‘There Has Never Been Anything Original’: An Interview with Tom McCarthy

This interview was originally published in ARC Magazine #21, ‘Re-Issue’, 2017

Much like the fictions of J.G Ballard or the reworked fairy tales of Robert Coover, the novels of Tom McCarthy are punctured with moments of carefully orchestrated traumas. One man obsessively re-enacts memories from his past, voluntarily trapped in a stuttering present. Another delights in the geometric precision of aerial combat and the strategies of global warfare. McCarthy’s acclaimed first novel, Remainder, was adapted into a full-length feature film by the video artist Omer Fast in 2015. Today, Tom McCarthy offers insight into the mind of a novelist writing in an age of ‘data-saturation’, asserting that it is only through repetition can one discover the new.

Jacqui Duan: I think there is a universal anxiety for any aspiring writer in the pursuit of originality. You think to yourself, there is nothing I have thought of doing that hasn’t been done before. How do you move past that fear?

Tom McCarthy: This is the thing – there has never been anything original. Almost every line in Shakespeare comes from Ovid or Tacitus or Lucretius and he’s super aware of it. In ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, you have a bunch of Greeks sitting around watching other Greeks doing a play, it’s completely meta-narrative already, completely self-aware. Even in the beginning with Orpheus, what does he sing? He sings other stories, he’s a juke-box, he tells all these other stories that already existed in other forms. The notion of originality funnily enough is quite a recent kind of humanist invention. The Greeks didn’t believe in it neither the Renaissance, re-, rebirth, they understood what they were doing as a massive archival activity. It’s about a relation to the archive and a relation to your relation to the archive, but I think there’s infinite combinations given the number of archives there are, infinite combinations for recombining.

J: Given though that nowadays we live in a – to use your term – ‘data-saturated’ age, do you think that this has changed the way we perceive writing and the way we write? You once said that ‘the next great author works at Google’, is this true?

T: Actually what I said was if there is someone with the scope and vision of Joyce, he or she is probably working at Google rather than writing a novel. It was a provocation, so not that the next great novelist is working at Google but that it is where the kind of Joycean activity of thinking about public space, telecommunications, urban experience, navigating the present and so on is taking place. That’s what Joyce is doing in Ulysses, he’s creating software, navigating modernity. To a large extent this task has moved away from the writer to the corporate software designer.

J: Where do you see the role of the writer then?

T: This is the interesting question. I was kind of taking my cues from figures like Michel de Certeau who chart this move of writing from the first kind of writers who were priests interpreting the divine voice for the people, into the bourgeois, middle-class craftsman who is making, creating, crafting stuff in the godless universe after the death of God, and then within super-modernity for de Certeau you get this third move into automated writing. So the writing activity of the world is already taking place and doesn’t need human actors. He’s writing this in the 80s but it’s even more true now. We walk down the street with an iphone in our pocket, that script has already been written and traced and recorded. So what’s the writer’s task? One answer might be that it’s the kind of hack, to subvert or erase that record like Rauschenberg erasing the de Kooning or the kind of William Burroughs fantasy or situationist fantasy of the artist as a kind of symbolic terrorist fucking with the order of the network configuration, creating glitches and bad signs and viruses. My last book Satin Island really looks at this. That’s a fantasy the hero has, it’s quite a masculine fantasy and his girlfriend says “oh you’re just like a boy”, just a James Bond fantasy blowing everything up. Anyhow everything already blows itself up. It doesn’t take artists or revolutionaries to make nuclear power plants blow up or make automated trading systems crash. They do it on their own. The subversion or the disaster is already written into the program.

J: This isn’t literature which is concerned with the ‘self’ anymore or the ‘real’, it’s literature concerned with rupture.

T: Interruptions, ruptures, discontinuities, inauthenticities, fictions…I don’t think either literature or art has ever been about authenticity or the self really. For example, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which I was really relying on for Satin Island, is about looking for the key to all mythologies. It’s about Capitalism. Flaubert’s Madam Bovary is all about Capital and exchange of money. Going back to the Greeks, The Oresteia begins with an account of a signal crossing space. Humans are only there as pools, across which ripple surfaces of traumas and trauma patterns that pre-date them and will post-date them pass. Agamemnon is there only to be announced by a signal so that he will trip over his own door-step and an ancient family curse that goes back ten generations and will go forwards another ten can have one of its iterations. For Lacan the real is just a place within a circuit, the real is that which always keeps its place. It’s also that which exceeds the system of representation, the thing which is the surplus, the remainder, so it wouldn’t be real in the positivist kind of sense. Read Aeneas’s account to Dido in The Aeneid of the fall of Troy. It’s all about towers burning and people jumping off the top of burning buildings which are about to crumple to the ground. Maybe that’s why September the 11th was so astonishing, because it was already such a cliché, endlessly played out as a narrative within the western imagination.

J: If history is always repeating itself and literature too draws its inspirations from the past, then does fiction somehow play a part in pre-empting the future?

T: The writer is not a future caster, that’s what Google have departments for. I think what writing is there to do is to map and manipulate symbolic systems. It’s to understand the way in which meaning is produced in the world which is both a poetic act and a political act, to lay it bare, and to start causing disruptions within that process and suggesting, not in some didactic way but hinting at, opening up spaces in which meaning might be produced differently or routed differently. To come back to your earlier question, I think this is a very good time to be a writer because the question of power and of reality is more and more and more blatantly nowadays about writing. It’s about recording and transcribing and archiving and representing. The question of politics has become a kind of literary question. It’s all about notation and this is what Edward Snowden revealed. Everything is being written down so the kind of architectures of systems of notations, which is what a novel is, is just a system of transcribing.

J: Do you think it’s possible to write without drawing upon all these external influences, all this language that surrounds us every day on the streets and on the tube…there isn’t any escaping it is there?

T: No, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Writers have always been aware of the mechanisms of writing. Kafka is obsessed with typewriters and telephones; a good proportion of Richardson’s Clarissa is just her wondering how she’s going to get ink and paper; in Robinson Crusoe he’s concerned about his gunpowder store and his ink. Gunpowder makes him live because he can shoot animals to eat and the ink makes him live because he can write. There’s always been an awareness of the materiality of the medium of writing and the way we’re surrounded by it. Don Quixote is about the relation to mass media, he’s surrounded by all these pulp novels about knights doing knight stuff. It’s media theory, it’s a savvy modern take on saturation by media. I think this is what literature has always been about and I think artists and writers become more and more aware of that in modernity. For Ezra Pound or William Burroughs writing was just about cutting up other stuff and sampling it, this data-saturation we have now. You read these interviews with middlebrow writers in The Guardian saying oh in order to write I need to go to my hut in Ireland and totally switch off the internet and I just think fuck, this cannot be a good writer. To be a writer is about being open precisely to the noise.

J: So more than anyone else a writer has to be able to absorb, to be that transmission.

T: Or reception, a kind of ultimate receiver, modulator. It’s why Cocteau’s take on Orpheus is such an important film for me, because his poet Orpheu receives. It’s not about originating a signal, it’s about receiving many other signals which even at the point of transmission are repetitions. Even when he goes into the underworld Cégeste, the death bureaucrats, the kind of literary critics are saying where did you get those lines from and he says, I just took stuff, sports results, the stock market prices, some of my own poems, other people’s poems…so there it is, Orpheus the supposed author is a repeater and even Cégeste is a repeater when what he’s listening to is himself. This is what Heidegger understands, that to speak is to listen first. It’s always the secondary activity. It’s a lot of work. You have to build a really good receiver. It’s not just putting random words into a hat and pulling them out.

J: Would you call Satin Island or Remainder parodies, satires? Are you drawn to that idea of dark humour?

T: Oh they’re definitely funny I hope, but satire is a specific thing. When I was writing Satin Island it kept wanting to become a satire on consultancy and the way avant-garde philosophy just gets co-opted in the business world, but the thing is, that world is already its own satire. I have a cousin that does exactly what U. does in Satin Island. That’s totally real, there are vanguard consultancies doing exactly this, feeding radical left-wing theory back into the corporate machine. They don’t say it’s Deleuze and Adorno, they charge big corporations and governments hundreds of thousands of pounds to come up with buzzwords which they get from Deleuze and Adorno…who could parody that? It’s already funnier or darkly parodic than any smarmy piece of satire. I think [Satin Island] may be a very contemporary kind of staging of it, this feeding Deleuze to government or corporate think-tanks but I think it’s a perennial quandary which is the artist’s relation to power. This goes all the way back to the Greeks again, the expulsion of the poets. What is the relationship of the poet to the state? Between the poet and the tyrant? I think this is more nuanced and complex than satire.

J: Surely there’s something a little unsettling to think that all this intellectual knowledge that’s supposed to be somehow enlightening is actually just being fed back into the system and resold as a product.

T: But this has always been happening. With the surrealists, radical as they were, within a decade it’s been re-served up as advertising. In fact, while they were doing it they all had day jobs in shop windows doing posters for tobacco companies, they did amazing stuff with their techniques. Or the situationists, cinema experiments becoming MTV, there’s always been this appropriation. Debord theorised this idea of recuperation, everything gets recuperated so the question isn’t really about getting something that’s recuperation-proof but of working within those patterns perhaps, and finding a way of navigating them or mapping them.

J: Do systems such as AI or VR interest you?

T: Yeah, I‘m writing a novel now about all those. It involves the world of motion capture. I visited a motion capture studio where people were wearing all these points on them and it all becomes virtual. But I don’t know if I believe in the virtual – these are just data points, bodies in space being mapped, this is what [my novel] C is about; Serge is flying around this gridded up space of a battlefield and it’s all about coordinates, movements within set patterns with real effects. Or same in Remainder; it’s just about how to move geometrically around the space of a kitchen or a bank or a street and someone’s going to get killed at the other end of it. I don’t see a categorical difference between that and the type of stuff that happens  in motion capture studios. It could be making a game or doing something forensic or military or helping a child who’s got cerebral palsy, everything is technology and geometry and prosthesis and the human is a kind of ungraspable presence within that, but one that is not adequately conceptualised by humanism at all. I think only thinking through technology can make us understand what the human is, not the other way around.

J: Then what makes us human?

T: Desire. A machine doesn’t desire. We’re technology with desire and desire is not some kind of spiritual thing, I mean Lacan understands that it’s about some kind of circuitry that produces desire, which is a kind of beautiful thing and a very disruptive and subversive thing. So Tristan and Isolde are not just automated navigation systems to guide boats from Ireland to Cornwall and back again, things go wrong. There’s error and desire and that’s what makes it a kind of human situation.

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