Artist Books / Artist's Novels is an ongoing inquiry by Stephanie La Cava that looks at the intersection between visual art and literature. Each entry is a conversation with an artist or writer whose books defy genre expectations and exist outside of the traditional form.
Stephanie LaCava in Conversation with Tom McCarthy
I have admired Tom McCarthy, the writer, for a long time. His books, Men in Space, C, Remainder, Satin Island, and Tintin and the Secret of Literature all straddle the tricky landscape between art and the publishing of written work and its distribution—the topic of this year-long ongoing series. McCarthy's a masterful novelist with a keen understanding of both the art world and modern literature.
He is also a brilliant speaker, even when simply reading his essays aloud, as he did twice last week in New York, once on the subject of Ed Ruscha at Paula Cooper Gallery and again on "Kathy Acker’s Infidel Heteroglossia" at the Center for Fiction. Both essays appear in the just released Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, McCarthy's first collection of the kind. We met last week before both talks, at the Half King in Chelsea, in a noisy back garden.
I. A WORLD BECOMING TEXT
STEPHANIE LACAVA: I'm wondering about the idea behind using a single letter for the names of your characters. Are there any coded riddles or scrambles? Is there something to look for—say, an anagram?
TOM MCCARTHY: No, no. I called my guy U. in Satin Island because one of the main models of this book was Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, this massive 2,000 page doorstopper of a book. The main character is called Ulrich and he’s similar to my anthropologist. He’s this kind of this over-educated, slightly cynical guy who’s implicated in a massive project that no one really understands. He’s moving through all these salons, exchanging ideas, and there’s some great project afoot, but no one really knows what it is, and the war’s coming and they’re all gonna die. I wanted to write a minimalist version of that.
So I contracted—instead of 2,000 pages there’s 200. Instead of Ulrich it’s U., but it's also like Baudelaire's you—like you, the print reader. I love Kafka and all the other abbreviations. It avoids characters of depth and all that stuff you don’t want.
SLC: Was there any relationship to choosing letters with the Ed Ruscha quote that likens text to still life? You’ve also written this wonderful essay about Ruscha, which addressed similar ideas.
TM: A bit, like when he’s flying over the landscape and they have giant letters in the landscape. I didn’t make that up. I did my research. I guess I was drawn to this idea of a world becoming text. The idea of the world being legible, and, I guess, inversely, of language being material. That is why I love Ed Ruscha’s work. I was looking at it when I wrote Remainder, even, and he’s given me the photo for the cover of this book, which is nice, with the baseball stadium.
SLC: That interests me in the context of the word landscape, which can mean either a literal landscape, or a terrain.
TM: Yeah, like a kind of conceptual terrain. I really like the artist Thomas Hirschorn and the way he’ll take a thinker, like Bataille, and turn his text into a literal landscape. He makes a papier-mache landscape of Bataille’s thoughts. And it’s like, Excess! You know? Sacrifice! I’m kind of drawn to that whole way of thinking.
SLC: And isn’t there a John Berger quote? Maybe landscape isn’t the word he uses, but he talks about Cy Twombly as the master of “verbal silence.” It invokes that kind of idea.
TM: I really like Twombly. He’s massive, I love him—the scratching, the mark making, the reduction of the whole story of Antigone just becomes this graffiti school where it just goes, “Antigone, fuck, Antigone.” I think he’s done all the Greeks. He’s done the whole Greek corpus—toilet graffiti.
SLC: The past interviews in this series have been about writers who are self-conscious as visual artists, using or playing with the tools of fiction, media, or dispersion. You’re the converse. You are known as a masterful novelist who plays in and with the art world.
TM: My whole background is literature. I studied literature. I always wanted to be a writer. I always knew that’s what I’d do, and I guess in my 20s I just discovered art. I discovered Warhol and that was the gateway drug to everything else. I realized that in contemporary art—modernist and contemporary art—the concerns being worked through were very literary concerns. Someone like Twombly is a perfect example.
Conversely, the world of publishing is actually very unliterary, it's just very middle-brow and not particularly plugged into literary axes and stuff about death and desire and the stuff of literature. All my friends were artists—that was the sort of world I was in. I was writing and nobody would publish Men in Space, which I wrote first, and then nobody would publish Remainder, until this acquaintance, Clémentine Deliss, who was doing this art project of, basically, reenacting the Olympia press from the 60s. The first edition of Remainder looked like an Olympia Press book. The cover was purple. It was distributed through the art world, not the publishing world. And then Marty Asher here in New York picked it up.
SLC: Back to Satin Island. Why that title?
TM: The title sort of came to me, like it does a character in a dream. I had the dream U. has and I wake up going, “Satin Island.” I think I actually said it, waking up, and I knew it would be the title of the next novel. I didn’t know what the novel was, but then I thought, "SI”. I thought of Situationist International. I was reading lots of Debord and watching all of his films.
SLC: How funny that those letters in more mass media would indicate Sports Illustrated. It kind of works, right?
TM: Sure, it works, because a big idea of Debord’s is recuperation, of radical political thought being brought back into the corporate machine, which is what my character U. is doing. He’s weaving Deleuze and everyone else—selling anthropology facts back to Levi-Strauss Jeans. He’s aware of this compromise.
SLC: Your work isn't necessarily a hybrid, but one could say it has similarities to writers like Maggie Nelson or Chris Kraus who have been embraced more in mainstream publishing as of late.
TM: I just think that writers for a few decades have dropped the ball. They’ve become boring. Mainstream literature got boring, and conservative, and voided of ideas, and meanwhile art was gorging itself on ideas and taking all the ideas from modernism and from the historical avant-garde that writers were just ignoring, basically, didn’t want to know about. You’re seeing the consequences now.
Art is the place where interesting writing is happening. Artists are doing interesting writing and all these practices—like what Sheila Heti is doing—it’s this kind of auto-fiction that owes as much to Warhol as it does to Proust.
SLC: Did you read Fuck Seth Price? I’ve also heard the argument that this moment might be a result because of or in spite of social media, that intermedia hybridity is becoming more acceptable.
TM: No, I don’t go along with that, because, as you know from the book, I’m kind of obsessed with Mallarmé.
SLC: Wait, side note. Did you know that Vito Acconci went to Iowa Writers Workshop and quit because he read Mallarmé?
TM: Yes, I know. He told me that! He did everything he did because of Mallarmé. Mallarmé’s whole idea was basically multimedia. He didn’t have that word, but he said, you know, music, poetry, performance, ritual, must all come together in some kind of hybrid. This Wagnerian idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, and, you know, Duchamp, Cage, Joyce—all these people are completely indebted to Mallarmé. And then you get William Burroughs and Fluxus. It all comes out of Mallarme. I don’t think it’s a new idea. I don’t think we needed Instagram for this to happen. It was happening.
SLC: I’m also interested in your embrace of the aleatory. I was thinking it relates to the character in C being born in a caul—ideas of great luck, of chance, how do they play into your work?
TM: Randomness? Well, I mean, I did this art project first at the ICA and then at Moderna Museet in Stockholm where I had all these people cutting up text in a kind of Burroughs-y way. I guess it was a bit random. We were streaming in all this media, cutting it up, transcribing it. But then we organized it according to certain principles. I mean, I’m not that into randomness.
I don’t think Mallarmé likes chance. He wants to control chance, or tame it.
SLC: What about Robbe-Grillet, who also crafted novels that seem less about emotion?
TM: No, no, I think my work is totally about desire. And so is the work of someone like Robbe-Grillet. Nabokov said that Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy was the greatest love story since Proust, and he’s absolutely right. The difference between Robbe-Grillet and me, on the one hand, and whatever sort of middle-brow-y sentimentalist fiction on the other, is that we have totally different conceptions of what desire is. For me, desire is structuralist. About a relation to death and to images, to language, and to drives.
For me, it doesn’t fit into those parameters of psychological death and authenticity and emotion as being something that’s separate from thought. Thought is desire. Desire is language.
SLC: Have you read Anne Carson’s Eros? Do you think about someone like Hans Bellmer in terms of the uncanny and the anagram and the body?
TM: Bellmer, Deleuze, "Body without Organs", sure. Kafka, mutation, mutating bodies. It goes back to Ovid. The stuff of literature for Ovid is bodies in a state of mutation. That’s how desire happens, it’s not some abstract thing. It’s about some god turning into a fawn and trying to fuck someone who turns into a tree. In Kafka that becomes the incestuous body turning into an insect and the sister sweeping it away. I mean, this is desire at work.
SLC: When you write a book do you think about this idea that, unlike an artwork, it’s prolonged engagement? What makes the text different from a visual piece?
TM: Well, it’s not so different from a visual piece—I've lived with Warhol since I was twenty. It’s always there in my mind, and once or twice a year you see a Warhol, it’s changing and growing. Same with the actual time spent reading, or standing in front of an artwork—it’s almost like the time spent downloading a file, but that’s not the thing. The thing is what the file then does, subsequently, to your computer, and what kind of viruses it carries.
SLC: Have you thought about wanting to make images, films, like Robbe-Grillet? Because I actually think it’s quite funny that there is a director with the same name as you, which plays into this idea of doubling, almost as if you have already someone working in that metier.
TM: Well, lots of lazy journalists, they just look on google images and find a pic of this other guy. Or conversely when one of his films comes out they put up a picture of me. It’s kind of funny. I like that.
SLC: The internet exists, therefore you are this guy as well, obviously. He has the same name, it must be you!
TM: That’s right, it’s in the archive.
SL: Do you have the desire to create visual images?
TM: I do it through words. When I was writing Satin Island I had this studio in Sweden and I just sat there projecting massive images of oil spills… sat there for days transcribing what I was seeing, the way the oil moves and—I mean it’s totally visual. Even with Remainder, I was thinking a lot of whole sequences of film, you know this stuff form Solaris when he’s driving for like ten minutes through the tunnel and you get all the concrete—I just taught a course at Royal College of Art in London on [George Perec's] An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris. We spent a year looking at that book and thinking around it. But I was doing this already. If you want to describe a space I would, even in the 90s, go there with a dictaphone.
All the stuff in Remainder, when he’s describing the whole streets. I was going along with a dictaphone and a camera saying there’s a crack here and the sunlight fits this way and there’s a cigarette.
SLC: A camera, not your phone.
TM: I developed the pictures.
SLC: I wanted to ask about Kathy Acker. Your upcoming talk with Lynne Tillman is about her and you have an essay in the book. What's your interest in her?
TM: I read her when I was twenty-one. And I went to see her read a couple of times in the 90s. I thought she was brilliant, and then I just didn’t really think about her anymore for twenty years and it seems like neither did anyone else, and then again, just really recently, stuff was coming up.
Something about what she was doing seemed to become very relevant—not just her, in that essay I write about Julia Kristeva who, again, her moment was kind of in the 80s, but I think that kind of wave of French feminism and American feminism was onto something in an almost prescient way thinking about systematic violence and borders and borders, and bodies and borders, all this stuff is becoming incredibly relevant now.
SLC: That makes me think of Carolee Schneemann, as well.
TM: It’s relevant in a way that transcends just the question of gender. It’s about immigration, it’s about power, it’s about capitalism. I mean Acker totally understands the body as a space for capital to move through. Everything from cancer to tattooing to heroin addiction is actually a question of capitalism.
I think Burroughs understands this too, but she really sees it. She’s brilliant, and her relationship to literature is, as well—that it's something to be plundered and that identity is something to be built like a kind of provisional camp in enemy territory. It’s not true, it’s not authentic. It’s provisional.
SLC: Chris Kraus talks about this, about how she built an identity for herself. You don’t really play with this—well, except for the International Necronautical Society.
TM: Simon Critchley and I did a declaration in New York at the Drawing Center on inauthenticity, and somebody wrote about it in Triple Canopy and said that wasn’t us, that was two actors. And actually, it was us. As soon as we read that we went, “Aw, shit.” When the Tate asked us to do that declaration, we did get two actors. We did what we should have done in the first place. And of course, the actors did it much better than us.
Stephanie LaCava is an author and journalist living in New York City.