Phantom Plot

My review of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language will appear in the FT tomorrow. It was posted on their website today. Here is an extract:

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

All the Latest

I’ve written a piece about custard-pie activism for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. You can read it here. An expanded version of my review of Marc-Edouard Nabe‘s latest novel appeared in 3:AM Magazine. Also in 3:AM, I talk about my summer reading list.

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
ANDREW GALLIX