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1 July 2017updated 03 Jul 2017 9:29am

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Tom McCarthy’s essays are both impressive and frustrating

The footballer Zinedine Zidane is granted a recurring role, alongside David Lynch and Gerhard Richter.

By Leo Robson

This is a substantial (if somewhat minority-interest) piece of work – trenchant, original, curious, deftly argued, and sometimes maddening. Tom McCarthy, the author of the novels C and Satin Island as well as a distinctive study of the Tintin books, has been pretty much the first critic since Frank Kermode in the 1970s to produce literary theory, unsweetened and undiluted, for a non-specialist audience (many of the 15 essays originated as magazine articles and introductions to paperback classics).

Like Kermode, McCarthy is traditionally well educated, with a formal, at times fusty turn of phrase (“it refers in grand part to the former”, “the man is a true polymath”); unlike him, however, he is presenting theory from the inside, not as something that requires decoding, or as a set of tools you might from time to time apply, but as a native way of thinking whose foreignness he cannot always see. When he writes that a certain proposition will become “abundantly clear”, he is either mistaking his own compressed, flirtatious approach for something more expository, or showing an alarming degree of confidence in the reader.

To McCarthy, literature offers not glimpses of human nature, nor even dramatised ideas, but something direct and experiential: contact with what he calls “matter” and “the real”. In a superb synoptic essay on Jean-Philippe Toussaint, a novelist with “that quintessentially French distinction of being Belgian” – a tag that, like so much of McCarthy, could be found either playful or laughable – he announces: “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals . . . geometry is everything.” Geometry – and prosthetics, cybernetics, coincidences, cars (including dodgems), mechanical repetition. Among the writers claimed for this anti-humanist agenda are the usual suspects Kafka, Faulkner, Sterne and Joyce (the subject of one of the longer, juicier and less paraphraseable essays), as well as Freud, Thomas Mann and Virgil.

A problem with this revisionist agenda, in which writers shed their familiar shape, is that McCarthy still relies on consensual positions as both a shorthand (“Coleridgean”, “neo-Rilkean”, “very Heideggerian”, “utterly Perecian”) and a straw man. To argue that “realism’s founders” recognise the artificiality of their “carefully wrought edifices”, he erects a parody of the realist’s customary naivety.

“Flaubert may have written Madame Bovary,” he writes in the mostly scintillating essay “Get Real”, “but he also wrote Bouvard and Pécuchet.” Balzac, the creator of many “rounded” counts and countesses in his vast sequence La Comédie humaine, exposed in his novella Sarrasine “the very mechanism” underpinning the fantasy of roundedness. But Madame Bovary, though not as outwardly proto-postmodern as ­Bouvard and Pécuchet, has attracted plenty of commentary about its self-awareness – for example, from Jonathan Culler, the great Anglo-American importer of theoretical concepts. It is possible to imagine Roland Barthes, whose granular study S/Z (1970) made Sarrasine synonymous with anti-realist rebellion, doing similar work on, say, the opening passages of Balzac’s supposedly traditional Père Goriot, in which scene-setting is achieved by an almost winky pointillism, every detail alerting us to the cumulative “plausibility”. (In any case, Sarrasine is part of the Comédie humaine.)

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The footballer Zinedine Zidane is granted a recurring role, which might be thought fair enough, because he is no less a genius than other subjects such as Gerhard Richter, David Lynch, or the jellyfish, presented for tortuous reasons as the embodiment of the literary impulse. But the Zidane material reveals McCarthy at his most inconsistent, corner-cutting, and cute. An essay on “nothing” ends with some reflections on Zidane in which McCarthy, usually resistant to “historical reductionism” and indifferent to his subjects’ own ideas, considers the relevance of the player’s “Arabic heritage” and takes full advantage of his more gnomic remarks. Though McCarthy expresses familiar fondness for the theorist’s B-brigade – Barthes, Bataille, Baudelaire, Badiou, Beckett, Bergson, Blanchot, Ballard, Benjamin – he also finds a sort of fatal inevitability in Zidane headbutting his fellow double-Z, the Italian Marco Materazzi.

Paraphrasing Toussaint’s pamphlet Zid­ane’s Melancholy, McCarthy claims that the headbutt was only noticed on the replay screen. It was, he writes, “always already mediated, even for those present”. (Other examples of the studiedly paradoxical sub-Žižekian theory-tic include the author’s naming of the BT Tower, instead of St Paul’s, as London’s “religious heart” and his claim that Samuel Beckett is a better Holocaust writer than Primo Levi.) But then McCarthy, again channelling Toussaint, decides that the incident wasn’t witnessed at all in any degree of mediation, because another Z, the Greek philosopher Zeno, in one of his motion paradoxes, tells us that Zidane’s head could never have reached its desired target.

It is notable that McCarthy chooses not to shun this conclusion when one of his favourite moves is to go only a certain way with someone else’s idea. In “Get Real”, Michel Leiris and J G Ballard are both declared disappointing when something initially McCarthy-shaped takes a swerve towards humanism. But he clearly enjoys the notion, however defective, that Zeno frustrated Zidane, philosophical logic defeated human agency – and so he gives it a pass. 

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays
Tom McCarthy
New York Review Books, 276pp, £10.99

This article appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague