Tom McCarthy: Mr. Modular

"Plugging literature into other literature"


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


We are not inclined to think of the book as technology. Indeed, it seems utterly foreign to our modern conception of tech, an antique thing in an age of silicon and diode light. But make no mistake: bound, linear text is a technological medium, as is the medium upon which it’s based — the phonetic alphabet (if we accept Marshall McLuhan’s definition of media as “an extension of the central nervous system.”) However, unlike other mediums, the book requires our participation — and by that I don’t mean our concentration, but rather our active involvement in its creation. What the needle is to the polyvinyl disc, or the projector to the celluloid strip, we are to the printed page––we are the instrument, the player, abstracting images from the text and spinning them in our heads.

The only writer I can think of who treats literature this way is Tom McCarthy. One of the preeminent avant-gardists of our time, McCarthy is literature’s Tesla, a writer for whom text is code and storytelling is transmission, a signal emanating from some indescribable airspace. Much of this is outlined in McCarthy’s essay Transmission and the Individual Remix (subtitled “How Literature Works”), in which he describes the acts of writing and reading as an antenna/receiver relationship. Literature is merely our method of broadcast, as we pick up on and modulate past signals — “their cadences, and echoes, their pulses, codas, loops” — and re-transmit them. What we think of as “tradition” is thus a kind of alternating current, shuttling back and forth between sources at various voltages and amplitudes. All creation, McCarthy argues, is synthesis: poets and novelists are like DJs, who sample and patch in order to create something new (a process he describes as “plugging literature into other literature”). Everything is constantly in flux, as voices overlap and tropes are encoded, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, Homer to Joyce.

McCarthy’s own influences, in this case, are not hard to track. His sense of character is heavily indebted to Kafka and Robbe-Grillet. His characters are not so much individuals as they are entities, delineated figures moving through their environments on ever-shifting trajectories. In Men in Space, characters crisscross the city of Prague, as if on a Cartesian plane, intersecting and near-missing as they asymptotically pursue an elusive painting. And in C. — an Edwardian-era bildungsroman — the protagonist, Serge, moves through the electric-industrial age via the sculpted networks of French trenches and Egyptian crypts. And when one of McCarthy’s characters suddenly strays from their path, it is less a “change of heart” than a Lucretian swerve, a random deviation in the system.

For instance, after a series of detritus-filled dreams, Q. — the narrator of Satin Island — is seized by the belief that he must visit Staten Island in New York City. He doesn’t know why — all he knows is that he must go there, and when the moment finally arrives, as passengers pour down the escalator and spill out onto the ferry, Q. reverses his course and decides not to go after all. “I was, as I mentioned, jet-lagged: disorientated, undirected,” he tells us. “I’d travelled down to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to take the ferry and not taken it, or perhaps just travelled down there to not take the ferry.”

McCarthy has inherited, á la Robbe-Grillet, the non-psychological approach of the French nouveau roman. We find none of the transformational psychology and sense of passage that is the MO of literary humanism: we are never told how a character feels, no one is ever happy or sad about anything — they are simply moved, in one direction or another. When Q. turns back at the last minute and opts not to do the thing that he previously so desperately needed to do, it is not out of disenchantment, but disinclination. It is Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” issued to the whole universe. We are not given an explanation, and to expect one is a false assumption.

Because McCarthy’s characters don’t “develop” in a traditional sense, any realizations they might otherwise reach are always denied. This runs counter to the idea of epiphany, which canonical literature (with its own pop psychology) has conditioned us to expect. Our literary instincts have been wired to anticipate moments of significance, where meaning unfolds itself (a quasi-Christian legacy that still grips most fiction). But this is anti-epiphany, whereby our stable literary humanism — based on notions of the Self as a solid, yet transcendent thing — is unsentimentally discarded.

As psychology vacates the novel, obsession steps in to take its place. Accordingly, McCarthy’s characters are driven by a pathological relationship to their reality, lurching from obsession to obsession at various amplifications. In the absence of passage, these amplifications are what gives the narrative its drive. In Remainder, the unnamed narrator constructs a series of elaborate recreations to simulate the intensity of an ebbing memory. As the novel progresses, these recreations scale upwards, and each escalation is accompanied by the same disappointment, at which point, the previous obsession becomes unimportant and a new one is installed. The same narrative progression can be seen in J.G. Ballard’s Crash (another visible influence on McCarthy), in which the narrator’s psycho-sexual obsessions with mangled frames (human and vehicular) approaches climax at the end of each chapter, only to “crash” and then reset.

McCarthy’s new novel, The Making of Incarnation, takes place in a Hobbesian universe, in which everything consists of matter and motion. The production of a science fiction film (the eponymous, Incarnation) becomes a kind of Manhattan Project for theories of motion. Incarnation is being bankrolled by a shadowy entity known as “Degree Zero” (tip of the cap to Roland Barthes), which draws a number of consultants and experts into its orbit. Like Ben Briar, the film’s “Realism Tsar” — contracted to ensure the big-budget picture doesn’t take any liberties with the laws of physics; or Anthony Garnett, the founder of Pantarey Motion Systems, a company providing cutting-edge motion capture technology for the film; and Monica Dean, whose research into the work of motion pioneer Lillian Gilbreth (known for her ergonomic studies of factory workers) discovers a correspondence with a Latvian physicist, Raivis Vanins, over an event known as the “T.T. episode,” whose findings are contained in Box 808, which has gone missing from the Gilbreth archives.

Box 808 may contain the secret to an ultimate theory of motion, a “‘higher’ or ‘absolute’ movement . . . ” which, Vanins believes, “changes everything.” At the same time, the mo-cap consultants on Incarnation (Garnett and Pilkington) get interested in Gilbreth and Vanins’ work in their quest for “a regime of total capture,” the implications of which may be practical, military, or spiritual. Guided by mysterious backers and bureaucracies, all characters are in pursuit of a pure geometric elegance that, like a self-weaving mobius, is “derived from no source other than itself.” The pursuit takes on an occult quality, approaching the edges of the mystical in a way reminiscent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which various preternatural phenomena and cultic rituals surround the construction of Rocket 00000.

The frame-narrative of Incarnation (the film) provides a thematic mise-en-abyme for the novel’s larger fixation with theories of motion. The film ends with a spacecraft’s cataclysmic plunge into a star, a spectacular sequence in which the ship will be shredded by its entry into the heliosphere, and ongoing debates between Garnett and Pilkington about how to convincingly depict this act as a kind of Socratic dialogue on the nature of mimesis. The novel is also interspersed with lengthy descriptions of wind tunnels and motion capture techniques, as well as digressions on Homer, Dante, ancient recording techniques, the murmuration of starlings, and the parade route of Franz Ferdinand on the day of his assassination. These sections showcase McCarthy’s Euclidean prose — brick-by-brick descriptions that are so lucid and jargon-sharp that at times they feel almost vertiginous:

The chamber is perfectly spherical: a cyst, or fishbowl, or giant helmet, floating eyeball, whose wall (feat of engineering) is formed of a single tempered sapphire-glass sheet. Inside, torquetums, dioptras, astrolabes and spectrohelioscopes nestle in soft velveteen moulds around a central standing console to whose upper surface is affixed a second and much smaller vitreous globe, a ‘reader’ capable of both ascertaining star positions and ascribing to newly encountered constellations, when its memory’s up to the task, tentative designations, whose names it, when required, projects across the larger dome’s interior, thereby aligning territory and map.

Or this passage, describing the sound of tunnel-wind being cut by a bobsled’s fins:

More than a duet, it’s a madrigal, with Aeolian minors, tritones and ascending sixths – all slightly off, but off by intervals that, while not uniform, seem coordinated, each one’s notch of off-ness corresponding, by some system which no earthly musicology could parse or measure, to that of the others. The image comes to him of electric pylons singing in the wind: lattices, cages, gantries, crossarms, wires all oscillating, voices humming each at their own frequency but intertwining, a hermetic cantus firmus.

Here, the language seems to rise above mere technicality to a point where it breaks free and becomes its own poetry. McCarthy has absorbed Wordsworth’s pledge that the writer and the scientist will one day walk hand-in-hand, “not only in those general indirect effects,” but in “carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself.” McCarthy writes about bodies in motion the way Newton and Kepler did — not as physics, but as heavenly mechanics.

Many novelists are oddly incurious and/or ignorant of hard science. C.P. Snow described this apartheid between artists and scientists in his book The Two Cultures (incidentally also the name of the firm that employs Briar). And when novelists do reach for science, they often do so shallowly, or journalistically, skimming Wikipedia pages to glean however much they need to get by. But McCarthy braids the investigative spirit that is common to both the scientist and novelist in the same way that Melville or Pynchon does. This sometimes requires commitment to an extent that can be tedious for readers, not because the writer is being unkind, but because the reader is unconditioned. It is not mere longueur that frustrates us in having to learn at such length about sperm whales or rocket physics, it is the literary reader’s estrangement from this province of knowledge.

For McCarthy’s characters, the obsessive ascent toward a kind of total knowledge dissolves the boundaries between what Stephen Jay Gould called the “non-overlapping magisteria” of the scientific and religious worldviews. Garnett and Pilkington, in their quest to accurately capture their starship’s crash, seek an essential formula for destruction, a “totality that hovers spectral above every partial iteration.” Both men are disciples of one innovator in cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, who at one point is referred to as a “prophet, messiah and apostle.” “There was something in his vision,” we’re told, “that transcended informatics, systems- or game-theory; something Garnett thought he’d left behind with Aeschylus, Catullus, Sappho: a condition best denoted by the old, unscientific label poetry.” For Garnett and Pilkington, both atheists, this is “as close as either of them came to having a religion.”

Almost all of McCarthy’s novels are variations on the grail quest, the pursuit of some spectral artifact or hidden wisdom that will bestow a kind of grace and resolve all earthly asymmetries. In The Making of Incarnation, the mystical McGuffin is Box 808; in Men in Space, it is a piece of counterfeit iconography which depicts an ascendant saint, a messianic figure rising into the blue ether. In Satin Island, it is “The Great Report” — a grand theory of everything; and in C. it is an ur-circuit, a hidden ground that connects all things. McCarthy’s characters, consequently, are always searching for purity of form, a kind of Platonic knowledge reached through immersion, recreation, simulation, or replication, with such devotion that the merely physical eventually takes the form of something transcendent, the way repetition becomes ritual.

This is also, McCarthy tells us, precisely what occurs in the process of writing — a recreational act that plays and replays the same eternal and unquenchable longing for perfection. “Writing’s origin will always lie within this blind spot off the map and out of time,” he writes in Transmission and the Individual Remix, and “ . . . every significant literary work enacts, or re-enacts… the doomed escapade of attempting to retrieve it . . . ” It is this Icarian rise and fall that the novelist runs and reruns in their search for the source code of literature itself, thus embedding in the tradition a kind of infinite loop, one that cycles endlessly from destruction to creation, revelation to incarnation, always and inevitably leading back to its own point of origin. •