Jul 122017

McCarthy’s MC Hammer-Conrad connection speaks to the collection’s willingness to not only grant credence to the highbrow and the lowbrow in equal measure, but is also a call to ignore brow-ness altogether. As a consequence, the more disparate the subject matter McCarthy chooses to splice, the more surprising, and, yes, whimsical, the results end up. — Andrew MacDonald 

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish
Tom McCarthy
New York Review Books, 2017
$16.95, 288 pages

Before he made the avant garde novel cool again, Tom McCarthy was having trouble getting his first book, Remainder, past the marketing departments of big publishers. It was too weird, the plot too circuitous and repetitive. Eventually Metronome, a small art house publisher, took the novel on. It became a word-of-mouth success, the buzz culminating in a Zadie Smith review, ranking it among the greatest works of the last ten years. The rest, as they say, is history, though McCarthy himself would likely object to such a fraught, limiting term. Since Remainder, McCarthy has produced a book-length critical work on TinTin, the Booker shortlisted C, described by Jennifer Egan as “Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs,” and another Booker-shortlisted novel, Satin Island, about someone named “U” who works for “the Company.” Given the success of his novels, it’s easy to overlook the dozen plus short critical pieces McCarthy has written about literature, art, technology and culture. With the publication of Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, a collection of fifteen of those brilliant, challenging, and at times frustrating essays, readers have the chance to appreciate the intellect behind McCarthy’s longer fictional work.

The essays in Jellyfish cover broad terrain, from the films of David Lynch to the novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Some of the pieces, like “Why Ulysses Matters,” started as invited talks or lectures; others found their way into places like Artforum or, as is the case with “18 Semiconnected Thoughts on Michel de Certeau, On Kawara, Fly fishing, and Various Other Things,” museum catalogues accompanying exhibits at the Guggenheim. Others tread more conventional paths, becoming introductions to critical works (like Kafka’s Letter to his Father) and critical essays The Guardian. They are a potpourri of critical thought that the author likens to masses of the eponymous seafaring invertebrates that often reach “a critical mass of goo in circulation . . . coming back, lodging, sticking.”

The obsession with discursive circulation, of coming back in loops to stick, lodge, and accrete, is among the collection’s chief interests. In “From Feedback to Reflux: Kafka’s Cybernetics of Revolt,” McCarthy contends that “no other writer…has presented a more fundamentally cybernetic aesthetic than Kafka.” Lest one confuse the term “cybernetics” with computational technology, McCarthy defines the term, coined by Norbert Wiener, as “a networked mechanism formed of and driven by a set of circuits, relays and, most importantly, feedback loops.” From K, the surveyor of Kafka’s The Castle‘s endless attempts to gain access, to the mise en abyme of judicial infrastructure Josef K must face in The Trial, McCarthy sees Kafka presaging the NSA and Google – institutional structures that contain loop after loop of information within themselves.

While the feedback loops of cybernetics are “corrective,” McCarthy dubs those in Kafka’s writings as “fuckuptive” – that is, the response pattern the loops engender is self-defeating. Put another way: “the circuitry or system-architecture here is configured in such a way as to render unworkable any operation that the user (Kafka) might actually want to use it to perform.”

Among the system-architecture of which McCarthy, a champion of the avant garde, is particularly distrustful is the ism – positivism, moralism, psychologism. In “Get Real, or What Jellyfish Have to Tell Us About Literature,” he presents us with a lengthy excerpt from Ford Maddox Ford to show how conventional realism, with its compulsive urge to reshape in accordance with post-facto logic, is at odds with “how both events and memory of them proceed: associatively, digressing, sliding, jolting, looping.” By creating fertile ground for the associative, the 20th century avant-garde, McCarthy argues, gets “the real” more than their 19th century counterparts, who, to their credit (and in opposition to those writing today who take up the ‘realist’ banner) nonetheless “fully appreciate the scaffolding of artifice holding their carefully wrought edifices up.”

Scaffolding, artifices, edifices – readers will detect in McCarthy’s lexicon more than trace amounts of the post-modernist’s distrust of tautologies. In an interview with The Guardian, McCarthy tells us that “the avant garde can’t be ignored, so to ignore it – as most humanist British novelists do – is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin.” Those who do are, in McCarthy’s eyes, “just a creationist” with “ostrich-like” tendencies.

When it comes to understanding McCarthy’s modus operandi, his role as “general secretary” of the International Necronautical Society is as good a place to start as any. Together with philosopher Simon Critchley, McCarthy founded the INS, a semi-parodic, semi-serious, maybe-performance-art-but-that’s-missing-the-point organization “devoted to mind-bending projects that would do for death what the Surrealists had done for sex.” Among the INS’s more public hijinks are cryptic radio broadcasts, the hacking of the BBC website, exhibits that may be called art and hearings with committees that may, or may not, host officials and organization members with such lofty (and possibly made-up) titles as INS Chief Obituary Reviewer, and INS Chief or Propaganda (Archiving and Epistemological Critique).


And maybe, a reviewer of the critical work of McCarthy might be inclined to say, the blurring between the factual and the fictional is perhaps the point. Or, possibly more accurately, that the point is to reject the ism of easy dichotomies altogether, in favor of more freewheeling signification, where meanings are swapped, integrated and ousted.

Take, for example, the weather. An early essay in the collection, “Meteomedia,” draws richly from sources as diverse as Seneca and close to home as McCarthy’s own apartment to arrive at a thesis possessing unmistakable echoes of McLuhan: not only is the meteorological a medium, it also constitutes media. “Like all media,” writes McCarthy of the weather, “it bears a plethora of messages – perhaps even the message – while simultaneously supplying no more than conversational, neutral, white noise.” Moreover, like a tree falling in the woods without its audience, so too is weather as media devoid of signal without an audience to receive it.

“Stabbing the Olive,” an essay on Jean-Philippe Toussaint, poses another mind-cruncher that nobody in history, apart from McCarthy, has likely asked: do Toussaint’s novels engage in “deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalizing literary deconstruction?” For McCarthy, and, eventually, his readers too, the distinction is everything. McCarthy sees in much of the work of Toussaint a refiguring of structure, a gesture away from the ism of realism: “we don’t want plot, depth, or content,” he notes, “we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content; geometry is everything.” He goes deeper: “We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a plot in or traverse a grid: an implicit philosophical assert that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze.”

Passages like that, theory-rich and many-claused, will likely alienate some readers and entice others. However, a strength of the collection, and of McCarthy-as-Teacher (separate from McCarthy-as-Critical-Theorist), is his instinct for strategic simplification; he seems to know just how far to push his reader out to sea before throwing out a floatation device. He corks the above meditation on grids and subjectivity plotted thereupon by asking if there is a “retro-move going on [in later Toussaint]? A crypto-reactionary step backwards towards humanism, sentimentalism, positivism, and the whole gamut of bad isms that the vanguard twentieth-century novel has expended so much effort overcoming.” His answer: hard to say. Challenged to the point of breathlessness, we likely feel the same way and are, at the very least, enlivened at being privy to the discussion.

Devotees to art and film will also find much to love in the collection, since many of McCarthy’s finest essays focus on art and film. His piece on the painter Gerhard Richter, for example, expertly knits complex visual theory to practical visual analysis. For McCarthy, Richter’s work resists easy categorization, “reducing these binaries” – concept vs. craft-based, abstract vs. figurative – “to rubble.” Richter’s trademark is the blur, “a corruption of an image, an assault upon its clarity, one that turns transparent lenses into opaque shower curtains, gauzy veils.” Corruption becomes clarity, the transparent becomes gauzy – McCarthy’s critical skillset allows him to reconcile inverse values, creating, as all great paradoxes (and artistic works) do, a new species of idea.

McCarthy’s finest creation might be his essay on “The Prosthetic Imagination” of David Lynch. Casual viewers may have missed the proliferation of prosthetics in Lynch; not so with McCarthy, who notes that “the continual, almost systematic replacement in [Lynch’s] films of body parts and faculties by instruments…produces is a whole prosthetic order, a world of which prosthesis is not just a feature but a fundamental term, an ontological condition.” McCarthy sees the first of Lynch’s problem films (so-called) as “the outsourcing of the self and of reality to their prostheses.” Ditto Mulholland Drive, where “technology is no longer an appendage to the human; rather, humans have become technology’s prosthesis.” In the end, the prosthete serves those very bodily additions: prosthesis becomes puppetry, the prosthete a marionette.

Big ideas are at play here, but it would be a mistake to ignore the undercurrent of whimsy, wit, irony, and playfulness that flows beneath the surface of most essays in Jellyfish.

Exhibit A: first published in an anthology of fiction inspired by Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing” bears the provocative subtitle “Why I want to Fuck Patty Hearst.” McCarthy catalogues a panoply of Hearsts, dating to when he first heard the Sonic Youth song “Kool Thing,” featuring Hearst as lead singer. We get Marxist Patty Hearsts calling her parents bourgeois pigs, Patty Hearst as pulp novel-heroine, Patty Hearst as Che’s lover, then Patty Hearst as gaming heroine Lara Croft – Patty Hearst “multiplying into a thousand different women” before attaining one of the most addictive metonyms out there – the Patty Hearst McCarthy wants to fuck as America, “all of it, sitting in a motel bedroom, watching the apocalypse on television.”

For Exhibit B (Whimsy, McCarthy’s Use Thereof), see, “Recessional, or the Time of the Hammer,” a study of fictional time, from Conrad to Pynchon. The essay features a curious aside in which McCarthy describes listening to MC Hammer during the essay’s creation and finding, on some associative level, a niggling link between Hammer’s hit, “U Can’t Touch This,” and the writing of Conrad. The collision is no accident, for, as McCarthy laconically, notes, “for doesn’t [Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”], like Conrad’s novella, feature a black man who tells us to wait?”

Cue guffaw.

McCarthy’s MC Hammer-Conrad connection speaks to the collection’s willingness to not only grant credence to the highbrow and the lowbrow in equal measure, but is also a call to ignore brow-ness altogether. As a consequence, the more disparate the subject matter McCarthy chooses to splice, the more surprising, and, yes, whimsical, the results end up.

The intrusion of MC Hammer highlights another of McCarthy’s habits – a willingness to use meta-textual asides where the author, in mid-writing, pauses to comment on the text he is in the middle of generating.

More Exhibits for the Court to consider:

While exploring the connection between jellyfish and literature, McCarthy writes: “As I wrote this essay I couldn’t remember what it was that Van has brought Mrs. Tapirov”;

Contending with the warp-speed productivity of the French novelist Toussaint, McCarthy informs us that “in the time’s taken me to write this piece, it seems [Toussaint]’s managed to knock out yet another novel”;

Finally, another essay with fixes itself at the time of its own creation: “Alain Robbe-Grillet died while I was writing this essay”.

McCarthy the funster, meet McCarthy the astute critic and thinker.

The production of text, wherein McCarthy has, for example, forgotten a detail and makes the choice to record that forgetting, and the reanimation of the forgetting, for the reader who now takes part, however ephemerally, in the construction of the very text he or she is reading, all of which could have been avoided had McCarthy, in the editing room, simply inserted the information forgotten in the first place.

Which is, given what we’ve covered so far, a lot to wrap one’s head around.

But you don’t need to dig this deep to enjoy the collection. Eating breakfast cereal with a spoon once used by a famous person can still be used effectively to eat breakfast cereal, whether or not it possesses that extra Benjamin-ian aura that comes with close contact with celebrity or fame[1].

In his essay on Richter, McCarthy introduces us to the term ansehnlich, “or ‘considerable,’ to describe the effect of rescuing an image from the endless rush of media and paying it the attention – the devotion, we could say – of crafting it into a unique work of art.” This is, in the end, what McCarthy seems to be after when he takes on his disparate subjects; his essays are devotionals in their own right, not fawning or strict in the sense of worship, but rather in the compulsive attention paid to each of them.

— Andrew MacDonald


Andrew MacDonald won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction, has been shortlisted for two Canadian National Magazine Awards for Fiction, and is a four-time finalist for the Journey Prize. He has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and lives in New England and Toronto, where he’s finishing a novel.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Immersion in McCarthy’s critical works will also have the pleasantly deleterious effect of making its readers search for complicated metaphors to explain the world.

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