Tom McCarthy, who I’m sure would never use a word with such uncool connotations to describe himself, is a fractal writer. By that I mean that his work, all of it, from his novels, to his nonfiction, to his quasi-performance art International Necronautical Society, all exists within a closed and self-referential system. Hewing to a grand tradition of modernist complexity, McCarthy’s work acts as a guide to itself. Everything is, in fact, made of itself. Everything is a skeleton key to more skeleton keys. A single paragraph in Satin Island is the entire novel condensed. An essay from his latest collection, Typewriter, Bombs, Jellyfish, is a model built to scale of McCarthy’s entire oeuvre. Maybe it’s because he’s such a dutiful student of entropy that his work lives in a taut reciprocation with itself, a closed system experiencing near zero energy loss while still emitting the eerie glow of consciousness.
Part of what helps McCarthy run such a tight ship is that he works specifically within a tradition. He’s as much an intellectual historian as a critic or novelist. He has to be, to do what he does. And if you want to imagine the genealogy that he works within, picture Mallarmé slowly morphing into a ‘68 protester, but freeze it halfway, so that the image blurs like a Gerhard Richter piece. Liberated by ambiguity, the figure could be any one of the usual suspects: Freud, Don DeLillo, Mann, Pynchon, Derrida, Barthes, Flaubert. McCarthy has managed to cultivate the non-death of modernism as an inheritance.
Tom McCarthy is a strong novelist because he draws so deeply from his chosen tradition. Simply put, he’s a retro-modernist. He doesn’t just make familiar mid-century literary themes such as repetition, authenticity, and absent authority seem cool again, he shows through his fiction how these themes have remained ever relevant in lives of all Westerners—recently created intersectional identities aside. And his words burn with the confident clarity of a disciple who has mastered his material. Take the begging of his latest novel, Satin Island, one of my favorite openings in recent literature. A protagonist called U, sitting in an airport in Italy, muses on the shroud of Turin, thinking:
People need foundation myths, some imprint of the year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality, of time: memory-chambers and oblivion-cellars, walls between eras, hallways that sweep us on towards the end-days and the coming whatever-it-is. We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen. When the shapeless plasma takes on form and resolution, like a fish approaching us through murky waters or an image looming into view from a noxious liquid in a darkroom, when it begins to coalesce into a figure that’s discernible, if ciphered, we can say: This is it, stirring, looming, even if it isn’t really, if it’s all just ink-blots.
He’s an impressive novelist, but his reverence for the modernist lineage also makes him a striking essayist. As a novelist, he forces himself into a specific field of thought and remains there. As an essayist, he is able to step outside of what he calls in “The Geometry of the Pressant”, an essay about Alain Robbe-Grillet, “the blind spot.” He is able to turn the camera on itself. And in doing so, he inflames his critical intelligence by drawing more explicitly from his professional speaking, intense engagement with visual art, and personal peccadillos.
Many of these speaking and art engagements have provided the opportunity for the writing of the essays in Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. “Recessional, or the Time of the Hammer” for instance, one of the strongest pieces in the collection, was originally a lecture given at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. “Recessional” begins with Tyrone Slothrop’s quest to recover “the Radiant Hour” in Gravity’s Rainbow and then moves on to Hans Castorp’s experience of time in The Magic Mountain before touching on Conrad, Faulkner, Mallarmé and MC Hammer, everything heavily colored by Freud and Derrida. Of course, the purposes of McCarthy parading this cast of usual suspects by the reader at such a frenetic pace isn’t simply to make his very interesting point about how time is experienced (or fails to be experienced, in the knotty double logic of modernism) in fiction, but the giddiness of returning to the scene of the crime, a re-opening of the cold case. Did the modernists and their eldest progeny fail to “solve” the problem of time and repetition in literature as many postmodernists claim? Typically, McCarthy feels as if they have, even though he knows that this can’t be the case: “Perhaps I’m hoping, in some paranoid (Pynchon-influenced) way, for a Eureka! Instant; hoping to unearth a codex, a Rosetta Stone that would decode this moment and its legacy, both outside of and within—even as—literature. That, of course, is as much a fantasy as the Romantic/tragic one of owning one’s own death: there is no single codex. But, I’d suggest, the closest thing we’re going to get to one is the corpus of Mallarmé…” All roads out of modernism lead McCarthy deeper into it, like a cursed town he can’t quite escape from.
“Recessional” functions well by the typical standards of the essay or lecture, but his most experimental and perhaps most interesting piece in the collection is “Kool Thing.” A mashup of essay, fiction, and autobiography (I’m taking the risk of assuming), the piece meanders from listening to Sonic Youth to the Patty Hearst trial and erotic reveries of Hearst as a kind of radical sex goddess (“Maybe all avant-gardes begin with gunpowder and a dream of a black panther.” One of the most liberated examples of McCarthy’s writing in the book comes during his cascading description of a paranoid William Randolph Hearst entertaining guests, which rolls into a sort of rhythmic incantation. Picking it up in media res, “…forbade them to speak of death, which made the word hang in the air unspoken all the time; stayed up long after they and all the butlers, gardeners, gamekeepers and switchboard operators had gone to sleep and, reclining on his four-poster beneath a painting of Napoleon alone before the Sphinx, would drift off to the sound of panthers shrieking in the night.”
On the Internet there’s a clip of an impromptu interview with Tom McCarthy. A female voice off camera asks the author what his favorite “c” word is. “Carbon”. His least favorite? “Conservative”, he sort of hiss-whispers. It’s an interesting answer, considering he’s put himself to the task of arguing for the continued relevance of modernism as he sees it. McCarthy is brilliant. He’s well aware that he’s working within a tradition. But tragically, he’s chosen fidelity to a bloc of thought that resists reverence, that by its very nature constantly undermines its own authority.
The writing in Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish is incandescently brilliant. It’s not a given that novelists are also great essayists, and so when it does happen it deserves to be celebrated. But it’s difficult to read McCarthy’s novels and essays and not feel claustrophobic while cloistered inside his closed loop of zero-point, end of history repetition. If the real is what repeats itself, as McCarthy claims, then there’s little hope for transcendence while trapped and harried by the mad logic of his infatuations. Chesterton wrote about this closed rationality in Orthodoxy, this “reason in the void.” He tells us that “The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.” And in the end, for all the erudition, that’s exactly what’s missing. The liberating mystery which cuts the knot completely.
Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.