Friday, February 18, 2011

On Tom McCarthy and the Homogeneous Mainstream

First of all, I didn't get through Remainder. Having read other works that deal with architecture as metaphor for consciousness and/or works that confront the problems of replication and simulation, I didn't find the central conceit particularly interesting. Great, the protagonist was trying to recapture something lost through the artificial recreation of a situation haunting his memory; I've read works that have done that. (OK, I'm being a little coy here, because the titles I could list would probably make me look like a pretentious jerk; OK, only, Tristram Shandy, In Search of Lost Time and Simulation and Simulacra do that, but well, they're really good at it...) Additionally, the protagonist is awarded a massive monetary settlement because he suffered a mysterious head injury he is forbidden from discussing by the terms of the settlement, which he spends almost entirely on this recreation project. I simply couldn't believe in a character so selfish that he didn't even consider some kind of donation to some kind of charitable cause. Even a nod to this generally inherent social drive would have satisfied me.

I don't need to like the protagonist to like the book. I don't need to respect the characters. If the language and style of writing is interesting enough, I don't need to believe in the characters or in the plot. However, Remainder was written in the shortish sentences of conventional literature in which artlessness masquerades as clarity.

But even though I didn't like Remainder, I could see there was an interesting mind attached to its creation. I thought it was a failed project, but that failure implied the potential for future success. Furthermore, I could appreciate that someone with a different reading history, who read Remainder at a different stage of their reading lives could appreciate and enjoy the conceit. So when his second novel, C, came out, I took an advanced reader copy and gave it a try.

And I enjoyed C. Very much in fact. I thought it was an excellent historical novel. C had a number of successes. First of all, McCarthy picked his time period, from fin de siecle to between the wars, when the pace of societal change had just started to pick up. Those of us who lived before the Internet, i.e. nearly all of us, are now relatively comfortable with a dramatic rate of societal change, but for most of human history you lived in the same world as your grandparents. The protagonist, Serge, lives through the development of wireless communication and air travel, at the cusp of major technology driven societal upheavals. He lives during a time in which a man can fly across the Atlantic and messages can be sent from one end of the world to the other and you can die from an infected cut. Furthermore, McCarthy does an excellent job of making all of that the setting. He doesn't force us to look at the new fangled aeroplanes, but we'd have to be asleep not to notice them.

The second major success of C is even more impressive. Through a number of different methods, McCarthy explores the tension between the spoken word and the written word. For example, he makes sure the reader is never entirely certain how to pronounce “Serge.” (See, you don't know.) It's hard to appreciate how difficult, in terms of composition it is to explore this tension, but think about it this way, no one is there to sound out the words for you, so McCarthy has to induce that sounding out in the readers brain through the written word. For aspiring writers, that one trick is worth the price of admission.

A writer writing a book I like and a book I don't isn't that distinctive, especially given that McCarthy wrote two very different books. The thing is, somehow McCarthy has become the standard bearer for contemporary English-language experimental fiction. McCarthy, so far, has proven to be a pretty good writer and if I have a chance to grab a review copy of his next work I certainly will, but I don't find his work experimental at all, let alone the pinnacle of contemporary experimental fiction.

This all started with Zadie Smith. In a well-written and well-argued (but totally incorrect) essay “Two Paths of the Novel” Smith identified McCarthy as the innovative side of the coin to Joseph O'Neil's and his Netherland's conventional side. I can't speak to Joseph O'Neil, but I can speak to a whole bunch of other work being written. In contemporary England, neither of McCarthy's novels are as innovative as Steven Hall's Raw Shark Texts. On this side of the pond, neither Remainder nor C break from convention the way Mark Z. Danielewski, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, Leanne Shapton, or Jesse Ball does, and that list of innovative authors leaves out really really below the wavelength works like The Complete Works of Marvin K Mooney by Christopher Higgs (released well after the essay was written, but my point remains). Historically, I didn't see much work done in McCarthy's novels that wasn't done (and much better) in the work of J. G. Ballard, let alone the work of England's last great innovative writer B. S. Johnson. On this side of the pond, McCarthy is far closer to successful conventional writers than he is to William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, David Markson, Alexander Theroux, David Foster Wallace, Delillo, or Pychon.

(And this isn't even bringing Joyce into this in a non-parenthetical way, because that would be like saying McCarthy isn't good at basketball because he can't beat Michael Jordan one-on-one. But he should still try.)

So this essay is less an assessment of Tom McCarthy's work and more a question: What was Zadie Smith reading when she picked him as one of the two paths of the novel? And what is everybody else reading when they describe McCarthy as experimental? I know that all mainstream anything will be more homogeneous than the total spectrum of whatever that anything is (and have no problem with that), but has mainstream literary writing become so homogeneous that the minor differences in outlook, goal, and style between a Tom McCarthy novel and a Zadie Smith novel make Tom McCarthy experimental? Have lazy critics, timid readers, and MFA factories so demolished the influence of Joyce (and Stein, and Musil and Proust and Broch and Faulkner for Christ's sake...apologies, but I've got to throw O'Brien (Flan), Melville, Poe, Sterne, Rabelais, and Cervantes in here too) that someone who uses entirely typical sentence construction is considered the vanguard of experimental fiction writing? Were enough serious readers so offended by the challenges Joyce posed to them that sentences one had to think about to understand became automatic pretentious failures? And frankly, I don't care how many hunchbacks the protagonist has sex with (just for the record: 1) after Sade, how can intercourse presented in typical prose be considered atypical just because it's not between a physically attractive man and a physically attractive woman?

Some of this is Tom McCarthy's fault which is why I've refrained from absolving him of guilt, but not all of it. I don't have the time (or the energy) to analyze all the factors but somehow we have entered a golden age for boring fiction. At the moment, there are a lot of very well written, intelligently structured, emotionally compelling, works that have nothing to add whatsoever to the progress of human knowledge. Contemporary writers have perfected the packet of information wherein they write sentences just difficult enough to make readers feel good about reading them, but not hard enough to risk turning away those readers who don't want to break a sweat while engaging in one of the most important actions available to the human consciousness. (That last bit was a little dramatic, but, damnit, reading is important to me.)

In a different world, McCarthy is a gateway. He is a good transition between works that are mostly entertainment and works that are mostly literature. If one knows to look further, McCarthy should lead people to Hall and Wallace and Ballard and Johnson, (Frankly, a whole lot of Cormac McCarthy (National Book Award winning, bestselling, Cohen brothers source material author) is more stylistically daring than Tom McCarthy, but this essay will never end if I keep tacking on authors more innovative than Tom McCarthy.) (Malcom Lowry!) and other more innovative writers while broadening people's understanding of what it means to tell a relevant story.

This is not an essay against Tom McCarthy. This is an essay against timid reading. So many readers, read what they have habitually liked, that slight differences can make a conventional work seem avant garde (and if that work hits the sweet spot, between comfort and difference then it becomes the pinnacle of the contemporary avant garde). And there's nothing wrong with habit, comfort or entertainment, just try something different once in a while. So, read a weird book next. (Preferably one you've purchased after clicking a link to it from my blog. Ka-Ching!) If you like it, great, read more. If not, there are worse things in the world than reading a book you don't like. Read a few sure things and then try another weird book. At worst, we'll end up with a slightly richer mainstream, and at best, we'd have a truly heterogeneous mainstream, one that actually reflects the variety of human experience as lived right now. And in that world of literature, Tom McCarthy would be an unquestioned success.

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