Novelist Tom McCarthy on C, pirate radio, and cutups
In English novelist Tom McCarthy's new novel, C, the enigmas are many. Static, deep silence, and the sound of thought waves wind and rush through Serge Carrefax. A boy raised on an English estate where his radio-obsessed father ran a school for the deaf, Serge watches his teenage sister Sophie die, serves as a radio operator during World War I, becomes a POW, escapes and joins an underground intelligence network called the Empire Wireless Chain, sneaks into Egypt, and gets hooked on cocaine.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect is the title of the novel, which has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award in England. Maybe C refers to Carrefax. Or maybe it's shorthand for the book's many sections — "Caul," "Chute," "Crash," and "Call." Or maybe the title points toward Cairo or coke.
Last week, McCarthy appeared at Books & Books on South Beach. New Times spoke with him about his new novel, pirate radio, the International Necronautical Society, William S. Burroughs, and other mysteries.
New Times: The idea of the radio being a gateway to the underworld crops up in much of your work. Do you think there's a sort of essential nugget of truth there?
Tom McCarthy: I think there is. I mean, radio waves travel forever. There are aliens listening to dead people on the radio even as we speak, right? [Laughs] If we were far out in the reaches of outer space, we could pick up radio transmissions from the 1930s and listen to the voices of people long, long dead. When I was doing the research for my novel, I discovered that seances became enormously popular after World War I and that these spiritualists, instead of talking about spirits, start talking about frequencies and picking up. They used this radio vocabulary to describe what they're doing — "I'm receiving messages" and "I'm tuning into the resonations of your dead son." So radio kind of invades the popular imagination, and it has an intimate relationship with death and processes of bereavement.
Your fiction has most often dealt with radio. But there's obviously an indirect connection to computer coding and encryption.
In a way, C is kind of indirectly about that. I don't believe in historical fiction. I would never describe C as historical fiction even though it's set 100 years ago. I think it's very much about the present and our relationship to media and the role that media plays in the life of our imagination and desires. What's interesting is that the reactions to the emergence of radio were almost identical to the reactions to things like the Internet and Twitter. The same goes for a lot of the debates that took place. You know, radio activists going, "We don't want to be regulated. We don't want a central broadcaster," which of course is what they got with people like the BBC. The debates that are going on around the Internet were happening 100 years ago, so looking at that was a more liberating way of being able to write about the present without actually having to name it.
Failures in communication or failed messages seem just as significant to you as the instances of successful contact.
In communication theory, there's this distinction that's always made between signal and noise. Signal is good; noise is bad. Noise is what erodes the signal and clouds it up. But I'm kind of more interested in noise, rather than signal. To jump sideways a bit, when you're conducting psychoanalysis, if you're Freud, it's about listening. But you're not listening to what the patient actually has to say; you're listening precisely to what he doesn't say — the bits, the gaps, the left-outs, the slips of the tongue, the mistakes, and the interruptions. For Freud, that's where the real, latent content comes through. And I think it's the same in literature. Miscommunications tell more than communications. This is how poetry works. It's all about indirection. And bizarrely, I think that all good literature is concerned with communication failure rather than successful communication.
The critical reception of C has been more mixed than your other novel, Remainder. There are people who think C was designed to be more difficult and even frustrating than your past novels. Is that an intentional effect?
I didn't really set out to make it difficult. In C, there's a much broader canvas about this convergence of history and technology and the arts and Egyptology, so I guess there's just a lot more information in it. And I suppose in both novels, there's a rejection or a refusal to abide by a certain kind of sentimentalism. But in C, it might stand out more because this poor guy loses his sister and you would expect him to emote or say, "I feel really sad." And the book deliberately refuses that. He feels no emotion. In fact, he even has an erection at the funeral, which incidentally I got straight from Freud's case history of the Wolf Man. The point is, it might suggest that it's kind of a cold book. But I didn't see it at all. It's about love, ultimately, this deep desire that drives Serge through his era. I just wanted it to play out at a deeper level, not at the level of sentimentalism.
There are strains of William S. Burroughs — his bleakness and his paranoia — in your work. Do you consider him a major reference point?
Oh, God. He's a total hero of mine. I think he's one of the most important writers, not just of the 20th Century, but, like, ever. Serge is a kind of William Burroughs figure, and not just that he's a junkie. With his radio sessions, it's like what he's making is a cutup. He's taking all these bits of information from media at large — newspaper reports, lines of poetry, sports results — and just merging them together. I was thinking very, very directly of Burroughs and Brion Gysin. And it's not just an aesthetic exercise. There's a political and even metaphysical side to it. Burroughs thought we were living within some program, some master script that needs to be cut up and subverted. It's a basic Calvinist, puritan thing. And that's what the writer's task is. That whole impulse and vision was a huge guiding light for me when I was writing C.
Your underground art collective, the International Necronautical Society (INS) — what is it?
The press often describes it as a semifictitious network. And I guess that's kind of right as long as we don't see fiction as the opposite of the real. [The organization does] things in various countries. Some of them might take the form of quite conventional art exhibitions or publications. Others are more surreptitious. For example, we broke into the BBC webpage a few years ago. We have an agent on the inside who inserted INS propaganda into the source code of the site. That wasn't exactly an art project. But I guess the most ambitious set of INS projects has been radio transmissions. In the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, we had a propaganda unit cut up loads of newspapers and mixed it with lines from Ovid or Shakespeare or stock market prices and rearranged it all into sequences that were read out over the radio, broadcast around London, and collaboratively through radio stations around the world. The project was named "Calling All Agents," straight out of Burroughs. The idea was to create a viral network of transmission. And actually, C came out of this work. I had the idea for C while I was setting all this up.
You sent a body double to the 2008 INS Declaration of Inauthenticity at the Tate Modern. How do we know the man at last Friday's Books & Books reading was the real Tom McCarthy?
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