Is there hope for U?

Christopher Tayler

  • Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
    Cape, 192 pp, £16.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 224 09019 3

By the end of the 1980s, two formerly arcane disciplines with roots in the French 1940s were readily available to British aspirants. One was post-structuralism, which not many years earlier you’d have had to go to Paris or New Haven to hear about. Now you could pick up the rudiments of it in any university town, and though there was still an exciting whiff of controversy around ‘theory’, a topic known to make right-wing broadsheets and Oxbridge fellows see red, there were many well-written bluffer’s guides, headed up by Terry Eagleton’s. The other discipline was sampling, which originated with the mad scientists of musique concrète and spread into pop in ways that demanded either rock star-size funds – only the likes of Kate Bush could afford the first ‘computer musical instruments’ – or, in the case of hip-hop, dexterity and staying power with mixers and turntables. Cheaper units like the E-mu SP-1200, launched in 1987, made it relatively easy to create whole albums out of chopped-up clips from old records. Six seconds of drumming from ‘Amen, Brother’, a B-side released in 1969 by a funk outfit called the Winstons, became the basis of several genres of dance music in the early 1990s.

If you were a literary type coming of age around then and in revolt against tweediness, it was hard not to feel that the second of these developments had an occult connection to the first. You might not have been too sure if ‘postmodernism’ was a condition imposed by history or something you could try at home, but either way it seemed fine to speak with great confidence, under its capacious umbrella, of lines running – as Eagleton might have put it – from Baudrillard to the Beastie Boys. It was easy to agree that all writing was ‘a tissue of quotations’, and that the writer’s ‘only power is to mix’, as Roland Barthes taught, when DJ Shadow was riding high. Techno’s imagery fitted well with the traces and fields that post-structuralism traded in, and the rave scene’s communal, anti-starry ethos could with a bit of imaginative effort be seen as another form of disdain for the bourgeois humanist subject. If you were, say, a stoned Oxford undergraduate in 1995 (a state Derrida himself might not have judged too harshly: hadn’t his translator judged it OK to have him write of memory in the Phaedrus ‘letting itself get stoned by its own signs’?), you might have caught yourself suspecting that the refrain from the Prodigy’s ‘Poison’ – ‘I’ve got the poison! I’ve got the remedy!’ – was a kind of breakbeat version of ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’.

For my cohort of students, all this gave an alluringly zeitgeisty air to ideas that had been formulated before most of us were born and in contexts we didn’t know much about. That wasn’t a problem if, like me, you’d decided that modernity lived chiefly in 1922, and that most writing since Molloy or thereabouts was a series of failures to catch up. Derrida was a fan of Joyce and Beckett, and for students of literature a lot of his clout derived from them, rather as Pound’s pronouncements had been backed up by Eliot’s poetry. Now that their teachings were widely disseminated, perhaps the Parisian thinkers of 1968 would serve a new wave of writers as a conduit for those lost energies. It was important, too, that the cardinal names were from the Continent. From reading progressive newspapers we knew that Europe was the future; its parliament, if not exactly sexy, at least made John Major’s backbenchers foam at the mouth. And maybe Derrida’s trademarked ‘always already’, or Barthes’s writer who ‘can only imitate a gesture that is … never original’, spoke with more than usual force, in those end-of-historyish times, to our late adolescent feelings of belatedness.

As we, or I, slowly realised, however, our belatedness went further than we’d thought. By the mid-1990s it was clear to all but the most cobwebbed of our instructors that theory wasn’t the intellectual crack epidemic some had feared. Dust was settling on the scuffles of the 1970s and 1980s, and if it was no longer unsettlingly radical to read Discipline and Punish or bits of the Ecrits, it was no longer a mark of the blackest reaction to allow that Foucault was impressionistic with facts or that Lacan manifested cult-leaderish tendencies. The academic careers to be built on theory had largely been built; the hardest-core young Derridean among our teachers later drifted off into management consultancy and wasn’t alone in doing so. And the French-style rhetorical flourishes that some of us were quite taken with didn’t always survive first contact with the actually existing literary world, in which editors were all too likely to pounce – as an editor does in Tom McCarthy’s novel Men in Space when a character slips talk of ‘the Western epistème’ into an art review – on instances of ‘pretentious bollocks’. After discovering Pierre Bourdieu, I even began to wonder if a taste for difficult, academically consecrated writers was as big a leap away from the status-prizing values of an expensive education and South-Eastern English background as I’d supposed.

Over the years that followed, the theory-inflected, neo-modernist fiction I’d anticipated stubbornly failed to show up, or remained the property of American writers working more from indigenous than from European models. Jonathan Franzen, an apostate from their ranks, helped make the ex-theorist schlub a stock character. David Foster Wallace, a true believer of sorts, envied Dostoevsky’s pre-postmodern sincerity. Then everything seemed to get turned round and I was suddenly too old to be able to speak with confidence about the totality of Western culture, or to police an NME-style divide between the enlightened and the ‘formally reactionary’. People who knew what they were talking about appeared not to care which side a writer who was any good ought to be assigned to, which made it confusing when McCarthy – who often does know what he’s talking about – appeared on the scene and began to pronounce anathemas on the ‘humanists’ who’d taken the novel into a ‘naturalist, head-in-the-sand, ostrichlike hidey-hole’.

McCarthy’s views, which play out in his fiction in ways he’s happy to unpack for sympathetic interlocutors, aren’t as dogmatic as he sometimes makes them sound. He doesn’t require novelists to wear the right gang colours: Dickens, who’s ‘meant to be the apogee of realist, character-filled writing’, isn’t as bad as all that (‘the first passages of Great Expectations are totally deconstructionist’). Nor are Updike’s Rabbit books (though McCarthy disapproves of ‘all that perfectly crafted but ultimately banal stuff that he wrote for the New Yorker year after year’). He knows it’s foolish to see literary history as a ‘narrative of progress’, and doesn’t think that ‘aping or even upgrading the mannerisms of a previous vanguard moment is that interesting’. All the same, he often gives the impression of being a messianic convert to all things theoretical who went into cryogenic suspension in the early 1990s, was defrosted only recently and now suffers from culture shock over the ‘stunningly naive’ assumptions that people still make. The period flavour is a matter of tone and imagery as much as anything, starting with the way he pictures a writer’s function as ‘simply plugging literature into other literature … If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.’

What kind of music does McCarthy envision the writer DJing? When he speaks of literature as conveying ‘a set of signals … repeating, pulsing, modulating’ in the manner of an analogue synthesiser, classic techno seems to be what he has in mind. (The image comes from Transmission and the Individual Remix, an ebook he published in 2012, which begins with a close reading of a Kraftwerk song.) Elsewhere contemporary artists, and by extension writers of the sort McCarthy aims to be, sound more like vinyl-hoarding hip-hop producers, ‘referencing other work, sampling other stuff from the past or the present’. The Pixies and other late-1980s indie greats show up in Men in Space, along with the Velvet Underground, but beyond a character’s passing swipe at ‘fucking Mozart’, I’m pretty sure McCarthy’s analogical record bag doesn’t contain anything you couldn’t have heard in a 1990s DJ bar. (The narrator of Remainder drinks at the Dogstar, a real-life yuppified Brixton pub that claims to be the first such venue in London.) Mass-market pop acts and sappily poetic singer-songwriters need not apply, just as McCarthy has no time for either ‘the middlebrow commercial novel’ or the ‘sub-Carver-style realism’ that was all the rage in Iowa back then.

One explanation for the time-stamped nature of the cultural materials McCarthy likes to work with is that he’s a pure product of those years. Born in 1969, he grew up in Greenwich, went to Dulwich College and then read English at New College, Oxford, at the height of theory’s insurrectionary glamour in the late 1980s. Eagleton apart, the university would have provided plentiful examples of stuffy old-school scholars and unimpressed analytical philosophers and of how not to be coolly metropolitan. (In Remainder, published in 2005, an American visitor returns from a trip to Oxford to the narrator’s London flat and says of the students that ‘it’d be like great if you could shrink them down and keep them in a tank, like termites.’ Remembering his own time as a student in a ‘crappy provincial town’, the narrator calls her comment ‘the first interesting thing she’d said since she’d arrived’.) By the late 1990s, when theory was becoming just another module, he was safely outside the education system, having spent time in Prague and Amsterdam and begun to make a name for himself on the London art scene. Apart from a stint writing book reviews for Time Out’s Amsterdam edition, he remained uncontaminated by the literary-journalistic-publishing sector’s outlook.

McCarthy’s art-world affiliations explain his seemingly genuine puzzlement over the non-centrality of Bataille, Lacan et al to the way most fiction gets written and discussed. Yet he doesn’t produce word salad of the kind that visual artists are encouraged to toss together in order to draw attention to their art-school credentials. In Tintin and the Secret of Literature, his 2006 book on Hergé, and in his occasional essays, his posture comes across as a faintly parodic version of a self-assured young lecturer’s. The audience is projected as being essentially onside – agreeing it’s ‘a little disappointing’ that J.G. Ballard wasn’t fully down with the programme, or ‘snickering’ along with the speaker at ‘the words “Slack”, “erect” and “Cox”’ in a passage from Ford Madox Ford – but also as sufficiently new to the world to need telling with some firmness that illusionistic realism is ‘a literary convention – no more, no less’. We’re pictured, perhaps, as eager first-year students, ready to have our minds blown:

When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without their even realising it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying – and reactionary – notions of the (always ‘natural’ and pre-existing, rather than constructed) self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for ‘expression’, and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Eagleton made the first point more snappily on the opening page of Literary Theory: An Introduction in 1983, taking care to credit the rhetorical move to Keynes’s remark about ‘practical men’ being ‘usually the slaves of some defunct economist’. Like Eagleton’s primer, too, with its famously absent chapter on feminism, McCarthy adduces an intellectual world that’s uncomplicatedly, almost innocently male-dominated. Mildly laddish humour is one of his favourite means of bringing the register a few notches back down, and his range of reference is unselfconsciously blokey if Warhol, Beckett, Burroughs, Michel Leiris and Friedrich Kittler qualify as blokes.


‘What worries me,’ Beckett wrote in a letter after reading Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie, ‘is all his own theorising, but the result belies it.’ I can’t help feeling similarly that McCarthy’s writing would generate a stronger mystique if he didn’t go around suggesting that it’s done by piecing together off-the-peg tropes from the Calder backlist and the gurus appropriate to his age and station. But – with the partial exception of his 2010 novel C, which is so clearly written outwards from ready-made thematic grace notes as to be, for long stretches, narratively dead (in a bad rather than a McCarthyishly ‘necronautical’ sense) – his fiction isn’t as inertly programmatic as he likes to make out. There’s a basic poetic substance to his master-images of transmission, reception and repetition, sex and mourning and death, no matter how ardently he later sets about unpacking them. Men in Space – his first novel, written mostly in the 1990s, though not published until 2007, after Remainder – shows him handling such suspect devices as individuated point-of-view characters pretty well. Remainder wears its conceptual ambitions lightly and makes effective running gags out of its anti-conventional repetitions. It’s also an impressive exercise in sustaining tension using limited means.

Another difference between his novels and the way he talks about them is that they’re able to register where they’re coming from in ways that statements of anti-humanist doctrine can’t. In Men in Space, a preoccupation with the collapse of ‘grand narratives’ doesn’t rule out more direct observation of life in Prague shortly after the fall of communism. Remainder is, among other things, a satire on South London gentrification and the strange things people do in the name of authenticity. At the same time, the heroes of C and Remainder aren’t applauded for their in-your-face shallowness, which extends to the way they think about women mostly in terms of hotness as well as McCarthy’s stylised horror of psychological depth. Each feels cut off from a world of authentic feeling by a shadowily traumatic event, and though their efforts to remedy the situation are comically and/or lethally misguided, a kind of minimal pathos gathers round their wish to do so. Judging from the way he sneers both downward and upward (‘The receptionist here made Olanger and Daubenay’s sloanette look like a supermarket checkout girl’), the guy from Remainder is also a guiltily class-mystifying bourgeois. There’s even a bat-squeak suggestion that the institutions which might sustain, say, a career as a conceptual artist aren’t necessarily any more benign than those behind the liberal-humanist racket.

‘While “official” fiction has retreated into comforting nostalgia about kings and queens,’ McCarthy wrote in the Guardian in March, ‘it is funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde.’ At the time I took him to be saying that it’s better to be Tyler Brûlé than Hilary Mantel. But I’m not so sure after reading Satin Island, which often comes across as a dry, despairing satire on McCarthy’s mantle-assuming coevals. The narrator – ‘Call me U,’ he says – is a deeply blank man in his early forties who was briefly famous as a highly period-specific type of hipster-intellectual. ‘For three years, in the 1990s – my mid-to-late twenties – I spent a large portion of my waking (and sleeping) hours among clubbers. I took a barman job in Bagleys; spent off-nights at the Fridge, the Ministry of Sound, the Velvet Rooms and Turnmills; took poppers, speed, MDMA; the lot. By the end I was helping procure venues for illicit raves.’ His adventures resulted first in a doctoral thesis and then in a trade-published anthropology text ‘in which I meditated on contemporary ethnographic method and its various quandaries’. For instance: ‘What constitutes “interrogation” … ? Does sex with a Lycra-miniskirted informant on your writing table at 5 a.m. when you’re both tripping count?’

On the strength of this performance, U was hired as an in-house ethnographer by a super-consultancy which he refers to only as ‘the Company’. The events he’s now recounting (‘events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now’) begin with the Company winning the contract for ‘the Koob-Sassen Project’. This is an immense supra-governmental scheme, also known as the ‘Grand Metamorphosis’, which, for legal reasons, as with the opening accident in Remainder, he can’t tell us anything about. ‘It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other … changed.’ Koob-Sassen isn’t secret, though: ‘Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring. And complex.’ Naturally it’s not made clear how U’s writer-like activities – watching YouTube videos, Googling random stuff, compiling notes on his dreams, occasionally speaking at conferences – feed into the vast work of semiotic engineering in which his bosses are apparently engaged. It isn’t clear to U either, but like someone who’s landed a grant from a demanding but slow-moving foundation, he’s intermittently patted on the head and told to press on with his ‘Great Report’, an assignment whose all-encompassing, directionless nature occasionally gives him sleepless nights.

As far as the overarching plot goes, that’s about it. U frets over his report, decides to sabotage Koob-Sassen, realises he can’t be bothered, goes on a trip to New York and signs off, ‘suspended between two types of meaninglessness’, while watching crowds board the Staten Island ferry. Along the way he checks in from time to time with a handful of characters, most of whom are explicitly reduced to simple narrative functions. There’s Daniel, a ‘visual culture guy’, whose function is to show DeLilloesque video clips. There’s Petr, a vaguely laddish friend, whose function is to get thyroid cancer. (‘Bummer,’ U says when one treatment doesn’t work.) There’s Madison, ‘whom I’d met two months previously in Budapest’, whose function is to have sex with him. (‘When I arrived at Madison’s, we had sex.’) And there’s Peyman, U’s boss, a famous corporate thinker whose functions include being hard to get meetings with and coining ‘instantly memorable’ aphorisms such as ‘Location is irrelevant: what matters is not where something is, but rather where it leads.’ Without Peyman, U says, ‘we would never have come up with these thoughts’, they were ‘quite beyond us’. ‘Even the fact that it didn’t quite make sense made sense, while he was talking.’

U’s own thoughts, which fill the bulk of the book’s numbered paragraphs, riff on Lévi-Strauss and Malinowski, murder by parachute sabotage, buffering, boutique coffeeshops owned secretly by Starbucks, his feeling that it would be cool to have a secret guerrilla army of participant-observers at his disposal, and many other topics. We’re not expected to be surprised by his failure to bring them into a magical alignment that discloses ‘the First and Last Word on our age’, as Peyman hopes he’ll do. If there’s a hidden centre to his musings, it’s probably tucked away in the grungy images – oil slicks, tarmac, cancer cells, vinyl, the Fresh Kills waste disposal site in Staten Island – that McCarthy weaves in and out of one another in the margins of U’s consciousness. I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned out to be explicable by way of Bataille’s notion of base materialism or, as U quite often says, whatever. But there’s much less of a feeling than there was in C that we’re being invited to get to work on a master’s thesis. The tone is predominantly comic, and not only as a way of letting some of the air out of U’s occasional moments of French-style orotundity. As the paragraphs pile up, it seems increasingly clear that McCarthy is poking around among his entire project’s emotional and political sore spots.

The narrator’s limited inner life, for example, isn’t only a matter of sticking two fingers up at mainstream assumptions concerning characterisation. Like most of McCarthy’s men, but without any trauma behind him this time round, he’s presented as someone who’s excluded from what he might call the affective economy by his raging self-consciousness and feeling of belatedness. News comes of Petr’s death, and ‘the thoughts you’re meant to think in such a situation … seemed so crass that I didn’t even bother to think them. Instead, I thought about the message itself, its provenance.’ Full marks for detaching signifier from signified, but somehow getting full marks doesn’t cut it. When someone calls an environmental disaster ‘a tragedy’, U’s response is to tell him pissily that the word derives from ‘the ancient Greek custom of driving out a sheep, or tragos (usually a black one), in a bid to expiate a city’s crimes’. Full marks again. Sitting around in his office considering the ‘plain and big-boned’ Ulrike Meinhof (‘my network of highly educated, highly trained subversives … would be the sexiest, best-dressed, most orgasmic revolutionaries ever’), U is under no illusions about having become a pseudo-radical aesthete who’s paid to serve as an ornament in corporate conference rooms.

Is there hope for U? That’s not a question McCarthy seems interested in answering, or posing. But the outlook for his own enterprise looks all the better the more he puts the boot in. In one memorable sequence, Madison rouses herself and tells U the story of a David Lynch-like episode involving creepy transmissions and a well-dressed man with a cattle prod, a story from her unsuspected past as a political activist. And there’s a very funny sequence in which U flies to a conference on ‘The Contemporary’ in Frankfurt (‘The event was invitational’) to give a TED-style talk. ‘What we require is not contemporary anthropology,’ he concludes, ‘but rather an anthropology of The Contemporary.’ Ba-boom, he thinks. But this rhetorical ploy is met with silence and later the other delegates shuffle embarrassedly away from him in the sauna. U slinks off and works up a long fantasy in which he delivers a McCarthyish lecture to an audience that’s not only onside but cries ‘huzzah!’ at every clumping paradox until ‘a new society, bound in brotherhood and love of oil spills’, is founded. It’s a detailed and vigorous burst of self-satire that sounds a bit like a cry for help. But maybe he’s found the remedy as well as the poison.