“cras ingens iterabimus aequor”*
I have once again been unable to go against the grain of popular culture. Sacrificed my self to the stream of cultural monotony. Buried and killed off what little sense of identity once inhabited my individuality. With all this talk of Tom McCarthy paving the path of the brave new novel, I decided that I had to read him. In a desperate attempt to try and salvage a tiny bit of pride and not succumb entirely to the collective consciousness of culture, I decided not to read C but to go, instead, on a kind of archaeological excavation and start with his earlier works, his semi-fictitious avant garde movement the International Necronautical Society (INS), and his well-known first novel, Remainder.
The latter, famously described by Zadie Smith as one of the most important English novels of the past ten years, centres on a character who was hit by something falling from the air. He doesn’t know what happened but a friend sorts him out with a good lawyer and he becomes an overnight millionaire. The main story, however, is the protagonist’s obsessive quest to find authenticity (‘To be real – to become fluent, natural, to cut out the detour that sweeps us around what’s fundamental to events, preventing us from touching their core: the detour that makes us all second-hand and second-rate.’).
In many ways this is an anti-novel: there is no clear plot, no character development, and no clear-cut themes being tackled. McCarthy more than makes up for this, though, with his vivid descriptions of sight, sound and smell. And through the story itself; the seemingly pointless and plotless tale of a character overcoming some weird phobia of inauthenticity. With his influences deeply rooted in the modernist traditions, this book manages to do exactly what the main character sets out to do: strip away all the unnecessary clutter surrounding the essence of things. In this case, the essence, the kernel, the seed being kept from sprouting by surrounding undergrowth and shrubbery, is the story itself. The story of attaining authenticity by inhabiting a space overlooked by people when they go through their everyday life, an uninhabitable space perhaps best described as infinity, as death. A space that can be discovered by repeating events over and over again, breaking them down to their essence by slowing them down and analyzing each of its constituent moments.
To really understand McCarthy, though, one has to look beyond his novels and start with the INS, the avant garde organisation that publishes manifestos, proclamations, denunciations, has structured committees and sub-committees, as well as propaganda and hosting a number of events. It was created by McCarthy in 1999 when he handed out the first manifesto that revolves around the First Committee’s declaration, which includes amongst its points, ‘That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit’ and that ‘… Our bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.’
Really, the INS is a homage to McCarthy’s modernist influences, people like the literary theorist, anti-realist and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot and his, ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’, wherein he argues that literature uses words in a more profound way than everyday language does: in literature the meaning of words can be endless because they are removed from what they signify in the physical world and are able to give birth to ideas. This process that creates ideas, which is lost in everyday language, is at the core of literature: it is what literature occupies itself with. He goes on to draw parallels between this ‘space’ within which literature exists, and death, claiming that we cannot truly experience either because we can’t understand them due to their unearthly qualities.
It is precisely this space that seems to fascinate McCarthy so – it is this space that the necronauts of the INS inhabit, explore and map; it is this space that the character in Remainder seeks to inhabit by recreating events over and over again. Remainder and McCarthy’s personal philosophy is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s, The Music of Chance and Charlie Kaufman’s recent film, Synechode, NY. It grapples with questions of mortality, the meaning and purpose of life, authenticity, concepts of what constitutes art and beauty. In my eyes Tom McCarthy is to the exploration of life and death what David Attenborough is to nature and animals, and for once I am grateful that the current climate of the jungle that is popular culture has led me to down this path.
*“tomorrow we will set out upon the vast ocean”.
Check out Matthias Mueller’s excellent Cultural Constellations blog