Tom McCarthy Talks His New Novel C, Cocaine, Cut-Ups, and William S. Burroughs

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.

In English novelist Tom McCarthy's new novel, C, the enigmas are many. And perhaps the most perplexing is the novel's title. Maybe it 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.

Yesterday, Cultist asked McCarthy about God, death, pirate radio, the International Necronautical Society, William S. Burroughs, and other mysteries.

New Times: In the past, you've described your fiction as atheistic. What does that mean?

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Tom McCarthy: I think it's confronting the absence of any absolute possibility of transcendence. The world is what there is, and the imagination has to engage with the world. I mean, there's no escape from the world into a higher realm in which everything will be resolved, whether that be God or neuroscience or New Age mysticism. (Laughs) For me, that's just not an option.

Failures in communication or failed messages seem just as significant to you as the instances of successful contact. What's the connection between the difficulty of communication and godlessness in your work?

I don't know much about this, but 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. It's not about having something to say, and it's not about listening to what characters have to say about themselves. I think it's about looking at a set frequencies and overlaps and interferences and detours and elisions, which would be miscommunications. And 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.

Does this idea of the world as a foreign, unknowable entity make it impossible for your characters to decode their realities?

I think the character in Remainder or Serge [of C], they have a very intense relationship with the external world. But it's not a relationship of comprehension. Even though Serge is trying to understand, he doesn't end up understanding but surrendering himself to the world and its noise, which kind of rushes through him. So he becomes not the decoder of the transmission, but he becomes a radio set, a receiver, a space through which the world and meaning rushes. And this rush is so strong that it blows the circuitry. It oversurges and he dies. For me, that's quite poetic. I find it quite beautiful, that kind of relationship to the world of complete surrender rather than intellectual mastery.

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 cut-up. 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 esthetic 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.

Can we talk about the International Necronautical Society? What is it?

The press often describes it as a semi-fictitious network. And I guess that's kind of right as long as we don't see fiction as the opposite of the real. The INS has committees. There are subcommittees. They're staffed by philosophers and artists and other writers, who get appointed and sometimes expelled. They do 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.

So I guess the INS is a network, which is clearly drawing on a number of fictions, not just Burroughs but also Kafka and Pynchon and Conrad whose novels have these shady international organizations. But it's also drawing on the historical avant-garde. There are the futurists and the surrealists with all their semi-corporate structures. Above all, though, it's a framework for doing stuff that's different from the novel or art piece or academic philosophy.

During my research, the internet told me that you sent a body double to the 2008 INS Declaration of Inauthenticity at the Tate Modern. How can we be sure that whoever shows up to your Miami reading is the real Tom McCarthy?

You can't.

Tom McCarthy. Friday, September 17. Books & Books, 927 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. The event begins at 7 p.m. and it's free. Call 305-532-3222 or visit

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