Kafka and the Crash of the System: An Interview with Tom McCarthy


The British novelist Tom McCarthy — the author of C, Men in Space, and the increasingly revered Remainder — is known primarily in the United States for Zadie Smith’s essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” wherein she cites McCarthy’s work as a future for literary fiction. In this mode, many critics now single out McCarthy as the torchbearer for avant-gardism, or at least they point to him as our most serious-minded critic of literary realism. This position was hardened, too, after McCarthy wrote a brilliant takedown of realism (as an obvious contrivance) for London Review of Books last year.

It’s all true, more or less. McCarthy has expressed an affinity for authors of the French nouveau roman; he has criticized the politics of literary depth; and he is convincing and exact in his criticisms of the illusions and delusions of realist writers. But he is also an astute reader of classical fiction — see below, where he speaks as easily about James Joyce and Robert Musil as he wonders about financial crashes and skydivers. And, it should be added, McCarthy is very funny. In particular, his new novel, Satin Island, is hilarious in precisely the way that Kafka is hilarious. Speaking of Kafka, too, I would argue that Satin Island captures what writers like Robbe-Grillet loved about Kafka, which is not so much that he wrote in an experimental mode, but that he eschewed the easy comforts of realism in order to circumscribe — humorously, intensely, carefully — the possibilities of narrative art in an insane world.

Satin Island tells the story of a corporate anthropologist — provocatively named U. — whose boss assigns him the impossible task of totalizing our current moment from within, in the form of a Great Report. It deals fluidly with politics, protesting, parachutists, dreams and fantasies, Staten Island, amorphous corporate leaders, murder… it is hugely complex, in other words, although it is likewise lucid, precise, and aesthetically rewarding. I spoke to him in New York, where he recently discussed films at Lincoln Center.

Flavorwire: You were at Lincoln Center last night presenting a few films? How did that work?

Tom McCarthy: Yeah, they have this program, and I think this is the first one, where they’re inviting writers and novelists to select films and discuss them, films that resonate with their own work. So I chose this early Burroughs film and Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which is a powerful, disturbing, strangely beautiful film all around airline hijackings in the 1970s.

Speaking of cinema, your novel Satin Island, which is narrated by a corporate anthropologist named U., deals with some of the same issues as anthropological and ethnographic cinema — I’m thinking of someone like Jean Rouch. This made me wonder what your inspiration or entry point was into writing the novel.

Well, initially, just by default, I imagined U. being a writer, a novelist, who had been hired by the corporation for his skills and insight and understanding — language and systems and so on. But this was unsatisfying because I just don’t think the world needs another novel about a novelist trying to write a novel. Especially not by a white guy. The world is full of those.

Then I came across the figure of the anthropologist. What the anthropologist does is writing boiled down to its essentials. You look at the world and you report on it. And if you’re [Claude] Lévi-Strauss you meditate on the act of writing while doing this. Then I did a bit more research and came across the figure of the corporate anthropologist, which is even more interesting. Like Kafka’s heroes, the corporate anthropologist is deeply inscribed in the machine of…power. Of capital and control in this uneasy way. I just find that a really interesting position aesthetically and politically. So the corporate anthropologist became this amazing figure for me. And it turns out that more than fifty percent of anthropology graduates now work for corporations.

U. is a fascinating character. It’s interesting to me that you first thought of him as an author — because he is authoring the book, in a way — but also because his name “U.” implicates the reader. In many ways this book seems to be about the author, the reader, and the text.

Absolutely. But even more than that it’s about how the figure of the writer slips over into the figure of the reader. U. the character is constantly or repeatedly confronted with his own redundancy as a writer. The world is writing itself already. It doesn’t need him. The networks of kinship are being mapped everytime we go on Facebook, as he says, which makes the anthropologist or writer redundant. So the question isn’t even about writing anymore. It’s about reading. The question is: who can actually read all of this stuff? Who can parse it and decode it? Maybe even the reader becomes an impossible fantasy because there is just too much data there.

The surrealist have this idea about automatic writing, but that seems a bit quaint now. The question is about automatic reading. And, again, software performs that function. So the writer and the reader are out of the equation in a way. They’re made obsolete. I find that to be an interesting situation because you’ve got this book here. What is its role? This piece of kind of obsolete waste. Trash or whatever.

The fantasies are part of what makes the novel so funny. And Satin Island is very funny.

Oh, I hope so.

But on this idea of fantasies. U. has this hilarious fantasy of establishing a Present Tense Anthropology ™ wherein he is sort of the guru of this armed struggle and everyone is recording their current moment mindfully. It struck me as a send up of, well, now. He calls his imaginary followers U-thnographers. Are we all U-thnographers trying desperately to transcribe in the now?

I think it’s an impossible fantasy. In a way, all of my books are about this kind of quest for the now, to close down the buffer zone of consciousness and self-awareness and irony or language or whatever. Just to close that down and occupy “the now”—which is an impossible or unrealizable fantasy. I guess that’s what Present Tense Anthropology ™ would be. But U. never achieves it. All he ever achieves is buffering. That space of delay and separation. Then his musing on it as an armed resistance, as a sexy, Patty Hearst, Baader-Meinhof, running around in cool sunglasses, having sex, with machine guns: It’s a vain fantasy that, like all of his other projects, he never realizes.

But I think it’s plugging into a deeper anxiety about contemporaneity. He goes to this sort of TED Talk and explains to everyone that the whole idea of the contemporary is ridiculous, which I take straight from Mallarme. He says exactly this. And Robert Musil as well, which is where I took the initial U. from — from Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities — that you cannot be contemporary with your own era, the whole nature of modernity is that it puts things out of joint. It puts temporality into some kind of unsynchronized jet lag zone of fragmentation. That’s the territory U. is trying to map in this book.

I suppose you get writers trying to depict our present moment, with up to the minute cultural analyses of the latest technology and so on, but like Faulkner said, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.” I just like to throw this in reverse, this fetish for the contemporary, and show how it is completely infused with all of these frames or ghost, if you like, of its own past. And the future itself is a kind of fiction produced of that odd couple. These time twists, and…flexes…it’s something that Joyce understands so well. I think literature at its best as a privileged access to this omnipresence of pasts, presents, and futures that are all up in the air. Nothing is less contemporary than contemporary art or fiction. Than art that has something to say about the now. I think the whole point of the now is that it’s precisely what we can’t articulate.

One of U.’s observations in Satin Island is that the corporate structure has replaced the family structure. But even this seems like a dated and maybe obvious observation. It highlights how the novel teeters on the edge of critique.

The thing about the corporation replacing the family structure is that you just read it in anthropological writing. Everyone says this. It’s not a contentious thing to say, it’s a noted syndrome. Japanese businessmen will say their company name before their family name.

As for critique. I think all of my work is political. Remainder is about control and violence. C is about empire. I suppose in this book there are directly political situations. Like Madison’s past as a protestor in Genoa, although that’s a kind of political model that has disintegrated, that old school protest movement. Those events happened immediately before September 11th. Now that’s not an operational structure.

But I think U. is looking for some type of agency, some type of empowerment, as an anthropologist or a cultural activist. At some points this flips over into fantasies of terrorism. Blowing everything up, causing riots. This is a fantasy that Burroughs keeps coming back to, that the writer should be running around, setting charges, making systems crash, that the writer should be a kind of hacker. But even that doesn’t work, because as Madison points out — and I got this from McKenzie Wark’s book The Hacker’s Manifesto — it doesn’t take hackers to bring the stock market crashing down and it doesn’t take terrorist to make power plants meltdown. They do this on their own.

This is its own kind of redundancy. At the end he’s helped the project toward completion. He’s standing at the edge of the island looking out. But he turns back and goes back into the heart of the machine as this sort of bug in the machine with this restlessness that I guess is a kind of low-level threat.

So, yeah, it is very political, but there are no solutions in it. No heroic resolutions. You can call that avant-garde if you like.

I’m fascinated by U.’s obsession with the murdered parachutist. But after reading the novel twice I have no idea why he’s fascinated by this sky diver and his murder in the air.

U. fixes on this. He can’t quite articulate why, but I think this the figure of modernity for him. And, you know, a lot of the imagery Nietzsche uses when he talks about the death of God is about falling through infinite space, where we have nothing to hold us to sky or the earth or the ground anymore.

And becomes this kind of parachutist in data space, just wondering if the chords are there. There is also the idea of a crash, a systems crash. The crash of a body on the ground. The event horizon of all of this is some kind of crash. I mean its Icarus isn’t it?

Staten Island looms large in the book, especially the ending. You’re in New York now. Did you go to Staten Island? Are you going to go again?

Aha! Unlike U. I did actually get on the boat. But then I got off, on the Staten Island side, and got the boat straight back again.

You’re not going to go back this trip?

No, but right now I’m staying with a friend in Park Slope. He’s got an 11th floor apartment, and the windows face south. So we look straight out onto the Staten Island ferries going through the half-frozen harbor. It’s very strange.