First aired on
Writers & Company (11/28/10)
Tom McCarthy is one of the most inventive writers of the 21st century. But for a period of time, he was better known for his work in the art world than for his novels.
As a conceptual artist, he produced reports, manifestos and media interventions at galleries around the world. He was the co-creator of a semi-fictitious avant garde collective called the International Necronautical Society and he fiercely embraced modernism — citing James Joyce, Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, the English dystopian novelist J.G. Ballard and the American experimentalist Thomas Pynchon as major influences.
In fact, McCarthy's first novel, Remainder, was first published by a Paris-based art press &mdash: partly because of his connections with the art scene and partly because the book was initially rejected by mainstream publishers.
Remainder is an oddly compelling story about a man who is severely injured in a mysterious accident involving a falling object. He's patched back together, receives a huge sum in compensation and then proceeds to re-enact, in great detail, scenes from his life and surroundings.
Novelist and essayist Zadie Smith described Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past 10 years. According to Smith, McCarthy's work signals an imaginative alternative direction for 21st-century English fiction.
McCarthy continues his groundbreaking direction in his ambitious new novel, C. Here he focuses on a period marked by developments in telecommunications, modernism and war. Even though the time is ostensibly the early 20th century, it resonates today.
Shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, C has undoubtedly benefited from the hard-won success of Remainder. McCarthy is quick to point out that other novelists trying to take a similar stylistic approach might find securing a publisher and an audience much more difficult.
"If you're a writer starting out now and you want to get a novel published, it'd better have a nice sympathetic character and a straightforward story that hopefully involves overcoming some hardship," McCarthy told Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel.
For McCarthy, it's a state of affairs that's hard to understand. Especially given that his approach to fiction, and its inspiration, are not exactly new.
"I think for at least 100 years, we've had such good writing that has begun to understand that there is no individual outside of language — outside of power, culture, society...We are given over to the fragmentation and vertigo of that process," McCarthy later said. "It seems a pity that the mainstream debate around literature has seemed to just turn its back on that and retreated to some kind of almost 19th century idyll of what fiction should be. I think this is regrettable and needs to be resisted, acted against aggressively. And that's what I'm trying to do."