is what makes us civilised, socialised, even human, so that’s the taboo all tragic heroes, who are fundamentally doomed rebels, are most drawn towards transgressing.

Why do you think that all new means of telecommunication are linked to death, mourning and melancholia?
I don’t know if I can explain it. It’s just a pattern that keeps recurring. For every comm-tech invention, there seems to be a dead sibling somewhere. Bell even made a pact with his brother that, if one of them died like their other brother had, the surviving one would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the dead. Then the second brother dies, and Bell invents the telephone. He remained a rationalist, a sceptic — basically because his brothers never called. But the desire, the fantasy, is there in the technology: a ghost in the machine. It’s the same with radio. Seances in the 20s weren’t about spirit and ectoplasm any more: they were about “tuning in” to voices resonating on high frequencies, like radio waves. With the internet, it seems to be more about a presence than an absence: everything’s there, every click and keystroke ever made eternally retrievable, a giant archive. That’s a kind of haunting too, though.

Text and Photography

Only Disconnect

This was published on the Flux magazine website on 13 November 2009:

Only Disconnect

Andrew Gallix on this year’s new literary model

“All of this intellect stuff is fine as a consolation (which is how it developed in the first place: Socrates not being Alcibiades),” claims the narrator of an early Toby Litt story. He has a point, of course. Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, famously confided that he had become a philosopher in order to make up for his ugliness and attract women. Conversely, ghostwriters keep churning out books for celebrity airheads in search of intellectual credibility. And then there’s Gavin James Bower. The author of Dazed & Aroused is the stuff publishers’ wet dreams are made of: a model turned writer; Socrates and Alcibiades rolled into one. “I’m too pretty to be a serious novelist but not pretty enough to be a top model,” he aphorises, “I have no consolation.” Call me jealous, but I have no sympathy.

Bower is far more than just another clothes horse who can string a few sentences together. He started putting pen to paper when he was still reading history at university. Among his influences, he cites Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Ellis, Marx, Sartre and Camus, but also Flux magazine editor Lee Taylor, who gave him his first break: “He was one of the first people who got me excited about being a writer myself”. An internship at Dazed & Confused took an unexpected turn when he was encouraged to go into modelling rather than journalism. After a year or so, his career went the way of the “skinny-jeans-and-winklepickers look,” but not before it had provided him with enough material for a stunning debut novel.

Having walked the (cat)walk, Gavin James Bower can talk authentically about inauthenticity. Alex, the narrator and anti-hero of Dazed & Aroused, slides down the surface of things, barely batting an eyelid when he is fellated by his father’s gorgeous girlfriend. In a rare moment of insight, he realises that the “nauseating truth” about a world in which anything is possible is that nothing is also a distinct possibility. The key to the book probably lies in this oscillation between surfeit and emptiness. Instead of leading to objectivity, Alex’s psychopathological detachment conjures up nightmarish dreamscapes — unreal cities — in which glamorous models are for ever tripping over the vagrants who litter the streets. From the ranters whose messages are always incomprehensible to the news bulletins invariably watched on mute, information overload leads to communication breakdown. The protagonist is bombarded by messages — via leaflets, billboards, freesheets, bumper stickers, graffiti or even fridge magnets — but they remain mere juxtapositions. On Oxford Street, for instance, he passes two men holding placards: “One sells Jesus to passers-by while the other advertises a buffet lunch deal”. The only point, if there is one, is that everything has been commodified. Gavin James Bower describes his character as a “personification of the capitalist social relation — an estranged individual who exploits others and refuses to connect to anything”. Yet, in spite of all that, he remains strangely alluring. Even when it comes to coke, the devil has all the best lines.

Dazed & Aroused is published by Quartet Books.

Tom McCarthy & The Modern Lovers of Debris


This appeared in the March 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2 issue 71, p. 227):

Tom McCarthy & The Modern Lovers of Debris

The General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society is devoted to literature by all means possible

Now that Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder is toasted as a contemporary classic by the likes of Zadie Smith, it is easy to forget that no publisher would touch it. The young author increasingly looked to the art world, where he discovered a forum initially more congenial to serious literary investigations. But how has his organisation evolved since its launch ten years ago? “Like a virus,” he explains, “It started out as a tiny thing in a laboratory and has spread and mutated as it plays itself out on increasingly larger stages.” The laboratory was a London art fair on the South Bank where McCarthy handed out the International Necronautical Society’s founding manifesto to bemused passersby. Back then, the Necronauts’ mission statement — “death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” — was probably often dismissed as yet another YBA-style stunt. In fact, the organisation’s deliberately absurd premise was intended to place it “in the zone of silence and impossibility from which all good art stems”. McCarthy wanted to create a “non-academic arena” in which he and his co-conspirators would be able to ogle theory making sweet love to practice.

The INS made a big splash with its 2002 “experiment in viral transmission”, which involved secretly inserting INS propaganda into the source code of the BBC’s website. The connection between aesthetics, technology and politics was further explored in 2004 when the INS set up its Broadcasting Unit at the ICA, inspired by the cryptic messages Orphée picks up on his car radio in Cocteau’s famous film. But the society’s breathtaking ambition only really became apparent last year when McCarthy and INS chief philosopher Simon Critchley unveiled their Joint Statement on Inauthenticity in New York. In a brilliant example of metadrama, doubts were cast on the authenticity of this event and the INS Department of Propaganda refused to “authenticate” the “unauthorised” transcripts and recordings circulating on the internet.

The Joint Statement was presented at Tate Britain this January and revolves around the notion of “originary inauthenticity” — the trauma of materiality which prevents us from feeling at one with ourselves or the world. Art and literature frequently try to deal with this problem by sublimating matter and “elevating it into form”. Necronauts reject this temptation — they are “modern lovers of debris” who choose to “celebrate the imperfection of matter”. McCarthy points out that “what makes the trajectory of Yeats’s work so fascinating is the shift from early idealism to late materialism. And that’s where Joyce begins: debris, detritus, fragments, Stephen Dedalus squelching rubbish on the beach. That’s the landscape that has to be navigated, here, now — and celebrated, not transcended.”


Young Writers Les Décalés Are Upsetting The French Literary Establishment

This was published in the September 2008 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2 issue 65, p. 76):

Young Writers Les Décalés Are Upsetting the French Literary Establishment

In one of his early stories, the French advertising executive turned writer Frédéric Beigbeder imagined Saint-Germain-des-Prés — the ultra-posh heartland of Parisian publishing — overrun by hordes of vandals from the deprived banlieues. It ends with the pope of French letters, Philippe Sollers, dangling upside down à la Mussolini from the local church steeple.

This carnivalesque tableau foreshadows the literary revolution that is gaining ground across the Channel. “We’re witnessing the democratisation of writing,” explains 26-year-old Antoine Dole who instigated the movement two years ago. “What used to belong to an intellectual elite is being reclaimed by the people”.

When Dole was doing the rounds with his first manuscript, the big publishing concerns advised him to ditch his dark romanticism in favour of the kind of books people read on the beach. Instead, he decided to go it alone and was met, predictably enough, with accusations of vanity publishing. He drew the conclusion that authors, particularly in France, need authorisation to be admitted among the happy few.

In November 2006, Dole produced the first issue of a home-made fanzine which showcased the growing number of young writers who, like him, were using the internet to bypass mainstream publishing. It proved so successful that, early last year, an indie publisher (Editions du Cygne) helped him launch a bona fide literary journal called En Attendant l’or. It immediately became a word-of-mouth success via MySpace and a focal point for sundry “word activists” — bloggers, slammers, rappers — who did not fit within the conventional definition of what a French writer is meant to be. In the space of two issues, a new literary scene emerged — “Les Décalés” (“The Offbeats”), a group of writers who reject high culture, embrace multiculturalism and set great store by friendship. “We don’t hang around book launches to shake hands,” says Dole. “We don’t do public relations. This is primarily a human adventure”.

For the next issue of En Attendant l’or, which will be released in book form by Autrement, Dole has teamed up with 22-year-old novelist Elsa Delachair who is busy establishing links with similar movements abroad. Dole himself is involved in many other projects — a second novel, an anthology of French hip hop and a micro-publishing venture called Impact Verbal. Its mission statement is highly political, since it defines the kind of writing it intends to champion as “a form of resistance against a patriarchal and authoritarian establishment”.

Another major development was the launch in 2006 of eXprim’, a book collection published by the cheekily-named Sarbacane (peashooter). 28-year-old Tibo Bérard (the former editor of a now-defunct literary magazine) wanted to focus on fiction written by young people for young people, but which can also appeal to older readers. The result is the coolest of collections — a kind of Two Tone Records of the publishing world. Antoine Dole’s debut novel, Je Reviens de mourir (“I Have Died Again”), which they have released, is currently at the heart of a controversy reminiscent of the recent emo death cult Daily Mail campaign. It has been accused of being a misogynistic apology for suicide and is consequently being banned by some bookshops and libraries. The collection’s rapidly-expanding stable also includes authors like Edgar Sekloka, Hamid Jemaï and Insa Sané who represent the painful birth of a new multicultural French society, from which this whole movement has sprung.

(Illustration by Hayley Hutton.)

All the Latest

My article on France’s answer to the Offbeats — Les Décalés — appears in the September issue of Dazed & Confused:

“In one of his early stories, the French advertising executive turned writer Frédéric Beigbeder imagined Saint-Germain-des-Prés — the ultra-posh heartland of Parisian publishing — overrun by hordes of vandals from the deprived banlieues. It ends with the pope of French letters, Philippe Sollers, dangling upside down à la Mussolini from the local church steeple. This carnivalesque tableau foreshadows the literary revolution that is gaining ground across the Channel…”