Tag Archives: Tom McCarthy

Satin Island


The reviews of Satin Island have started coming out and Tom McC’s doing the rounds and, characteristically, offering us ways to read his new novel.

Seems like the appropriate time to dive in. I’m not entirely disinterested: indeed, I’m actively interested. I’ve an essay on Tom’s work coming out in the collection Calling All Agents, edited by the quietly brilliant Dr Dennis Duncan, which will be published later this year (?) and of the writers who’ve generously blurbed my novel, Tom is the only one I’ve met. I’m also involved in an event that Tom’s curating that I don’t think I can announce yet, but which will happen before the end of the month. That will involve a more para-academic response to some of Satin Island’s themes.

So it’s safe to say I’m an enthusiast for the work. That’s a slightly double-edged sword: it can mean that one awaits a new book with trepidation, particularly when the last was a success. The reasons I enjoyed Satin Island should be evident from the below, but I want to headline it with a couple of observations. First: this is an incredibly generative novel. By creating an oil spill of the thought that informs his work – a spiral? a taffy-kneeding engine? – McCarthy creates a nexus of proliferation, prompts a super-abundance of readings. I love this. It’s surely a characteristic of great work. Second, McCarthy is a public intellectual of the kind that is very rare in this country: one who takes continental philosophy, and literature, very seriously; who navigates between the Scylla of the middlebrow and the Charybdis of pretentious, mystical bollocks with a sharp eye on the compass. Huge power to that.

A new novel by Tom McCarthy is certainly an ‘event’ round these ends, then, though not perhaps in the way its author might conceive that term.satin

The background: the publishing industry that initially ignored his debut Remainder  – now routinely referred to as a ‘cult’ book or a ‘masterpiece’ – has taken rather more notice since Zadie Smith claimed it as exemplary of one of the paths the English language novel might follow were it to turn away from ‘sentimental realism.’ The Man Booker Prize short-listing of C in 2012 was significant: it’s not that sentimental realism had been overturned, rather that the UK’s pre-eminent literary prize was willing to recognise a book that wasn’t that. There’s a film of Remainder coming out this year, directed by the visual artist Omer Fast. For those who enjoy the more conceptual or theoretically-led variant of the novel the positive reception of McCarthy’s work has been an undeniably good thing.

To recap on the novels so far: Remainder, the slow-burn/overnight breakthrough about a man who obsessively reconstructs events from a past made inaccessible to him through a neurological injury and which closes with a set-piece responding to a thought experiment sketched by Jean Baudrillard. Men in Space, based on an earlier manuscript returned to after Remainder, set primarily in Prague and Amsterdam, where McCarthy worked as an art critic in the 1990s, and concerning the forgery of a Russian icon. (Men in Space is frequently overlooked or under-rated – it might, in fact, be my favourite). C: the explicitly Modernist period book, a kind of Thomas Mann bildungsroman describing the life of Serge Carfax in four parts, the densely cryptic style of which makes it seem in retrospect more like a tribute to Joyce.

This is already a singular body of work and its interest to scholars of contemporary literature was recognised when it was made the subject of a conference at Birkbeck College, University of London, in 2012. Part of the singularity surely derives from McCarthy’s background in conceptual art. The first time a national newspaper took notice of him he apparently paid for the space: there are images of a front page ad in The Times for his fictitious avant garde art network The International Necronautical Society that seems to mimic the publication of Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto in Le Figaro in 1909. Try to find it in the Times Digital Archive and you’ll struggle: the image is a post hoc mock up. The rationale behind pretending to copy the actions of a movement that insisted upon its radical vanguardism can be found in Satin Island’s narrator’s account of his interest in parachute deaths: ‘an originally un-original event becoming even more un-original, and hence even more fascinating.’

McCarthy has maintained the INS alongside long-term collaborator, philosopher Simon Critchley, who published his own debut novel, Memory Theatre, last year. The INS is commissioned for installations and presentations at galleries around the world and the two have, on occasion, sent actors in their places. McCarthy won an inaugural 2013 Windham Campbell Literature Prize, awarded by Yale: that appears to be for real. A new novel from Tom McCarthy is certainly an event: it might not send ripples backwards and forwards through the continuum of history in the way that the ‘event’ as theorised by Alain Badiou does, but it does register with Newsnight.

Satin Island is narrated by U., a corporate anthropologist working for a company that is engaged at the bleeding edge of the contemporary. U. made his name by going native in the club culture of the 1990s. This is a very pleasing detail: there were ethnographers who did just that, recognising the tribal nature of a culture that rapidly factionalised – Jungle, Drum’n’bass, Intelligent Drum’n’bass, Techstep, Hardstep, Drill’n’bass, Droll’n’bass –  and evidenced ritualistic behaviour in its use of holy sacraments and gatherings of mass communion. It happened. It doesn’t seem real – in fact, it seems like a parody of something that might have happened, like so much that is ‘actual’ today, but it did happen; it was real; it left documents.

U. is attempting to write a report. His brief is broad: the contemporary. He follows his obsessions, like the narrator of Remainder. He researches the deaths of parachutists whose ‘chutes have failed to open (the INS researched the deaths of surfers in shark attacks). He relates anecdotes from a canonical work of French structural anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. He has a girlfriend called Madison, with whom he has sex, a colleague called Daniel, who projects quasi-anthropological films onto the walls of his office, and a friend called Petr, who develops a cancerous growth and dies. His boss is called Peyman and he occasionally sounds like Bruno Latour, insisting that objects are ‘systems of relations’ (or maybe he sounds like Paul Rabinow, who is name-checked in the acknowledgements; or any of a number of theorists I haven’t read but perhaps you have). Peyman’s name indicates that he fulfils the magical function of making the money appear. In this sense, this is McCarthy’s second novel in the fantastic tradition, in which he magics up the narrative cash to enable his protagonists to do what they want. Vanishing pecuniary concerns like this feels both terribly mundane and entirely radical: they’d simply get in the way of the business at hand. And what is that?

Well, it’s not characterisation, if by that you assume characters who communicate to the reader the rich range of their emotions. U. doesn’t feel a lot. In fact, he doesn’t feel anything. He thinks, becomes obsessed with topics of thought, loses interest in them, and thinks some more. Events don’t really connect with him: Petr’s funeral registers only because it seems as if the presiding vicar has no idea who the deceased really was, an experience that may well be familiar to readers who’ve been to more than one funeral. This is typical of a McCarthy protagonist: C’s Serge was the same.

The things that do register are more difficult to pin down; they’re abstract but material: taffy, parachutes, growths, caoutchouc, islands of waste; lumps of matter in abstracted form. I’m tempted to think of these as ‘unforms,’ stuff that represents that which is beyond thought – we might want to route direct to the INS’s primary research area here. These forms profoundly affect U.:

‘I’d stood rooted to the pavement in front of a candy store window in which taffy was being pulled, transfixed by the contortions of the huge, unmanageable lump (what child could eat all that?) as the machine’s arms plied it, it’s endless metamorphoses in which, despite the regular, repeating movements that stretched and folded, stretched and slapped the taffy through the same shapes over and over again, I knew, even then, that no part of it, no molecule, would ever occupy the same spot in the overall formation twice.’

Stylistically there is more that recognisably coheres with the first two novels than with C, in which the author’s native style was suppressed in the service of intensely cryptic signification. There’s an attitude that I want to call punk, but is possibly more aptly post-punk: fizzing, intelligent, spiky and built on a kind of reconstructed groove. He re-animates theory making it sound dangerous and sexy again then defuses it with a throwaway ‘y’knowwaddamean?’

‘This cataclysm, [Levi-Strauss] says, is the true face of our culture – the one that’s turned away, from us at least. The order and the harmony of the West, the laboratory in which structures of untold complexity are being cooked up, demand the emission of masses of noxious by-products. What the anthropologist encounters when he ventures beyond civilization’s perimeter-fence is no more than its effluvia, its toxic fallout. The first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth, thrown into mankind’s face.’

The writing is sharp, funny, and while not, perhaps, as obscurely signifying as in C, makes abstract ideas readily accessible: this alone is no mean feat of authorship.

Perhaps the greatest departure from the preceding works is that the philosophers and literary theorists who so inform McCarthy’s project have now broken cover and are named and referenced in the text. Previously, while McCarthy would delight in turning to Barthes or Blanchot in his interviews and essays, and paid tribute to post-structuralist literary criticism through his reading of Herge in Tintin and the Secret of Literature, the novels have subsumed their theory. Sure, it’s there if you’re so minded to see it but you can read them perfectly happily without it. The open references to Lacan et al. in Satin Island are sure to be divisive. Broadly speaking, literary fiction publishers have tended to be somewhat squeamish about the wacky French stuff that so dominated the Eng Lit academy in the eighties and early nineties, the reading public even more so: J. G. Ballard, perhaps the British novelist who shared the most intellectual territory with the enfants terrible across the channel, put some distance between himself and Baudrillard when critics compared them (though that never quite rang true and sure enough, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find Ballard recommending Baudrillard later in his career – turns out you can’t always take these novelists at their word).

Kathy Acker and Stewart Home were plagiarising Marx and the Situationists in the early nineties but they didn’t enjoy the crossover success McCarthy has. It can feel as if there’s been something like a collective sigh of relief in literary publishing that the academy has since tended towards the New Historicism that rose in the 1990s. Now we can get back to our Ian Fleming reboots and our life-affirming tales of bien pensant liberal existence without having to ignore the elephant in the room. This is evidently a reductive account of a complex field but, for the most part, so it has gone. It will be fascinating to see how Satin Island’s theoretical swagger is received.

There are a number of superb set piece scenes that lighten the texture of Satin Island. Two stand out in my mind. In the first, U. describes an extended daydream in which he gives a rapturously received conference paper. It’s a bravura piece of comic writing – almost classical in rhetorical construction – that reminded me of Jean Phillipe Toussaint’s Television, another book about an academic struggling to write a book. Once that realisation took hold, I thought, ‘This is his Toussaint book,’ but it wasn’t long before I came to the next set piece, when Madison describes her torture at the hands of Italian police following the 2001 G8 demonstrations in Genoa. This time I thought: ‘The Atrocity Exhibition – it’s Ballard.’ At other points you might think: ‘Pynchon’ or ‘Delillo’. There’s an obvious Melville lift, plentiful direct inter-textual references to the likes of Deleuze and, indeed, the author’s own body of work (the plane that causes delays at Torino Caselle airport is behaving erratically in airspace above London, doubtlessly flying in a figure-of-eight holding pattern as at the end of Remainder). These intra-corporal references come thick and fast in the final chapter giving a sense of Satin Island as a kind of summary report of the author’s work to date.

This also prompts the broader realisation that we’re always engaged in McCarthy’s game of source spotting. Indeed, he explicitly invites us to engage in this game in the acknowledgements:

Satin Island, like all books, contains hundreds of borrowings, echoes, re-mixes and straight repetitions. To list them all would take up as much space as the text itself. The critical reader can entertain him- or herself tracking some of them down, if he or she is that way inclined.’

So what does it mean to send readers to chase down these inter-textual references? Is it a quintessentially post-modernist move, in the manner of Alasdair Gray’s ‘Index of Plagiarisms’ running as a sidebar to the Epilogue of Lanark? Are we to feel the rug pulled from under our feet, to be drawn into undeniable realisation of the material object in our hands and its relation to other such material objects? McCarthy has written recently in the London Review of Books about the relationships between the vexed convention of literary realism and various philosophical approaches to the real. He’s keenly aware of the mimetic limits of the novel form and just as interested in the limits of perception and reason when it comes to the extra-textual real. Source-spotting surely is a game but it is also an enactment of the broader concerns of the project and a model for a very contemporary relationship with texts. Back in the late sixties, if you read Cortzar or The Atrocity Exhibition, you were probably in a minority. Those of us who grew in in the ’80s with Ian Livingstone’s fighting fantasy make-your-own-adventure books had a presentiment of how things might play out, albeit still anchored in the wood-pulp-based form. We’re all hypertext readers now.

Madison’s story leaps out as what we might think of, following the master-text for this section, as a ‘module.’ She’s being instructed to strike poses for a man according to signals he appears to be receiving from some kind of oscillator. She follows commands and the operator achieves moments of transcendent aesthetic pleasure that he registers with non-sexual moans and groans and eventually sobs. He even begins to mimic her movements with his own. Madison thinks she can discern children’s voices in amongst the tones emitted by the oscillator but when the machine comes to rest she realises that the children’s voices are noises off, coming from outside the room.

McCarthy’s work is particularly focused on an informational reading of literature, informed by the post-structuralist canon but hybridised with media theory (he wrote a short obituary piece for the LRB on the death of Friedrich Kittler expressing a genuine surprise and joy that Kittler had recognised his work). Drawing on such informational thinking, in this tableau we might see Madison as the reader and the policeman as the novelist. The reader reads both signal (the sources and references drawn on by the novelist) and noise (her own field of reference) and makes sense of the resulting melange. The novelist attempts to manipulate his own signal-making machine in contract with the reader and sometimes they strike a balance of form and communion. It’s all a stylised dance, with a terrible absence at its origin – in this instance, the absence of a traumatic real that is merely suspended; an electric shock from a cattle prod. Reading this chapter, a story that might be providing a structural model of the reciprocal relationship between reader and author, you experience a rush of revelation and then you realise that your revelation is just like one you read U. experiencing some thirty pages previously. You’ve been manipulated into your eureka moment. The rush fades, just as U.’s did. It’s all bullshit. And so on. Turtles all the way down.

This is, of course, just one possible reading of the tableau. We could re-arrange it so that the structure provides something else. It’s ambiguous, a structure that invites interpretation in a text that provides too many answers: another reviewer will surely examine a different passage and yield different results. That’s the game we’re playing, the dance on which we’re being led. Break out your own moves – spasmodic, angular Ian Curtis twitches, perhaps – and you may yet see them mirrored back at you, but so will the woman over there doing spins like she’s at a Northern Soul all-nighter; and that guy lost in his classical ballet. This is reader reception theory routed through informational redundancy.

The dance alone might be interesting – it’s certainly led with great skill – but would it be enough? (There are, of course, those who don’t like dancing to any tune, but, y’know, their loss). A straight repetition of the nouveau roman or classic Pynchon would not be as interesting as McCarthy’s dictum claims and he knows it. What makes McCarthy’s work so exciting is that it does indeed push beyond the texts that it identifies as its sources. Unlike the academy, McCarthy is plunging headlong back into deconstruction with the aim of emerging on the other side – or perhaps bouncing back again. How can you acknowledge the fallibility of language, multiplicities of readings and reclaim the inauthenticity of literature within the body of literature itself?

Right at the heart of the narrative there’s a story from Tristes Tropiques about Lévi-Strauss leaving a tribe he understands too well and landing at another he can’t get any purchase on at all:

‘But maybe, just maybe, he reasons, somewhere in between two extremes – in between understanding so completely that an object’s robbed of its allure (on the one hand) and (on the other one) not understanding anything at all – there might be some “ambiguous instances” in which the balance is just right.’

This is, perhaps, Satin Island’s response: develop the ambiguity. Incorporate the stuff, the goo, the warping and wefting residue, the children’s voices: throw up so much noise surrounding the signal, set up your own feedback loops and fields of distortion. Get the balance just right and we dance together to postpone the cattle prod.

Satin Island enacts its theory. It’s cunning, it’s terrific fun and it’s very serious. I felt like one of the Vanuatans who so interest U., pioneers of bungee-jumping and productive mis-interpreters of signal and noise. I almost hit the ground but I bounced right back up, invigorated by a mediated brush with the field of the contemporary and ready to jump again.

Tagged ,

Teaching and the Individual Talent?

Rachel Cusk’s feature in the Guardian Review in defence of creative writing has been nagging away at me ever since I read it.

I have problems with the view of the subject and, more importantly for creative writing, the view of the novel at the heart of the piece. I wasn’t initially particularly concerned with what Cusk was trying to defend, the teaching of creative writing, although, of course, her defence ended up making me question just that.

Here’s where it starts going wonky:

Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels the need to assert a “true” self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every social and personal network, has given rise to a “false” self.

This is presented as the student’s view, but it’s entirely consistent with Cusk’s own work and criticism. The piece continues by noting the hoariness of the cliché that everyone has a book in them:

What is it, this book everyone has in them? It is, perhaps, that haunting entity, the “true” self. The true self seeks release, not constraint. It doesn’t want to be corseted in a sonnet or made to learn a system of musical notations. It wants liberation, which is why very often it fastens on the novel, for the novel seems spacious, undefined, free. In the novel that common currency, language, can be exchanged like for like.

I wouldn’t disagree that the novel can be spacious – its spaciousness might, in fact, be constitutive of what it is – or free, but thought it might be useful to highlight some of the rich critical work that deals with the problem of the idea of this “true” self and attempts to assert it through language. The thing is, there’s not much point me doing that because it’s already been done with considerable energy and clarity by Tom McCarthy (that’s the Booker short-listed Tom McCarthy, so he’s no publishing obscurity) in his essay ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’. (I’d love to be able to recommend you buy the ebook, as I did, but sadly its saddled with all sorts of DRM so I can neither copy from it nor read it on any device other than the computer I downloaded it on. I needn’t stress the absurdity of publishing an essay about literature as transmitted information in this kind of imprisoned form and should you want to read it you might want to have a look at scribd).

McCarthy’s title riffs on that of TS Eliot’s most famous critical essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which Eliot described what is referred to as his theory of depersonalisation, a process by which the artist removes himself from the picture to allow the rich tradition of literature to be reshaped by his mediation: ‘What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ In Eliot’s view, the individual poet becomes a collider for the particles of the literary tradition, providing ‘the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.’

McCarthy updates Eliot for the 21st century, quoting the critics who’ve, since Eliot, chipped away at the notion of the enthroned subject summoning great works of aesthetic beauty from some wonderful and mystical interiority. He writes that he’s almost embarrassed to quote the passage he does from Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’, so well known is it. But let’s sample just a touch, because Barthes is great (and available on Ubuweb – take note ebook publishers):

literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

McCarthy glosses this:

Who speaks? For Barthes, the answer is always: language – language speaks me, you, everyone, to such an extent that I and you and we and they are merely shifting and amorphous points, floating islands being continuously made and unmade by language’s flows and counterflows.

Lovely stuff. The thing is, on re-reading Cusk’s piece she seems to sense these problems but is unwilling to push at them, perhaps because of the implications for the self:

The novel seems to be the book of self: the problem is that, once you start to write it, you see that it has taken on certain familiar characteristics. It begins to seem not true but false, either a recreation of the false self or a failure to externalise the true one. It is a product, your product: in other words, more of the same. How, then, to produce the “true” writing?

Rather than working at this problem she defers to Karl Ove Knausgard, whose book was her pick of the year in the Guardian’s round-up.

“Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard in A Death in the Family. “That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”

Any the wiser? Nope, me neither. And we all thought post-structuralism was difficult to understand. But wait, there’s an explanation in what, for me, is the most problematic statement of all in this article:

There is a spirituality, or at least a mysticism, to this statement that it seems to me ought to be embedded at the core of creative writing culture.

Is this a direction to go to a séance or a church? Because it reads like one. It strikes me that this is where you end up if you enshrine hugely problematic notions such as the subject and the idea of authenticity at the heart of fictional practice: flailing around, summoning the spirits and trying to divine the self in a concave mirror. A student might be excused for asking for something a touch more rigorous on a £5700 a year creative writing course.

I don’t want to attack creative writing, the particular course, or even the particular teacher, but I do want to make a problem of this mysticism. I realise that creative writing is not literary criticism. Barthes and Eliot might not be what creative writing students want to read (they may prefer Cusk and Knausgard). Fair enough. (ish. I think creative writing should be engaged with the possibilities of literature rather than therapeutic self-expression, and should certainly be aware of current directions in the novel, and let’s be honest, this isn’t even that current: nouveau roman, anyone? But then I’m frequently seen as some kind of utopian dilettante, if a bit grumpy about DRM).

I think even in its own terms this defence is flawed, because what is being advocated here is a type of novel that is in no way free or liberated, reduced, as it is, to self-portraiture. Indeed, Cusk herself describes Knausgard’s book as a self-portrait.

While Francis Bacon’s self-portraits might be very interesting in the context of his collected work, if there were only self-portraits, would we be interested? Even if you don’t want to engage with the questions facing literature, and just want to write a good detective story, should your detective story really be a self-portrait?

The view of the novel that is concerned only with the self precludes the possibility of Eliot’s fusion. It may have some awareness of the tradition in which it operates but it can’t hope to put it under sufficient synthetic pressure to produce work that will be of any value to anyone but the producing self, because this is its only real concern.

An idea of the novel that limits itself to self-portraiture is always going to end up here: this is an artistic correlationism that makes self continuous with work, without allowing for all the things – tradition, computer monitors, exterior soundfields, whisky, metaphor, mess, the continuous flow of information – that make such a notion nonsensical.

Tagged , , , ,

Calling All Agents

Earlier in the summer I gave a paper at “the first international symposium on the work of Tom McCarthy” responding to Tom’s  LRB essay ‘Stabbing the Olive’, in which he argued for a geometric fiction. The video of the paper is here. I’d written about Tom’s work during my MA and we’d done a brief interview by email about Remainder which is published below.

An overview of the entire event written by attendee Martin Eve is here, while Derek Attridge wrote a brief review in the Guardian Review the next weekend (‘McCarthy has leapfrogged many older novelists into the academic canon.’ (Derek Attridge, ‘THE WEEK IN BOOKS: Booker odds, Tom McCarthy in conference, Muriel Spark at the Poetry Society’, Guardian, Review Section, 30 July 2011, p. 4).  As a not-yet-doctored speaker, it was exciting to give a paper to an audience that included the author, assorted INS cohorts – including Simon Critchley, who also spoke – and Eng Lit profs like the aforementioned Attridge and Andrew Gibson, whose paper on Speculative Realism opened up a lot of interesting channels. The afternoon session was pretty lively as the more established folk exchanged opinions in robust fashion. Kudos to Burkbeck’s Dennis Duncan for organising.

A collection of essays around the symposium is planned by Glyphi Press, so I’m not going to post the text of the paper because I’m working it up into an essay that I’ll submit for that.

Tom has been active over the summer: the blog Surplus Matter maintained by 3AM magazine’s Andrew Gallix keeps tabs on McCarthy material online so I refer any interested parties to that for some great articles and talks.

Tom McCarthy interview (16/04/07)

Remainder puts to work some of your theoretical writing on trauma and re-enactment. In your essay Between Pain and Nothing you argue persuasively for Rod Dickinson’s Milgram Re-enactment as “offer(ing) us the possibility of ethics and, in so doing, offer(ing) us the very possibility of subjectivity – that is of being at all”. This raises a number of questions with regard to your protagonist in Remainder

I wrote the essay on Dickinson’s work a year or so after finishing Remainder, so the more formal thinking-through of the question of re-enactment that you get in the essay hadn’t happened for me when the novel was taking shape. I hadn’t read Levinas at that point, for example. But writing about Dickinson’s work was a kind of formalising after the fact of some of the questions raised in Remainder. The protagonist of Remainder is much less of an ethical subject than my putative model viewer of Dickinson’s re-enactment, though.

1) As his programme of reconstructions progresses, he loses his subjectivity for periods to increasingly frequent fugue states. Are his re-enactments in fact creating problems for his subjectivity?

His re-enactments both give him the possibility of subjectivity and remove this, pull the rug from under his feet. It’s a catch-22 situation. Perhaps you could draw a parallel with some of Lacan’s notions of how, for example, the imago both forms a vital component of the thrust towards subjectivity and, by always remaining just outside the circle of the subject, that elusive extra part, makes a totalised or unified subjectivity impossible. Ditto the little other or objet petit-a. I wouldn’t want to paint the correspondence between Lacan, or any other thinker, and Remainder as that schematic, but the echoes are there.

2) As he re-enacts increasingly ‘found’ events he enters an ethical space but responds in a neutral manner. Indeed any sense of an ethical subjectivity is absent from the narrative. Has he failed to relearn an ethical framework?

The obvious answer would be that yes, he fails, he ends up a psychopath for whom the deaths he causes can only be understood in terms of their aesthetics, as ‘beautiful’.  But in fact I think he does engage with ethics, in a totally Levinasian way, when he does the shooting re-enactment. In that sequence, he opens himself, his time and consciousness, up to the absolute otherness of the man whose death he’s re-enacting – its mute enormity, its endlessness and so on. The authorities have cleared the area, washed the blood off the street and erased all traces of the event, but he goes back to it, and lets it snag him, tear him open, again and again and again. He, not the sane people around him, is the one who keeps repeating the mantra ‘Everything must leave some kind of mark.’ Levinas characterises the ethical moment as an entry to a diachronic space in which traces of surprised forgettings are recovered: that’s the space my hero wills – cudgels – into being and occupies, repeatedly.

The term ‘event-field’ is not a term I’m familiar with, although your citations from Faulkner make it clear how an event field operates: as ripples spreading out from an original event. Could you elaborate on this idea?

I think Faulkner said it all. You get ripples, and more ripples, moving over pools that aren’t even necessarily the one in which the original stone dropped. Events play out over generations: the playing out is itself the happening of the event, although the event itself always remains outside of its own field, even if it passed through its plane at some unspecified point in the past, ruptured it.  Badiou’s thought might hold some answers here. But in that magnificent passage (from Absalom! Absalom!) Faulkner also talks of seeing, remembering and reflecting, which for me echo (again) Levinas’s notions of bearing witness – although for Faulkner the rippled pools aren’t bearing witness to the event as such (the stone dropping) but rather reflecting ‘the infinite unchanging sky’ from which it fell.

Cracks, rips and imperfections are recurrent in Remainder. In these irruptions reality returns – Lacanian tuches or Barthesian puncta – and you exploit the possibility of lending such seemingly insignificant events an ever-expanding event field. Does an event-field view of history prioritise the traumatic event? Are these in effect micro-traumatisms?

Yes and yes. An event-field view of history is impossible without a traumatic event at its core. And then the little rips you mention are like stand-ins for the big one, little envoys, mini-mes. They’re like the boy whom Godot sends to keep Vladimir and Estragon in a state of anticipation. The big one will never appear and show itself, and yet we live in the belief that it might – live for that belief even.

The second half of chapter three, an imagined conversation with a homeless man in a restaurant, appears to effect a narrative equivalent to such a notion: the artifice of narrative is punctured in this moment. How do concerns change when writing a fictional narrative about the re-enactment of found events as opposed to writing critically about art events that are themselves re-enactments?

Fiction is intuitive. I was in a bathroom at a party, not entirely sober, looking at a crack on the wall, got a moment of déja-vu, and in half an hour the novel was there. I didn’t stop to work out what it all meant, and in fact still haven’t. It just made sense, in its own warped way. With critical writing, it’s more about making sense of that kind of intuition in retrospect. That’s not to say that critical writing can’t be creative and exhilarating – look at the work of Derrida, for example – but it does inhabit a different mode.

Because the trauma suffered by your protagonist is a physical as opposed to purely psychical trauma, it remains unclear whether or not his amnesia is a result of brain tissue damage or a psychological condition. How important is this ambiguity between the physical and the psychical trauma?

Not that important, frankly. There’s no Cartesian split in Remainder. The hero is ill-at-ease in the world physically and behaviourally and mentally, but these are all part of the same complex. It’s a very materialist book – in effect, what he’s coming to terms with throughout it is a certain materialism, a matter-based vision of existence as opposed to a transcendent one. His mind is matter, damaged brain tissue, and the world is matter, bitty flows and scar tissue all bathed in liquid daylight spilling from a ruptured sun.

Some key terms in both Remainder and the field of trauma studies operate doubly. Chief among these is notion of authenticity which is implicated in debates over witnessing – indeed the crisis of witnessing uncovered by Abraham and Torok in Cryptonomy is fascinating in this regard, placing it at a crux point in the history of psychoanalysis as well as at the history of modern trauma theory. In your work authenticity is at the heart of a crisis in subjectivity. Do you aim to exploit this doubling?

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘doubling’. Paul de Man has written a brilliant essay about doubling, a term he takes from Baudelaire’s notion of dédoublement. For Baudelaire, and subsequently de Man, doubling names the effect of self-consciousness that prevents us from being authentic: if we can reflect on our experience, that means we’re not simply living it, and we’re therefore split in two and consequently not complete. What’s worse, figuring all this out doesn’t bring about a return to authenticity, but rather re-doubles the problem, makes it play out at more and more self-conscious levels, endlessly regressive. Again, I hadn’t read that essay (‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’) when I wrote Remainder – but it could be describing the book. In fact, it’s the best thing ever written about Remainder, without even mentioning it!

Not only is the modern understanding of the term trauma a medico-legal construction, but so too has the reconstruction become a medico-legal tool. The artistic re-enactment operates in this context but how does the medico-legal aspect of the reconstruction relate to its artistic cousin?

One of the first things my hero’s lawyer explains to him about the terms of the Settlement the parties (‘bodies’) responsible for his accident are offering him is that, if he accepts, the accident ‘will cease to become actionable’. In the first draft, I added: ‘It will lose its status qua event’ – but I removed that because it’s bad writing (a lawyer would never say such a thing, unless he was a philosopher as well). But the legal moment of erasure of the ur-event, of ur-erasure (say that fast if you can), goes hand in hand with the more philosophical (Blanchodian) erasure. And the medical one. I did my research: even the most positivist psychologists, the kind of people who would oppose Freud on every other point, concur with him completely that the trauma-moment bypasses the narrative chain we call memory. Their term for this phenomenon is ‘dissociation’: the data gets laid down in the brain (in the hipocampus, to be precise), but not as memory. So it’s there, but in an absent or negative form – but no less there for that. I’d say the artistic is the synthesis of all these modes, plus a little more besides – but I wouldn’t want to say what that little more is. It’s the remainder maybe. The hero of my novel doesn’t at any point consider himself an artist, though – although that’s a slight sleight of hand because the novel itself belongs to the category of art, and to a large extent allegorises it. But if he’d stood in front of the crack when he experiences his moment of déja-vu going ‘Oh yes, this is a bit like Proust and the madeleine,’ the book would have been over then and there. Ars est celere artem, like the man says.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,