Writing The Existential Crisis
Hailed by Zadie Smith as the future of literature, English born author Tom McCarthy writes from a place that is both darkly comical and philosophical, his work inviting deep interpretation and reflection.
Upon reading his latest book, Satin Island, you’d be forgiven for assuming that McCarthy is expressing some kind of personal existential crisis, but chatting with Tom it’s clear that this is not the case. His work is more of a channelling of his many literary and philosophical muses.
Enamoured and inspired by the litany of critical thinkers that have come before him, his many references to Derrida, Balzac, Proust, Don Quixote, Martin Heidegger etc. are dizzying. In Satin Island McCarthy shows us the culmination of this fascination, weaving in critical thinking with the many discussions he had with anthropologists, researchers and writers.
McCarthy has several celebrated novels behind him including his debut Remainder (the movie has just been released), C and Men in Space. He has been twice nominated for the Man-Booker Prize and is frequently hailed as the writer of our generation, though it’s not clear if he knows it yet.
Humble and seemingly carefree, you wouldn’t guess that this is a man who can whittle down the barbarism, pain and awkwardness of the human experience to a curt 200 pages. Though much of the author remains an enigma, we do our best to unravel the mystery that is Tom McCarthy.
Firstly, I want to just clear up a strange coincidence that I noticed in your latest book Satin Island. The character U is asked to write the “great report” called Koob-Sassen. We’re doing an event on August 17th with the sociologist Saskia Sassen, and her son’s name is Hilary Koob-Sassen. Is that a coincidence or do you know him?
Yeah I know both Hilary and Saskia, so it was a kind of in-joke to these friends of mine. In the book the whole company is about network thinking and tentacular structures, and Hilary Koob-Sassen is obsessed with octopuses, and networks, and spends a lot of time talking about these kinds of ideas. So I used his name as a marker and then when it was about to be published I asked him if he’d rather I changed it, but he was delighted so I kept it.
So I have unlocked the encryption key for the book?
It would seem so. I mean some people have suggested that Koob is book backwards and Sassen is a case, like the dossier. I like that it invites all these interpretations and who’s to say they’re not legitimate. That’s kind of what the book is about, the meaning that people project onto a situation and a narrative.
I loved the book. It felt to me like one giant existential crisis. Would you agree with that?
Yeah I suppose almost all my work is to some extent a meditation on what it means to write and on the possibility or indeed the impossibility of writing within the contemporary moment. Satin Island is very much about the infinite regress of being a writer. U is meant to write the book which he can’t do and so he writes all this meandering stuff which is what you end up reading, and that’s kind of what I was doing too. I like to think there’s some kind of ideal book that should have been written and never will be, and this isn’t it. U describes the book at one point as the off-cuts of the real book, this beautiful report, that he should have written. You get this a lot in Thomas Bernhard’s novels. The narrator sits down to write the definitive book on Mendelssohn or Mozart and spends the whole book not doing that but instead getting his windows cleaned, or changing his study, or visiting a neighbour.
It’s autobiographical in that sense, in that it’s a parable of writing, and writing in an age where everything is already written. This is what digital culture presents to us as a kind of quandary. Everything is already written. Narratives are being recorded algorithmically, so what’s the task of the writer?
"I like to think there’s some kind of ideal book that should have been written and never will be, and this isn’t it."
On the futility of writing.
You use a voice that is very unique and engaging to detail human neurosis, paranoia and our foibles. It seems that you’re going beyond talking about what it means to be a writer and talking about what it means to be human and why are we here.
Oh totally, but I think these are one and the same question. I think the question of being human is ultimately a literary question, in the sense that it’s about fiction and certain processes of representation; the way we represent ourselves to ourselves and to others, the way that identity is formed around certain narratives, metaphors, symbolic operations. This is what attracted me to Freud, not really any insight into psychology as such. The radical proposition Freud is making is that people are writing machines. We are surfaces on which things are written, which then themselves write, and repeat, and mutate, and this is an incredibly poetic process. I think to be human is to be subject to, or even a manifestation of, a certain type of scriptural technology. To be a space of traces and translations.
The view of society in your work is darkly comic and cynical. Would I be right to think you harbor a bit of vitriol about how we live our lives? Do you view parts of modern society as vile?
Sure, but this book is not satire. Of course U realises to some extent he is dealing in bullshit, and he realises as well that there is a certain cynicism in taking left wing, radical, even quite revolutionary theory and feeding it back to corporations.
You don’t think that’s satirical?
I spoke to people who were doing exactly this. I did not make it up. So if the real world is more satirical than satire then satire isn’t satirical anymore. It’s just factual. In one of the very first paragraphs of the book, the hero talks about things being out of joint and that’s a direct appropriation of Hamlet – “the time is out of joint.” There is a sense that something is not right with the world as it is.
There’s a range in U. At one point he wants to blow everything up, but the system blows itself up. The power stations don’t need terrorists and the trading systems don’t need hackers. They do it on their own, which is a point I take from McKenzie Wark, who wrote A Hacker Manifesto. There’s definitely a kind of anger and a revolutionary tendency in there, but it keeps dissipating and reconfiguring itself in other ways. U is frustrated but he’s the archetypal poet really, looking at the world with absolute fascination and finding all these points of total empathy with the parachutist and the tower plungers. He doesn’t give up even at the end. He could just go away and leave it all behind but he doesn’t. The end is kind of modelled on the end of Balzac’s Old Goriot where Rastignak wants to leave Paris. He walks away, then turns back and faces Paris and says, “À nous deux, maintenant!” – Me and you. Me and you motherfucker. Then he walks back into Paris. U similarly goes back in and re-engages with the whole system and there’s an energy to that decision that I wouldn’t call cynical. I think there’s a passionate engagement.
I read a statement recently, I can’t remember where I saw it but it stuck with me – “Films colonise the subconscious”. Speaking to you it’s clear that you’re enmeshed in literature and art and philosophy. Barely a sentence goes by in which you don’t make a reference to another work. Do you think everything you have read has colonised your subconscious?
I think we are enmeshed. We are a result of language, and history, and culture. There is no ‘I’ outside of that, that’s what we are. It’s like Roland Barthes says, “I don’t speak language, language speaks me.” Anything I could say about myself outside of talking about literature is kind of banal. I had a middle class upbringing steeped in literature and art, and then I decided to write. That’s most writer’s path. There’s no massive trauma in my life.
I think we are deeply enmeshed and this is kind of what my work is about, this enmeshing of any idea of the self with language, and technology and media. So yes films do colonise our subconscious. In fact we’d have no subconscious without some kind of reservoir of what Lacan calls ‘the symbolic order.’ The crackle and noise of communication. It’s the sea that we surf on and it’s beautiful. I see the task of the writer not as being to express some authentic self that exists outside of that but rather to tune in and sample, and remix that vast ocean of noise into some kind of seductive melody.
"The system blows itself up. The power stations don’t need terrorists and the trading systems don’t need hackers. They do it on their own."
So you’re saying that one should not try to be authentic or legitimately try to convey what their life is about?
I’m the co-author of the Joint Declaration on Inauthenticity with the philosopher Simon Critchley that was delivered first in New York and then later at the Tate, although the second time it wasn’t even us, we just got actors to do it because we thought that was more inauthentic. But the point we made in that was that authenticity is a fetish of western culture.
How do you define authenticity then?
It’s a fiction. It’s an advertising line – Be yourself. Be true to yourself by buying our shoes. Express yourself by using Facebook like everyone else.
But why is that narrative any more fake then one friend saying to another, “just be yourself”? That’s rubbish as well.
Yeah they’re both fake. Human consciousness begins with a radical inauthenticity and a desire to gather back the pieces that can never actually be achieved. This is what literature has always been about. This is what Cervantes’ Don Quixote is about. This guy wants to be authentic so he re-enacts moments of knights killing dragons from novels that he’s read. In order to become authentic he becomes even more wildly fictional than he was before, and I think this is part of the quandary of Western culture. We are part of widely dispersed networks of communication and ideology, and desire, and fantasy, and media, and on top of that we’re fed this narrative of absolute value and natural authenticity. I think any serious artist has to begin by questioning and totally dismantling this narrative.
I’m interested in how you straddle the worlds of the independent art community and the mainstream world. The movie of your first novel Remainder has just come out but you struggled to get that book published and it was eventually taken on by the arthouse world and published in Paris. Do you find somewhat of a push and pull between these worlds of popular and niche art?
I’m not sure the two worlds are wildly different. When Clementine (Deliss) published Remainder she was doing a residency program linked to the Pompidou, a very institutional space which receives enormous amounts of corporate backing. I did think when I started that all the independents are going to be very cool and avant-garde, and all the corporate ones are going to be very conservative. Interestingly it doesn’t map out like that. In America I publish with Knopf, who are part of Random House, like everybody virtually now, and the way that works is interesting. They’ve always got some cash cow. It used to be The Da Vinci Code and then it was Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t think they even correct the grammar in Fifty Shades of Grey, they just print it.
"The crackle and noise of communication. It’s the sea that we surf on and it’s beautiful."
Have you ever read Fifty Shades of Grey?
[Laughing] No. But within Knopf they publish all these great writers like Ben Marcus, Shelley Jackson, people that even a lot of the small independent presses don’t want to touch because they’re not commercial enough. So paradoxically having multiple imprints, some commercial and some literary, within a single organisation, can provide a buffer to be more adventurous editorially.
You don’t entertain the notion of selling out at all?
No because there is no outside to capitalism any more then there is an outside to language. We’re within this structure. It was great to publish with Clementine and I’m really happy I did and we’re still very good friends but where I’m at now it just wouldn’t make sense to do that. But there are new presses that have emerged since then. There’s one in the UK called Fitzcarraldo that’s doing absolutely brilliant things, bringing stuff into English that no one else would bother to do and publishing really adventurous new writing.
I just wanted to circle back to this topic of you as a person not a writer. What are your insecurities?
I don’t know. My main anxiety would be not being able to write another good book . . . well, beside all the boring anxieties about getting cancer or Brexit.
I’m trying to understand where your characters come from, because there doesn’t seem to be any trace of them in you as a person. I can’t see any insecurity –
There’s loads. I worry all the time about the writing not being good enough. It’s not like I’m this super confident writer. Satin Island took me four years to write and the first two or three drafts of every page were so bad I wanted to destroy my laptop in case they ever got out. There’s a lot of insecurity but I don’t know if anything I have to say about myself is that interesting.
It is interesting because you wrote this remarkable piece of work and people are understandably intrigued about where that came from.
But that piece of work came out of reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Michel de Certeau’s The Practise of Everyday Life. There were lots of books that I kept coming back to, and loads of anthropology magazines, just anthropologists talking shop in print about, I don’t know – if you get drunk with your subject, does that count as research? Stuff like that. So really that’s what the book came out of rather than any kind of personal trauma that we can separate from it. I’m personally invested in thinking about that stuff and other questions like, how does one write in an age of media saturation and data overload? These things are personal.
But at the same time, when I was up for the Booker Prize I had to go on these panels with other writers and people would keep asking, “Doesn’t writing terrify you?” And the other writers would say, “yeah its absolute terror!” And I thought – well come on, it’s not like being on a life-raft in the Mediterranean, not knowing if you will make it. That’s terror.
"I don’t know if anything I have to say about myself is that interesting."
Tom McCarthy on his personal life
You are fascinated by ideas of patterns, repetitions and re-enactments in your work. Can you explain this obsession?
Yeah so Remainder is all about re-enactments. The hero is obsessed with re-enacting certain moments, at first quite banal ones, and then it becomes bank heists and shoot outs, and he wants to make it more and more real even to the point where people are really being shot. The idea for the book was intuitive really, I was kind of stoned at this party one day and had a moment of déjà vu while staring at the wall, and I thought it would be great to re-enact this moment. Then I thought, where do you stop? Can you re-enact everything? It wasn’t a particularly intellectual moment, but of course if you’re immersed in literature you would straight away recognise Hamlet, who re-enacts his father’s death in front of the court, or Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby, who re-enacts the battle in which he got castrated, or J. G. Ballard’s Vaughan, who re-enacts car crashes in Crash. So there’s a rich literary history to re-enactment.
At the same time it’s just what you do as a child. You watch a football game on TV and then you go to a playground and you say, “let’s do that goal, I’ll be Kevin Keegan (that’s what it was when I was a kid) you be the goalkeeper, let’s do that bit where you dive to the left and I go to the right.” Whenever I go to watch cricket the bits I love the most is when the umpires are reviewing a decision and they replay that split second where the ball goes past the bat.
Yeah I remember you told this story about a conversation you had with a cricket commentator Henry Blofeld. You talked about how he lived out his whole life through commentating because he was never able to play professionally.
Yeah exactly, the role of the commentator within this spectacle. Something is happening, and there’s a melancholy to it of course. I find Blofeld amazing.
"When I was up for the Booker Prize... other writers would keep asking, “Doesn’t writing terrify you?” ... And I thought – well come on, it’s not like being on a life-raft in the Mediterranean, not knowing if you will make it. That’s terror."
On being a writer
Music is the thing that does that for me. I always go back to one artist and one song and re-enact that narrative. We all do it in one way or another, but what are we searching for?
That’s a very good question. I’d say it’s a search for the real.
So how is the “real” interpreted through our generation’s obsession with technology?
I mean there was never any pre-technological era. Technology begins with stone-aged people making tools. Western literature begins with an account of a signal crossing space in The Oresteia. Aeschylus describes the chain of signal beacons carrying news of Troy’s fall all across the thousands of miles of the Mediterranean basin and that’s a telegraph, a kind of internet. There’s never been a pre-technological era either for literature or for, well, humanity. But it gets staged in different ways. I’m fascinated by digital culture and the ever-faster feedback loops that this creates.
Yeah, and when those feedback loops get fast enough, what do we turn into?
Exactly. I think it’s like we’re gazing at the gorgon’s head and if you stare at it long enough you freeze and stare forever. I think it’s a really interesting and quite beautiful moment but also not without danger.
My last question is, are you going to release Koob Sassen as your next book? Because we all want to read the great report.
[Laughing] Well that’s the book that will never be written. If it were, that would be the end of everything and there would be nothing left to write. Perhaps all serious writing is an attempt to write that book, and no-one has ever succeeded.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy is out now on Vintage/Penguin Random House
It’s the most important novel ever written I think. It’s the great novel of modernity.
I’m obsessed with this book. He sits in a square for three days and writes what’s going on. Kind of like an anthropologist, except he’s just getting drunk in a café and watching, looking at the patterns. It’s got all the building blocks of a 19th century novel but nothing happening, it keeps dissipating. I’m going to teach a course at the Royal College of Art next year around this book.