An Interview with Tom McCarthy

Writers who like encryption:
Thomas Pynchon
William S. Burroughs
James Joyce
Jean Cocteau

An Interview with Tom McCarthy

Writers who like encryption:
Thomas Pynchon
William S. Burroughs
James Joyce
Jean Cocteau

An Interview with Tom McCarthy

Mark Alizart
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Tom McCarthy’s severely ambitious first novel, Remainder, is one of those books that blurs the gap between philosophy, fiction, and art happening (see the novel’s Believer Book Award in this issue for accolades and description). His recent book-length essay, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, follows the same hybridized suit, deconstructing the Belgian comic book series, literary-theory style. It investigates Tintin creator Hergé’s process of “encrypting” autobiographical material into The Adventures of Tintin, and then compares it to Balzac, Barthes, Bataille, and Derrida. His next two novels, C and the partly autobiographical Men in Space, will be published by Vintage in 2009-10.

McCarthy is also the general secretary of something called the International Necronautical Society (INS), a nebulous project he founded as a nod to all the great manifesto-based, turn-of-the-century, avant-garde art movements. Since 1999, he’s accreted a network of artists and writers with the vague purpose of “mapping out” death. He has described it as “a construct, just like the IMF or Catholic Church are constructs—and like all constructs, it involves both fictions and realities.” The society revolves around essays, meetings, grand proclamations, and “half-corporate, half-Soviet” events with names like the Second First Committee Hearings. They have hacked into the BBC website, converting it into a secret message board; they have held an event called “The New York Declaration: INS Statement on Inauthenticity,” which is rumored to never have happened; and in the near future, they will install a black box transmitter into Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art.

This conversation was conducted in November, 2007, at the Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris, by Mark Alizart, the museum’s curator. No one brought a recording device, so the interview had to be held in the auditorium, using the stage microphones. Except for the recording technician, there was no audience.

—Mark Alizart


THE BELIEVER: Your work is so obsessed, in its own way, with crypts. I mean to say, you have written many books already, novels, callings (or hearings, sorry), and an essay on Tintin, called Tintin and the Secret of Literature, in which you explain that there is a secret behind Tintin, which is linked to this question of mourning and crypts. You even play on the word. A crypt is a place where you bury your dead, but also, you will find it in the words encryption and decipher.

TOM McCARTHY: Well, cryptos means hidden, anything buried.

BLVR: So this is the turning point between the actual object, the crypt, and the structure of encryption.

TM: Yeah, well, this merging—of what you might call the semiotic or linguistic, on one hand, and the architecture, on the other—I first came across this when, as General Secretary of the INS, I was holding hearings, and we interrogated the British artist Cerith Wyn Evans, who’d done a lot of work that involved, for example, Morse-code-encrypted passages of Georges Bataille and Merleau-Ponty being transmitted across from buildings with their lights going on-and-off across London. And during these hearings he used the term “crypt,” and I pulled him up on it. “What do you mean, ‘the crypt?’” He used it as a noun. And he started talking about these psychoanalytic writers, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, who’d done research into Freud, into the case history of “the Wolf Man.” And, subsequently, I went and read them. And their work is absolutely fascinating.

Freud, if he was one thing only, was a great Gothic novelist. And The Wolf Man is a wonderfully rich account of this wealthy young Russian who has a childhood trauma involving incest and then sibling death—his sister dies. Later, this produces a kind of neurosis in his adult life. Freud compares his mental landscape to a kind of tomb, a pyramid, and Freud compares himself to an Egyptologist who, like Indiana Jones, has to go inside and decipher all of the inscriptions on the walls.

When Abraham and Torok revisit this case history they say, well, what Freud is really talking about is not a pyramid; it’s a crypt. And it’s a site—it’s a linguistic site of encryption. I mean, psychoanalysis is “the listening cure.” The psychoanalyst tunes in to the patient almost like a kind of radio ham tuning into some mysterious frequency, and what they find when they tune in, via Freud, to his patient, is this kind of double eavesdropping in this multilinguistic zone, ’cause the wolf man was first Russian, then spoke English and French, and is talking to Freud in German. They find this kind of polyglottal crackling zone of words, which contain images and memories and associations, kind of encrypting one another to produce this weird neurosis, almost like a linguistic tumor. And I found that very, very compelling.

After doing this research I actually set up a radio station at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, which was conceived absolutely as a crypt and we transmitted enmeshed messages.

BLVR: Yeah, we’ve got to say a word on these radios, because they appear also in many of your essays. Mainly in Calling All Agents, which comes back to Cocteau’s invented radio.

TM: That’s right.

BLVR: And messages, encrypted messages as a crucial military strategic way of communicating to agents—from hell to earth, in Cocteau’s case—but which gave birth to a real technique used in the Second World War. So this is very, very important, not only in symbolic terms, but also in real—

TM: —in actual political-historical… I mean, the starting point was, I was fascinated with this moment in Jean Cocteau’s 1949/1950 film Orphée—his retelling of the Orpheus myth—where this dead poet, Cégeste, after he’s dead, he sets up almost like a pirate-radio transmitter, and he transmits these short lines of poetry, these urgent messages. Orphée, who’s alive, picks them up on his car radio between stations—it’s not a registered radio station. And he is completely compelled by these messages. They say things like, “Listen, the bird paints with his fingers, two times. I repeat…” and then it repeats. Or “Silence goes more quickly when played backward. Listen, two times.” And then there is a chain of numbers and general sound of static and things. And it seemed to me, when I saw the film, that Cocteau was onto something. He’d intuited some essential relationship between technology, poetry, and desire.

And when I looked into it further I found that Cocteau had kind of stolen the idea, if you like, or had gotten the idea from World War II, when the British Secret Services were transmitting into occupied France, these lines of poetry, just like in the movie. Ninety-nine out of every hundred meant absolutely nothing, but every hundredth or two-hundredth was code for, like, “Now, blow up the bridge.” “Now, assassinate the colonel.” So, of course, the Germans didn’t know which was which. So they’re listening to them, looking for patterns of recognition and trying to crack them.

That was the starting point for the project that I ended up doing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts: sending out these radio messages, trying to open up this kind of sub-official, subliminal frequency that was at once an aesthetic project and a political one, I guess.

BLVR: There has been a craze in England, and I believe in America, for secret-message books. I don’t know if you’ve seen these. There’s a very big book written on mathematics and codes that goes from the first alphabetical transmutations to Turing’s deciphering of ENIGMA. How do you explain this interest for the public, for wider readers, for secret messages and codes?

TM: I think it’s a populist manifestation of Calvinist culture, basically. For the Calvinists, we were living in a world of signs. As Francis Bacon said, “Nature is God’s second book.” It’s a text—it needs to be interpreted. I mean, you get it in the Greeks, in Virgil—every flight path of a sparrow or movement of an ant over a tuft of ground is a message. It is a sign—it needs interpretation. In more modern literature you get this sensibility very much in the work of Thomas Pynchon or William Burroughs, the sense that we are living in a world of signs, that there’s an order behind the visible that needs to be drawn out through interpretation.

And I guess this manifests itself in many ways, in more subcultural formats. Even in the paranoia of the Christian parents of America who want to listen to Iron Maiden records backward and find the Satanist messages in them. Of course, maybe one in every hundred chance “message” that emerges could be construed as Satanist—the others turn out to be things like “Give me a peppermint,” or “It smells of fish.”

BLVR: Does that mean there is a kind of global neurosis acting behind us? This is what Jameson says in his last book on paranoia and capitalism. You talked of Burroughs. This was something he was involved in a lot.

TM: Burroughs was a big influence on this ICA project, too. I mean, his idea of the cut-up and of viral media…. For him, cutting up text and cutting up newspapers and reordering them was not just in order to produce something nice or pretty. He genuinely believed that this was a not just politically, but a metaphysically subversive act. You know, God really exists for him, and he’s a fucker. He’s manifested through the CIA, the FBI, the corporations, the boards, the syndicates, the media outlets, Time-Warner, and so on, that control our planet. And to kill God, which has been the great aim of the avant-garde from the Lettrists onward, we need to cut up the media. We need to cut it up and rearrange it. And this will bring it crashing down, in a sort of short circuit. I think this is absolutely commendable.

BLVR: Your references are wide—Hergé, Nabokov, Burroughs, and others, but most of all, you tend to read lots of French authors from the ’60s. I mentioned structuralism—you feel close to this, I imagine. And how would you say this has evolved? Because these books, they’re not widely read any more.

TM: I’ve got a quite long-term view of cultural history. I mean, after 9/11, people were saying you should write directly about this. But I think, read the Oresteia by Aeschylus, it’s about this, it’s about power, terror, media, violence, and notions of justice and retribution. If you want to understand 9/11, read Greek tragedy.


BLVR: You wrote Remainder two years ago.

TM: I wrote it and finished it in 2001. It took one year to write and three years to find a publisher.

BLVR: And it can be said to also be about encryption and the way something which is not known, a souvenir, a reminiscence, reactivates this history that the hero does not even know about, and makes him act in a way of himself, building his own crypt and encrypting this not-known memory inside different events, which lead him to a bank robbery. So I’d say there was the storyline, which is related to all we’ve said and talked about. And then I’ve got to ask you, as a novelist, have you encrypted things in your book? Do you have this vision of writing in-itself as a way of pursuing your questions?

TM: Yes. On a superficial level, there is a lot of literary encryption going on in Remainder. For example, the building that he constructs in order to replay his displaced trauma memories, or his constructed memories of a time before the trauma, is called Madlyn Mansions, which is kind of a reference to Proust and the madeleine, which is the memory trigger for him. And there are other things. There is a whole sequence that is almost exactly paralleling the rhetorical pattern of the opening of Kafka’s The Great Wall of China, when he’s talking about how he went about building the house.

But, in a way, that doesn’t matter, I mean that’s kind of cute if you want to notice it. And in fact, if it were conscious, were it really explicit, if the hero had been an intellectual and said, “Oh, this is a bit like Proust,” then the novel would be over then and there, and you don’t need to write it. So it’s quite important that whatever influence is going on there does get buried. In that respect, encryption is actually an absolutely fundamental necessity in order to do something new, otherwise we are just annotating the old stuff.

BLVR: But you don’t seem to be interested in things that interested that generation, which worked around encryption and language and symbols. I am thinking of Alain Robbe-Grillet. You’re not a nouveau romancier.

TM: No.

BLVR: You don’t transmute yourself, words, or letters, or cut-up, or fold-in your text. You write in a simple way.

TM: Absolutely.

BLVR: How do you feel reading someone like Mark Danielewski, for instance?

TM: Oh, I was just reading him today. I’ve been reading Only Revolutions. Here’s the thing, right, Finnegans Wake—Joyce thought it was the last novel. He thought this was the novel in which the destiny of literature would realize itself. It was the event that we have been waiting for all of these years. And he literally thought it would be the last novel. It would be (a) unnecessary and (b) impossible to write a novel, I mean a proper novel, a serious novel, after Finnegans Wake. Now, in a way, if you have this linear-progressive view of literary or cultural history, then it is quite hard to see that he wasn’t right. But I have tried to argue, in the past, that he was exactly, I mean exactly, wrong—that Finnegans Wake is actually the first book. It is the source code of the novel. It contains everything from the picaresque Spanish, to the Anglo-Saxon novel, through Shakespeare and everything else. It eviscerates them and lays them open, but doesn’t resolve anything.

So, I don’t buy into the idea of progress, that we need to go beyond Joyce in terms of form. I think there are other things to do. Once we’ve observed the big bang in physics we don’t all just dissolve into space. We do other stuff that’s enabled by that. This goes back to what you were asking about Robbe-Grillet or Burroughs, who are writers I have a huge, huge admiration for. And you know, in my early twenties I used to copy passages of Burroughs out and make diagrams of sequences of Robbe-Grillet. But I don’t just want to imitate them or take what is most superficial about them and add one to that. I would rather do something that makes sense at a more intuitive level.


BLVR: There is also something specific about your work: it is very closely linked to contemporary art and artists. Maybe you can say a word about this, because it doesn’t happen that often that writers are interested in contemporary art, and reciprocally. I wouldn’t know how to present you, if you’re a writer, or a philosopher, or if you’re an artist because you have been all of them at the same time, really.

TM: I mean, in the current climate in the UK, publishing is a very, very conservative field. Editorial decisions are taken by marketing boards. There isn’t really much room for something that isn’t middle-of-the-road. On the other hand, in the art world—you can’t help noticing if you mix, as I do, with one foot or one toe in the publishing world and nine toes in the art world—it’s the artists who are extremely literate. In the current climate, art has become the place where literary ideas are received, debated, and creatively transformed. You mentioned Robbe-Grillet—I know several artists that are doing works based on his novels. Most artists I know have read Beckett, have read Burroughs, have read Faulkner. For example, one of the real structural understandings of great literature, from Greek tragedy to Beckett and Faulkner, is that it’s an event. It’s not something that you can contain and narrate, but it’s like this seismic set of ripples that goes on through time, backward and forward. Contemporary novelists don’t really understand that, but contemporary artists do.

Look at all the people like Jeremy Deller, Rod Dickinson, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, whose work consists of staging reenactments, like a historical society, of events and showing an awareness of the kind of inauthenticity and mediation within that.

So, for example, Rod Dickinson had the Milgram experiment, the “obedience to authority” experiment from the ’60s, in which people were led to believe they were torturing other people to help them learn, but which was really a set-up to see how far normal people would go when someone in a white coat was giving them instructions. He had it reenacted in real time. It was actually a very boring piece of art, as he himself said. But it was brilliant. The original experiment was a fake, involving actors, so he had actors playing actors that were encrypting the Holocaust. Milgram devised the original experiment after reading Hannah Arendt’s account of the Nuremberg Trials, where all these Nazis said, “Well, I was only following orders.” So there is an extremely complex event structure going on there—a set of ripples encoding other ripples, replaying them, sort of navigating their own memorial landscape, their own media landscape.

And this is just an example, but that’s an artist who I’d say is absolutely aware of the kind of drivers that you find in the work of someone like Beckett or Faulkner and in a way that the contemporary middlebrow novel simply is not. The latter takes all that for granted. It’s not proper literature.

BLVR: Right.

TM: Maybe it is quite unusual now for a novelist to be very involved in contemporary art, and vice versa, but look back to the Futurists, for example, I mean what Marinetti did: regenerate writing by hurling it, dragging it into the whirling blades of cinema and mechanical reproduction. If you want to describe a machine gun, don’t just write about it, let it erupt across the page diagonally and in bold print. Or if you look at Mallarmé, you know that famous—I don’t know what to call it—poem/manifesto/proposition, Un Coup De Des (A Throw of Dice)—it’s as much a painting as it is a narrative. And the blank spaces in it are as vital as the actual words. Or the Surrealists. This continual negotiation between image and words, and words and image. I think the formats need to keep going to one another in order not to ossify.

I think, probably the greatest living artist, at the moment, is David Lynch, and for me, his films are extremely novelistic, although he describes himself as a visual artist, not a filmmaker. So there’s a triangulation going on there, in which all the forms are flowing in and getting thrown up in the air. And that’s exactly what needs to happen.

BLVR: This question of reenactment, which is essential to contemporary art and to your writing, would maybe make us go toward very broad postmodern concepts like repetition, the fact that everything has already been done, authenticity, fakeness—but when I read your books, I don’t seem to be reading a Baudrillardian writing. There is something very different about the way that you relate with postmodernity. I don’t think you’re a postmodern writer, really.

TM: I mean, I am a traditionalist. I am quite conservative. I’ve read Baudrillard, but Plato said it all. The idea of the simulacra being a copy without an original, which is Baudrillard’s big selling point—it’s in the Sophist by Plato. Lots of people described Remainder as a very postmodern book, because there is this guy reenacting very stylized moments in a bid for authenticity, and in the postmodern era, they say, we don’t have authenticity. But I was thinking as much of Don Quixote, the first novel, or one of the first novels, which is exactly the same. It is about a guy feeling inauthentic in 1605 and in a bid to acquire, to accede to authenticity, he reenacts moments from penny novels, the kind of TV of its day. So I think you have to be a bit careful about this cult of newness, the idea that somehow, post-about-1962, we’re suddenly postmodern—It just ain’t so. There’s always a precedent.

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