Tom McCarthy Goes to TED

Tom McCarthy Photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Whatever you make of Tom McCarthy’s mind-bending metafictions, the author one critic anointed “a young and British Thomas Pynchon” (and another called the U.K.’s “most galling interviewee”) has undeniably paid his dues. His first published novel, Remainder, about the survivor of a mysterious accident who restages life events on a grandiose scale, was rejected by every major British house before an art publisher printed 750 copies. Then Vintage in the U.S. picked it up as a paperback and, six years after he wrote it, the book was a critical hit. McCarthy had an easier time with C, a fairly sprawling Pynchon homage he calls “a fake historical novel,” which was a finalist for the Man Booker prize.

Those books and a third, Men in Space (a rewrite of a long-rejected novel), established McCarthy as a plausible heir to the near-moribund tradition of the readable avant-garde, last seen in the work of the late David Foster Wallace. It helped that he knew how and when to take the piss out of the postmodernists who influenced him (e.g., he’s a founding member of a “semi-fictitious” arts collective known as the International Necronautical Society).

His slim fourth novel, Satin Island, out next Tuesday, expands thoughtfully and amusingly on the themes in Remainder. The first-person struggles of U., an anthropologist producing corporate theory for a consulting company trafficking in TED-talk snake oil, are darkly funny, scarily real, and shot through with abstract digressions as magnetic as early DeLillo. And for the record, McCarthy is a perfectly pleasant interviewee.

What was the germ of the idea for this novel?

I had this dream, just like the character does, of “Satin Island,” this splendid, rich, but somehow putrid garbage dump. I actually woke myself up by saying “Satin Island.” And I immediately thought, that’s the next novel. Initially I wanted to deal with the problem of writing. What is the agency of the writer in the current era, when everything is already written — written by software, written by data? But I didn’t want to write another novel about a writer who can’t write a novel because I don’t think we need anymore of those, especially not by white men.

So that’s why you made U. a corporate anthropologist?

I was kind of into Claude Lévi-Strauss already, but the more you look into him, he basically wanted to become a great novelist. The irony is he’s a better writer than almost all the novelists of his generation. And more than 60 percent of all anthropology graduates now work for corporations. This idea of being compromised really intrigues me — of being implicated in the cogs and levers of capitalism.

U.’s job is basically to steal denatured bits of postmodern theory and use them to sell things. Is this satire?

It’s not really satire because all of this is just totally true. This is exactly what big consultancies do. I did my research. All this stuff about feeding Deleuze back into jeans companies, I didn’t make that up. I spent a day with a very cutting-edge architecture firm where they say the buildings are almost a byproduct. What it’s about is discourse. It’s like the 19th-century salon reinvented for the 21st century. So I mean a lot of what Peyman [the Svengali-like head of the corporation] says about universities being a dead model and the thinking taking place within businesses — that’s not just satire. It’s a very persuasive argument.

But if theory can be so easily co-opted, what does that say about theory?

It’s a naïve conceptual position, this idea of an unsullied, pure, uncompromised space outside the system. There is no space outside. And I think recognizing this is where agency begins. I think co-option in itself is neither a good nor a bad thing, it’s just a given. The question starts after that. What do we do given that?

We give TED talks? There’s a lecture like that in Satin Island.

Yes, then it does veer into satire. TED talks for me are the kind of perfect example of, like, smart stupidity — and basically Christian conservatism in disguise. The televangelist saying I’ve got the solution to everything in 15 minutes and it all comes down to neuroscience or some graphic user interface. And so my guy goes to Frankfurt and tries to give this talk that problematizes it and of course he’s got no purchase at all from the audience, who wants some quick meaning-biscuits.

The narrators of this book and Remainder seem alienated from humanity. U. rhapsodizes over beautiful oil spills and treats a parachutist’s death like a philosophical puzzle. Isn’t there something a bit autistic about these guys?

This is true, of course, but the whole of Satin Island is an in memoriam to his dead friend. U. is looking at the world with this intense passion, trying to make sense of it and to somehow love it or engage with it and merge with it in some almost theological way.

In a 2008 essay, Zadie Smith held up Remainder as a way forward for the “avant-garde” novel, as against the middlebrow realism that thrives instead. Did you agree with her argument?

Realism is as much a construct as anything else, so this dichotomy of realistic stuff and avant-garde stuff simply doesn’t hold. And then you’ve got the question of the real, which is something else, a psychoanalytic category. But I did read that Zadie Smith piece. It’s a good essay. It sets up a framework for thinking, and ultimately for disagreeing.

So what is it that you’re trying to say in your novels, however you categorize them?

It seems that something needs to be done, and it’s not about something being said. I don’t think there’s anything to say. Kafka has this story called “Investigations of a Dog.” Just think of a dog sniffing his way around some labyrinthine urban landscape, trying to work out the layout of things. And what’s interesting is not that it should be successfully done, but there’s this other thing, this compromised, failed crap you come up with. So the actual text you read, it’s the off cuts, all the bits that didn’t make it into the movie. And in a way the off cuts are more interesting. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do in this book.

How does the International Necronautical Society, which stages conceptual-art events in museums across Europe, fit in with your novels?

All the art projects I do are literary projects; the art world is just the place where they can be realized. Art is the only place where you can say, “I need a radio station, and all this other stuff, and it’s gonna cost quite a lot of money and it has no value and you can’t sell it,” and a curator can say, “Yeah, you’re right, let’s do it.” But I don’t really see a categorical difference. London had this explosion in the '90s of an art scene and suddenly that was where all the action was. In the same way that in France in the '50s and '60s all the characters like Lévi-Strauss and Derrida and Deleuze, they all became philosophers. A century earlier they would have been novelists.

Are there no talented novelists around today?

In the U.K. most of the literary talent has gone into the art world. Writing novels in a way that questions what the form might be, that seems to be happening more in New York than in London — Tao Lin, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Ben Marcus. In America you have less of this curse of middlebrow. People either want to read real trash or Thomas Pynchon.