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12 March 2015

Modernist and minimalist: on Tom McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant and Tom McCarthy's Satin Island have opposite problems: one too little stretched long, the other overstuffed.

By Leo Robson

The Buried Giant
Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber & Faber, 345pp, £20

Satin Island
Tom McCarthy
Jonathan Cape, 176pp, £16.99


The philosopher Stanley Cavell once wrote that Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger represent polar impulses – reading “nothing” and reading “everything”. Heidegger “assumes the march of the great names in the whole history of western philosophy”. Wittgenstein, by contrast, might “get around to mentioning half a dozen names”, and even then simply to identify some chanced-upon remark, “which seems to get its philosophical importance only from the fact that he finds himself thinking about it”. What Cavell failed to explain is how the know-it-all and the naif arrived in the same place: both harbouring a “romantic perception of human doubleness”, both taking “the obvious” to be the subject of philosophy, and both believing unlike the sceptical tradition that the fact of one’s existence can be known.

We cannot help but wonder why Heidegger bothered. Our favoured image of genius is of something quick, sponge-like, sweatless. T S Eliot argued that: “Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum.” Lex Luthor, thinking along similar lines in the 1978 Superman film, contrasted the people for whom War and Peace is “a simple adventure story” with those who “can read the ingredients on a chewing-gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe”. But what about the man who acquires a staggering amount of essential history from the British Museum – who can unlock the secrets of the universe from repeated readings of War and Peace?

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The English novelist Tom McCarthy prefers a read-everything approach. Heideg­ger’s attitude, by Cavell’s definition, is that “philosophy has still not found itself – until at least it has found you”. That is pretty much McCarthy’s take on literature. Although his canon is transhistorical, his emphases are ahistorical. Coming after futurism and Freud, Heidegger and high modernism, McCarthy feels able to identify themes such as transmission, simulation, encryption and repetition as far back as Aeschylus and Ovid. He has said that technology “reveals us to ourselves as we always in fact were: networked, distributed, laced with code”. But he also evokes the process chronologically. Heidegger’s work is “like a switchboard into which the Greeks all run, and through which their thought is transferred onwards to the likes of Levinas, Derrida and Virilio” – a line of descent that culminates in McCarthy’s own novels, Remainder, Men in Space, C and now Satin Island.

For McCarthy, writing is a continuation of reading – reading’s overflow. But reading isn’t just fuel. It offers contextual proof that a writer “gets it”. To excuse his fondness for the Rabbit books, he points to Updike’s education in Paris and his love for Maurice Blanchot, though he must know that Updike went to Harvard and found Blanchot pretentious. Mainstream writers, slaves to “sentimental humanism”, are dismissed because they “haven’t read Beckett”.

McCarthy’s revolution is wholly one of content, with form a mere enabler. He likes the image of the Trojan horse; he has said that the historical-realist surface of C allowed him to smuggle in “modernist and avant-garde preoccupations”. Satin Island is another Trojan horse, this one not so armoured. As he struggles to compose the Great Report for the Company, U, a corporate anthropologist, delivers a brainbox monologue in which he reflects on oil slicks, airports and buffering of digital data. It might seem odd that McCarthy should adopt such a familiar narrative method but it serves its function very well, providing a more accessible means of exploring circularity and between-ness than something that tries to enact or embody these ideas.

For much of the time, U’s numbered riffs and vignettes are a model of crisp, chilly philosophical prose. In the opening paragraph, he recalls that the image of Christ on the Turin Shroud was noticed only after an amateur photographer looked at the negative of a photograph he’d taken: “the negative became a positive, which means that the shroud itself was, in effect, a negative already”. Nothing much happens to U – he gives a conference paper, a girl he is sleeping with tells him an anecdote – but he keeps on encountering detritus and inhabiting spaces that provoke this sort of paradoxical thinking (what, after having so much fun with it, he disingenuously calls “whimsy-froth”). U’s report, driven by whatever passes his eyes or enters his in-box, gives free rein to the play of images, ironies and motifs – what McCarthy considers the lifeblood of literature.

The only ambition that Satin Island fails to realise is conceptual novelty. McCarthy has not, in fact, gone where the mainstream novel fails to go, or refuses to go. There is a great deal here that has been covered by Don DeLillo. And if a square like Updike could resemble Blanchot, showing a “totally European” sensibility, then what about his heirs: the Updike-worshipping Joseph O’Neill, for instance, whom Zadie Smith set against McCarthy in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel”? Like Satin Island O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, was written on a diet of “philosophical prose”. Both books exploit a narrator “disposed”, in O’Neill’s words, “toward theorising and rationalising” but “only occasionally given to recollection”. The argument over the alleged polarity of Remainder and Netherland continues but there can be no such debate around Satin Island and The Dog.

In his author’s note, McCarthy says that Satin Island contains “hundreds of borrow­ings, echoes, remixes and straight repetitions” – “like all books”. This description leaves no room for the kind of writer whose work originates outside what is going on in literary circles. Kazuo Ishiguro claims he turned from songwriting to fiction because of one novel, Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden, rather as Wittgenstein abandoned engineering for philosophy after reading Russell’s Principles of Mathematics. In a 2008 interview otherwise free from writers’ names, Ishiguro identified 13 novels, by Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and so on – along with Chekhov’s stories – as giving writers “a very solid foundation”. None of his books has an epigraph.

Despite the difference in their temperaments, Ishiguro’s novels have a great deal in common with Tom McCarthy’s: glazed narrators, dream-logic and the same philosophical approach – unmaterialist, anti-historical – enabled by a Trojan horse. One possible reason is that the novelist who reads everything and the novelist who reads nothing are liable to share a belief in continuity, eternal verities, even if the novelist who reads everything is better equipped with proof. Hence the glazed narrators, who represent what Ishiguro calls “the universal part of us that is afraid of getting involved emotionally”. Hence the dream-logic: “the language of dreams is a universal language”.

For both writers the way a theme is expressed is almost irrelevant. McCarthy has said Remainder and Men in Space, though opposite in style and covering different epochs, are “concerned with the same things: repetition, inauthenticity, failed transcendence”. Ishiguro is similarly dismissive of the particular. “I chose these settings for a particular reason,” he said in 1989: “they are potent for my themes.” And in Never Let Me Go (2005) there were things he was “more interested in than the clone thing”. The boarding school? No, that was just “a nice metaphor for childhood”. As Haruki Murakami, a far more devotedly “Japanese” writer, says of the work: “the place could be anywhere, the character could be anybody and the time could be any time”.

Where McCarthy and Ishiguro diverge sharply is on the subject of what transcends time and space. McCarthy, insisting that modern themes have always existed, emphasises Plato’s reference in The Sophist to the copy that has no original. Ishiguro says simply that Plato writes about “what is good”. Ishiguro has called football a metaphor for life. U, in Satin Island, rhapsodises over shapes: “the football’s backspin. And the net’s grid, exploding.”

Writing fiction when you’re not interested in the material or particular might seem odd, and possibly fruitless. It raises the question: why bother building the horse when you only care about the men? Ishiguro has experienced the contrary worry: why bother preparing the men if people see only the horse? What if over-literal readers mistake the icing for the essence? (The possibility that a book might be read both literally and symbolically does not seem to occur to him.) His solution, in The Unconsoled, Never Let Me Go and his new novel, The Buried Giant, has been a retreat into fantasy, partly in order to tweak the landscape to fit his purposes, but mainly to avoid being mistaken for a chronicler or historical realist.

The setting of The Buried Giant is not a mythical space but an alternative version of medieval England peopled with ogres and sprites, through which an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, wander in search of their son. Along the way, they encounter an old knight, Sir Gawain, and a warrior called Wistan, who are both on the trail of the fabled dragon Querig.

At the start, the eccentric anthropological narrator says that Axl and Beatrice may not be the couple’s “exact or full names” but we shall call them this “for ease”. Everything in the novel is done “for ease” – to allow Ishiguro to explore his chosen theme with minimal distraction. Just as Axl and Beatrice are types – Adam and Eve, Man and Woman – so the space through which they move is designed to make a point. A mist hangs over the land, robbing everyone of memories. As Axl says, it serves to emphasise the central metaphor: “It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday . . . Like a sickness come over us all.”

The problem with stripping fiction down to what you know in advance you want to say, protecting the “essential” by barring entry to everything else, is that you select incidental detail on the grounds that it doesn’t carry meaning. There are rules and customs in Ishiguro’s dank and lonely England; rumours of old conflicts; bits and bobs regarding fauna. But nothing happens that might complicate or enrich the basic matter of what Axl and Beatrice have forgotten, whether it’s a good thing (“If you’ve no memory of it, princess, then let it stay forgotten”), why they have forgotten it and whether that matters: “Axl, wouldn’t it be a fine thing to know the cause of the mist?” “A fine thing indeed, but what good it will do, I don’t know.”

Even the monastery that provides the location for the novel’s only proper set piece is notable chiefly because of events, shrouded in mist, that occurred decades earlier, when it was “a hillfort . . . well made to fight off foes”. Most of the dialogue takes the form of questions that can’t be answered (“Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?”) or requests that can’t be met.

Ishiguro has retained his old habit, carried over from using buttoned-up narrators to unfold thriller narratives, of keeping his cards close to his chest. But nothing is gained from so tenaciously withholding the events on which the book turns. It just leaves us with acres vaguely concerned with one theme, and then a paragraph of revelation. After 340 closely printed pages, the characters are finally brought out of the darkness, and the reader put of her misery.

Whatever danger it might pose to clarity, a properly constructed Trojan horse, with polished slats and a bit of pride in the craftsmanship, certainly has its virtues. For one thing, it relieves the pressure on what is being carried inside – in this case, an idea that can summed up in a sentence (and pretty much is). If McCarthy’s motif-based approach occasionally risks seeming overstuffed as he offers more examples of the same few phenomena, Ishiguro has realised the opposite danger: a lumbering fable,
Aesop stretched to Austen length.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

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