The reception of Tom McCarthy’s most recent novel, C, recalls the hopes that were raised by his first. Famously rejected by all the major British publishing houses, Remainder was finally issued in a small edition by a Paris art house press. It quickly became a word-of-mouth success among artists and literary bloggers and was ultimately canonized as one of the best novels of the decade by Zadie Smith. In her long review essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” Smith argues that Remainder offers a much-needed alternative to “lyrical realism,” her name for the realist subject matter decked out in modernist trimmings that dominates the novel today. Smith has written in that mode herself, but she recognizes that it has become exhausted. Aesthetically, it is limited by its naïve faith in the power of language to represent reality and in the power of form to transfer reality, intact, into art. Ethically, it is undermined by its commitment to depicting “the essential fullness and continuity of the self,” to celebrating the “beautiful plentitude” within us all. Smith is not alone in this view: a number of reviewers took Remainder as an occasion to attack a contemporary novel whose formal approach has grown rote and whose humanism has become narcissistic. And weariness with the contemporary novel — its complacent mimesis, its throwback psychology — similarly motivated the immediate embrace of C. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker, and while it didn’t end up winning, it was the bookies’ favorite to do so. But unlike Remainder, a truly remarkable novel, C does not deserve the praise it has widely received. On the contrary, its obvious failures call into question the two claims that are often made on behalf of McCarthy: that the problem facing the contemporary novel is the persistence of realism, and that the solution is to be found, with McCarthy, among the avant-garde.
McCarthy first appeared on the cultural scene in 1999, as the general secretary of the International Necronautical Society. Announcing themselves through a manifesto published in the advertisements column of the London Times and providing supposedly “unauthorized” recordings of subsequent manifestos on their website, the necronauts follow the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century in making the manifesto a primary form of art. The necronauts are also influenced by a later avant-garde tradition: the various theorists who attacked the disciplines and genres of the academic world just as their predecessors had attacked the art world’s conventions. These theorists, lumped together now under the name of “French theory,” appear everywhere in the necronauts’ writings, as when the first manifesto concludes, with a familiar nod to Jacques Derrida, that “we are all necronauts, always, already.” The artistic avant-garde may have present-day descendants, in performance spaces and on the internet, if not in fiction, but the theoretical avant-garde does not: it has long since been institutionalized, its status securely fixed in critical editions and on syllabi. And perhaps this is why the necronauts lack the turbulent energies of a true avant-garde, contenting themselves instead with mere playfulness. They install their members in mock-serious offices: Simon Critchley is Chief Philosopher, Anthony Auerbach is Chief of Propaganda (Archiving and Epistemological Critique), and Melissa McCarthy is Chief Obituary Reviewer. They report on their activities to mock-serious organs, such as the Office of Anti-Matter or the Second First Committee. And they perform mock rituals of expulsion: members have been kicked out for the crime of writing what they were told to write (that is, for publication) or for the crime of still being alive (to be reinstated after their deaths). Taken together, the necronauts’ parody of an avant-garde movement, along with the various performance pieces that they have created and their manifestos and theoretical writings, constitute what McCarthy likes to call, with laddish misspelling, a “Gesamtcuntwerk.”
With the publication of C, however, McCarthy has begun describing his project in more serious terms. In a recent interview for the Guardian, he critiques the contemporary novels he had earlier been content to ignore, and he does so in precisely the same terms as those reviewers, such as Smith, who had celebrated him as a possible alternative. The contemporary novel has failed both aesthetically and ethically, he argues, because it has chosen to deny a century’s worth of “radical writers,” among them Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, and Franz Kafka; Georges Bataille and Emmanuel Levinas; Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. (This conflation of avant-garde theorists with writers who are canonically modernist, not avant-garde, into a single “radical” tradition is typical of McCarthy’s critical writings.) Instead of engaging with these writers, the contemporary novel has remained unthinkingly committed, as has culture more generally, to the ideals of “sentimental humanism” and “an ongoing rational enlightenment.” At best, these commitments leave the contemporary novel as benighted and irrelevant as creationists in the wake of Charles Darwin; at worst, they make the novel complicit with atrocity, most recently the Iraq War. What is needed, McCarthy argues, are novels ready to “go beyond” the provocations of the radical writers and “think through [their] implications” for our own day.
In an effort to do this, McCarthy has adopted an artistic practice, repetition, that decenters the human and explores logics other than the rational. Following Martin Heidegger in insisting that poets and philosophers must listen before they can speak, McCarthy transforms that almost mystical claim into something more ordinary by comparing it to the “écouter et répéter” of the language class. At times, such repetition merely repeats, as when the necronauts pre-record sound and insert it into a live performance, or hijack pirate radio stations and use them to rebroadcast different signals, or insert foreign code into a working computer system. At other times, repetition entails some kind of transformation. In these cases, the necronauts do not merely repeat: they also, as McCarthy variously describes it, “sample and remix” or “morph and re-arrange,” creating a kind of “collage or polyphony,” or simply a “strange enmeshing of things.” In this respect, McCarthy’s theoretical invocation thinly overlays a more common ambition among contemporary avant-garde writing — the linking of musical “remixing” with prose quoting, or what has been referred to in these pages as “the fantasy of writer as hip-hop DJ.”