Interview with Tom McCarthy, author and General Secretary, INS
Conducted by: Anne K. Yoder
Present: Anne K. Yoder, Tom McCarthy
When I first received news that INS General Secretary Tom McCarthy would visit the City of New York during a promotional book tour this September, I inquired via the Secretary’s secretary whether he would be available for interviews. The response was delayed, and inconclusive. The return email landed in my spam box where it sat unnoticed for days. The message indicated only that McCarthy would appear alongside Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley in Brooklyn and respond to a panel of New York intellectuals’ inquiries about the recent activities of the International Necronautical Society, specifically the recent publication of the General Secretary’s third novel, C.
Two days before McCarthy’s arrival I received a text message indicating my request had been accepted. I was told to go to the coordinates 40° 77′ N , 73° 98′ W, which I deduced to be the southwest corner of Central Park. I would be met at 23:00 GMT on the day following the hearing. The sole stipulations were to not use any electronic recording devices and to wear une jarretière, please. The first request seemed finicky, the second slightly inappropriate. I thought perhaps this was a prank, and wondered whether my email had been intercepted, if someone on the other end had mistaken my number for a high-end call girl. There was no mention of names, although when I called the sender’s number I heard a raspy recording announcing I had reached the voicemail of the offices of the INS.
The weather was stormy that Thursday evening. An unlikely tornado ripped through Brooklyn immediately before my departure, forcing me to dodge cascades of fallen tree limbs in my heels. This arboreal carnage seemed fitting, however, prior to a meeting with a man who teaches a class on Catastrophe, and who founded the International Necronautical Society, whose mission is to “map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” the space of death. The sky began to clear by the time I entered the park. Shortly after I sat down on a bench, a man wearing tinted glasses and suit with a piece in his ear tapped me on the shoulder. “Follow me” he requested. He led me to a building and we ascended the express elevator 70-odd floors to a tower suite. “Make yourself comfortable,” he directed, then poured me a glass of champagne and closed the door as he exited.
McCarthy entered the room from the shadows of a dark hall, wearing a black shirt and pinstriped jacket, which he removed and laid across the settee. He greeted me, poured a drink for himself. Our conversation commenced. McCarthy permitted my request to jot down thoughts and fragments of our exchanges by typing while we spoke. What follows is a live blog of our exchange, but with a delayed transmission, at the bequest of the authorities at the INS.
McCarthy and I sit before a window with a southeastern view. Central Park looks the size of a soccer field, and the buildings below form a Legoland of urban sprawl. I ask McCarthy if he witnessed the afternoon storm approaching from above, as he has written that he often storm watches from his residence on the 12th floor of a central London flat. The height in conjunction with technology allows him to forecast the weather’s effects on events below:
When storm clouds groan and rumble people scour the sky for aeroplanes flying too low. I track them from my windows, waiting for the day when one of them will hurtle like a meteor into the Telecom Tower, painting the sky a new blood-orange.
McCarthy says no, that he was harried doing publicity in the world below. I say the advanced warning would be useful, and mention that in addition to storms sounding like low-flying airplanes, the sound of a tornado is often likened to the rumble of a passing train.
This height from above makes me think of Serge Carrefax, aerial observer in the First World War and protagonist of McCarthy’s novel C. I think of Serge’s aerial perspective on his missions, how he fires his gun in rhythms and cadences, six short bursts followed by eight longer ones to which he repeats the phrase “of the purpose that your thought / Might also to the seas be known…”
The fallen landscape prints itself on Serge’s mind by dint of his repeated passage over it: its flattened progression of greens, browns and yellows, patches of light and shade; the layout of the town and of the marsh beyond it… He likes to move these things around from his nacelle, take them apart and reassemble them like pieces of a jigsaw.
I inquire about the INS’s aerial reconnaissance missions in Berlin, where “target sites were identified according to the INS’s central concerns: marking and erasure, transit and transmission, cryptography and death.” I ask if a similar mission will be carried out in New York. McCarthy replies that no such project has been planned, the no-fly zone would make this task prohibitively difficult. I suggest attempting aerial photography from the roofs of buildings, such as the one we’re in.
From aerial photography, we segue to maps. McCarthy directs me to a conversation recorded in Bookforum in which he discussed cartography and mapping physical boundaries, transforming the material into the abstract. I am intrigued. McCarthy summarizes: “What most resists dominant mappings is not alternative mapping but rather the territory itself, its sheer materiality.” McCarthy refers me also to the writings of French poet Francis Ponge, whose writings struggle with depicting the material with language.
A low electric hum begins and grows louder. The vibration permeates the walls, the windows, our bodies. We see a helicopter pass by not far in the distance and watch as it descends to a helipad below. McCarthy quotes F. T. Marinetti, father of Futurism:
Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming central electric station that holds the hydraulic pressure of a mountain chain and the electric power of a vast horizon, synthesised in marble distribution panels bristling with dials, keyboards and shining communicators.
I bring up a lecture McCarthy gave last year at the Tate entitled, “These panels are the only models for our composition of poetry, or, How Marinetti taught me how to write.” In the lecture, McCarthy refers to an electric form of writing presaged by Marinetti, though only realized fifty years later in the books of Ballard, Pynchon, and Robbe-Grillet. McCarthy said:
Electricity, the medium of circuits, grids, and loops. It’s a conception of writing, a brilliant one, that’s only possible when it goes hand in hand with a conviction that the self too is relayed, switched, stored, and converted, distributed along the circuitry and grids of networks that both generate it and exceed it.
I say that this reminds me of the ever-elusive V., the transforming, chameleon-like coquette of Pynchon’s novel of the same name, sought after by one Herbert Stencil. It’s no coincidence, then, that McCarthy’s novel is named C?
C stands for any and all of the following: carbon, cysteine, cyanide, cocaine, chute, call, caul (present on Serge’s head at birth), crash, Cairo, Carrefax, and Carter and Carnarvon–discoverers of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb.
C depicts an awe and awfulness that mirrors our own technological age. The book issues a noetic hum, akin to that of electric transmissions, the roar of airplane engines, the crackle of gunfire.
I tell McCarthy of riding a crowded train nights before, where I noticed the people pushing arms and knees into me were plugged into technological devices.
I ask about Serge’s drug-addled car crash, if that was meant to allude to Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto“:
O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black beast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!
McCarthy merely nods, as if this allusion is so obvious it need not be stated.
C’s idyllic beginning cedes to chemicals, gunfire, speed.
My cell phone vibrates three times. Again, a message from the INS number: “Inauthenticity is the core to the self … the self has no core, but is an experience of division, of splitting.”
I ask McCarthy what this means. He denies any knowledge–misdialed maybe?
Crash is awash with semen: dried on leather car-seats, glistening on instrument panels. Vaughan’s semen, for Ballard, seems to bathe the entire landscape, “powering those thousands of engines, electric circuits and private destinies, irrigating the smallest gesture of our lives”…
He mentions the passage where Serge is working as an aerial observer and first snorts cocaine, the exhilaration he experiences, the hours that pass seemingly in minutes, and how he can barely contain himself after landing as he ejaculates over the plane’s tale. The erotic and destructive forces intermingle. There are the ravaging effects of gravity, force, and speed on the youthful bodies, “Their faces turn to leather–thick, nickwax-smeared leather each of whose pores stands out like a pothole in a rock surface–and grow deep furrows. Eyelids twitch; lips tremble and convulse in nervous spasms.” They stumble from landed planes with “sucked-in cheeks and swollen tongues.”
McCarthy says it may be more appropriate, and comfortable, to discuss such things while sitting on the bed. He refills our glasses and we kick off our shoes. My leg twitches inadvertently, like a cat’s.
He brings up Bataille, the connection between eros and death, and quotes, “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.”
I mention Rilke, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure.”
Another series of vibrations. I look at my phone: “We exist because we are awash in a sea of transmission, with language and technology washing through us.” I begin to wonder if this is part of an elaborate set-up.
I mention how the connection parallels something else McCarthy said during his Tate lecture: “Literature begins where identity and knowledge are ruptured, multiplied and transmitted along chains of language,” and transformed into something else. Isn’t that like sex with Tania, Serge’s masseuse?– “the tearing sound as though fabric were being ripped,” the hazy veil removed from his vision. What of Serge’s preoccupation with animal sounds, and getting it on from behind?”
McCarthy looks at me with rabid eyes and speaks of Bataille, the death of self in copulation, how a sensible woman in the throes of passion would appear to an unknowing bystander like a mad dog, like a bitch in heat. Of course there is Freud’s famous case of Sergei Pankajev, the Wolf Man, who witnessed his parents having sex doggy-style. Serge is an animal as all humans are, and his transgressions erotic.
McCarthy asks if I’ve read Story of The Eye.
I say I tried once with a boyfriend to reenact the scene of Simone breaking eggs. I unfortunately contracted salmonella vaginally. McCarthy runs his hand up my leg, admiring my stockings.
But C neither addresses larger questions about love and innocence and evil, nor unfolds into a searching examination of the consequences of art. Worse, C fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text.
McCarthy smiles. He speaks of society’s expectations that literature act as a mirror to liberal culture, where the self is never in question. He has “no qualms about deploying a type of realism as one of the frames in C” because “Everything is a code.”
He speaks against sentimentality of characters, fleshed out rather than, what Serge has been called–flat.
I ask, Franzen? What are his thoughts then on Freedom?
McCarthy graciously declines to comment. I tell him I heard a rumor he called Atonement kitsch at the INS hearing last night. He says, “Oh that Lorentzen!” Accuses him of putting words in his mouth.
Well, then, one last question: what of your popularity? McCarthy purged multiple members of the INS for caving to demands of mainstream publishing, i.e., becoming “complicit with a publishing industry whereby the ‘writer’ becomes merely the executor of a brief dictated by corporate market research, reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics (‘issues’ of ‘contemporary culture’, ‘post-colonial identity’ etc.) under the guise of genuine creative speculation.” Should McCarthy considering expelling himself, now that he’s been nominated for the Booker Prize?
Those members were expelled because “they had written what they had been told to write,” he explains, suggesting that he himself has transgressed. He holds little faith in the juries of the large prizes. Though the money–no one will argue–is rather nice.
He seems slightly agitated with this mention, gets up off the bed and puts on his jacket. I take this as my cue to put away my laptop and put on my shoes.
I leave the suite, gazing out at the vast topography of the city. While waiting for the elevator, my phone hums again, delivering what I interpret as a parting message: “We are all necronauts, always, already.”
Addendum: I submitted the above transcript for INS for approval, as requested, the day after the interview. Some quotes of texts and interviews have have been inserted and modified. I quickly received an email response from the Secretary’s secretary, stating that McCarthy had not conducted interviews of this type on the day of the tornado, and at 23:00 GMT, he had given a public reading at a bookstore in SoHo. The request to authenticate the document was denied, and the interview filed as apocrypha.