Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish by Tom McCarthy

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays BY Tom McCarthy. New York Review Books. Paperback, 288 pages. $16.
The cover of Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays

For a writer convinced that originality is a myth, Tom McCarthy publishes new work with impressive regularity. The essays in Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish were written between 2002 and 2016 and began life as magazine pieces, reviews, introductions, and lectures. In that time, McCarthy also published four novels (Men in Space, Remainder, C, and Satin Island) and the book-length study Tin-Tin and the Secret of Literature. The essays in this collection mostly continue that book’s concern with two interrelated sets of texts: avant-garde literature and French theory. This makes McCarthy something of an outlier, even among other avant-garde novelists (if that term even means anything at this point). Novelists, for the most part, seem to be allergic to theory, preferring talk of “craft” over continental philosophy. There are some exceptions, notably Kathy Acker, about whom McCarthy writes in the collection’s final essay. But McCarthy is at least as indebted to icons of high theory like Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes as he is to Laurence Sterne and James Joyce. Sterne and Joyce each get their own essay here, but the theorists serve as an ever-present resource for McCarthy, bolstering his readings and serving as occasions for his digressions.

“Digression” suggests a lack of focus, but for McCarthy, as for Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, digression is a method in itself. He seems almost to glide through his own essays, gathering examples and rarely pausing for more than a sentence on any one passage before moving on to the next. Again, this sounds like a criticism, but it can be quite exhilarating, like listening to a lecture from a “cool professor” while hurtling down a luge track. You’re not sure if it all checks out, but it’s fun while it’s happening. In his lecture “Recessional, or the Time of the Hammer,” he snakes from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Mann’s The Magic Mountain to Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” back to Conrad, then a brief stop at Blanchot, before proceeding on to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and ending with a meditation on Stéphane Mallarmé that invokes both Derrida and Alain Badiou. He does this in twenty-five pages. Near the end, he writes, “A pattern, I hope, is emerging.” With the exception of “U Can’t Touch This,” he’s been writing about modernist works with an “evident preoccupation with issues of race and gender” that are all “authored by white men.” But he never quite addresses why these white-male-authored high-modernist works take up “issues of race and gender,” or why that fact is worth noting. Like the nameless narrator from Remainder, he’s more concerned with the pattern itself than with what it might mean or who is caught up in it.

In that sense, “Recessional” displays McCarthy’s chief strengths and his chief weaknesses as an essayist. He has tremendous conceptual facility. He moves with ease from challenging modernist poem to experimental avant garde novel as though it were the most natural thing in the world, and he renders otherwise abstruse theory comprehensible for any reader willing to go along with him. For all his talk of writing as failure, malfunction, emptiness, and so on, he clearly relishes the opportunity to trumpet his heroes’ brilliance. But often this facility for stitching ideas together and his enthusiasm make McCarthy sound like an overreaching student eager to show the professor he not only “gets” the material, he “relates” to it. In his essay on Kafka, he identifies himself as “a writer who believes in a kind of primacy of writing” and Kafka as “a writer with compatible beliefs.” Kafka, and so by extension McCarthy, is “too clever for a naive belief that writing furnishes some heroic, self-affirming path to overcoming adversity.” Rather, writing and even language itself, is “dark, disgusting, and, above all, shameful.”

These descriptions of writing will ring true for readers of Kafka, but McCarthy doesn’t have the intimacy with filth he admires in others. His fiction and nonfiction exhibit a scatological fascination with waste and detritus, and he treats his subject matter with such cool objectivity that it’s hard to imagine him actually dirtying himself. He’s so aware of the avant-garde’s excretory fixation (the “matter” in his essay “Why Ulysses Matters”), he elevates the shit he studies and sterilizes it in the process. Not for nothing is U, the narrator of Satin Island, an anthropologist, someone who studies human relations while mostly standing apart from them. His one attempt to actually muddy himself with the muck that fascinates him ends in an aborted trip to Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill. In a moment many New Yorkers will relate to, he can’t bring himself to set foot on the ferry.

Satin Island is basically premised on the analogy between novelist and anthropologist, the novel’s U standing in for McCarthy’s “I.” For McCarthy, the anthropologist’s refusal or inability to make contact with the garbage he imbues with meaning mirrors the writer’s perpetual failure to make contact with anything beyond the act of writing. For McCarthy, writing is most itself when it addresses its own junk. He sees “the sovereignty … of writing” in Ed Ruscha’s photographs of smashed typewriters in Royal Road Test, writing “whose blood and guts, whose font and lettering, the very mechanism of whose possibility we encounter threshing and dying at the roadside.” Writing fulfills itself only when it breaks down and refuses to communicate.

Ideas of that sort permeate all of McCarthy’s work. Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish serves as a kind of summary for Tom McCarthy’s entire mission as writer thus far. And he does have a thesis, something he wants to demonstrate, a takeaway for the reader. It is perhaps appropriate to McCarthy’s fixation on deferral, repetition, and inauthenticity that this idea finds its sharpest formulation not in any of his own writings, but in something written about him by the philosopher Simon Critchley, McCarthy’s friend and co-conspirator in the International Necronautical Society, a dadaist propaganda organ. In the afterword to Men in Space, Critchley writes, “McCarthy’s fiction and nonfiction aim to skewer an ideology of authenticity that is fed and watered by a certain humanist conception of literature. His work is a critique of writing that conspires to create the illusion of realism.” But McCarthy’s twist comes in constructing an artifice that is “arguably more realistic than any purported realism.” It is realistic not insofar as it purports to communicate what the ur-realist William Dean Howells called “the phrase and carriage of everyday life,” but realistic in the sense that it addresses a purportedly fundamental truth about language’s limits and self-referential nature.

In the collection’s only properly “critical” essay, “Get Real, or What Jellyfish Have to Tell Us About Literature” he professes frustration over discussions of “reality in fiction; or reality versus fiction; a hunger for the real; a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t; and so on.” McCarthy’s problem with “realism” is essentially that ostensible “realists” have a too-naive conception of what the “real” is. For realists, according to McCarthy, the real is simply “what happens.” But realism is “a literary convention—no more, no less.” Writers who write “realistically” have no more claim to verisimilitude than anyone else, and the fact that they think they do gives them less of one. They’re simply writing within a genre that claims to represent experience in a familiar way, and so claims a privileged status as somehow “closer” to reality than other kinds of writing.

For McCarthy the “real” is something unrepresentable—it’s something that happens to you rather than something you describe happening. The place of “the real” in literature isn’t (or shouldn’t be) “descriptive accuracy”—McCarthy thinks language can never “accurately” describe anything. As we might expect, he sees “the real” as a traumatic encounter with language’s self-professed inadequacy. He wants “a real that happens, or forever threatens to do so, not as a result of the artist ‘getting it right’ or overcoming inauthenticity, but rather as a radical and disastrous eruption within the always-and-irremediably inauthentic.” Language is condemned to inauthenticity. But writing that acknowledges this state of affairs and commits itself to that inauthenticity attains a kind of paradoxical authenticity. This untenable state, like Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” fulfills its aspiration to the real by showing us the reality it aspires to can never be fulfilled. And so on. And on.

McCarthy seems wholly committed to writing’s vicious circle, and that is proving to be a problem. For all his considerable intelligence and ingenuity as a novelist, not to mention his sense of humor and play, the essays in Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish suggest that he has painted himself into conceptual corner. In having convinced himself, and at least one other person, that he has discovered (or rediscovered) a fundamental “truth” about literature, he has become something of a fundamentalist. And what gets tiresome about fundamentalists like Bible thumpers, free market purists, vulgar Marxists, and your uncle who thinks rock died in the 60s is not that they only have one idea—it’s that they think there is only one idea to have. And once you become convinced that there is only one idea, there is nothing to do but refer all other ideas back to it, to show how everything reduces to that idea, and then to seek only those “compatible beliefs” that reaffirm the idea.

Tom McCarthy, it seems to me, is a writer with a lot of ideas who has managed to convince himself that there is only one idea. As a consequence, he directs his inventiveness, formal adventurousness, and humor, his luge-like intellect, toward the same fundamental truth every time. Given that he thinks that writerly “originality” is really imitation in disguise, that there are no new ideas, only repetitions and endless chains of borrowings, perhaps he feels duty-bound to continually reenact writing’s primal scene, again like Remainder’s narrator, over and over. Perhaps, in pointing this out, I am only restating McCarthy’s point, reaffirming in negative terms what he sees as writing’s virtue. But I actually don’t think it matters any longer whether he is right or wrong, whether in denying him I am affirming him. Given the choice between tedious truths and novel lies, I’ll take the latter.

Mark Sussman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn.