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Tom McCarthy’s Fiction: A Reading Diary

Les romans de Tom McCarthy : Journal de lecture
Derek Attridge


Cette contribution est conçue comme un journal de lecture des quatre romans que Tom McCarthy a publiés à ce jour. Chacun est envisagé individuellement et une brève évaluation rétrospective est fournie en fin de parcours. En me fondant sur l’attention à la singularité de chaque roman et à l’idioculture qui en émane, je propose des pistes de lecture pour chaque ouvrage, chaque section s’efforçant d’établir des connexions avec les précédentes. Cela me conduit à m’attarder sur une série de récurrences, comme la prévalence du faux et des faux, de la matière, des connexions, et aussi de procédés narratifs originaux visant à solliciter l’intérêt des lecteurs confrontés à des personnages à deux dimensions et à l’impossibilité programmée d’éprouver toute sympathie à leur égard.

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  • 1 See The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004) and The Work of Literature (Oxford: OUP (...)

1My reading, at various times in the past, of Tom McCarthy’s four novels—Remainder, Men in Space, C, and Satin Island—has given me some of the most exhilarating and bracing experiences of my journeys around contemporary fiction. My project in this diary is to re-read all four, and to set down my thoughts from time to time as I do so. I’ve argued elsewhere that the distinctiveness of art lies in the fact that the artwork has its being in the event by which it is brought to life by the viewer, listener, or reader, who thus registers its singularity, inventiveness, and alterity.1 This response involves being taken by the work into unfamiliar zones of thought and feeling, an experience which, whatever other affective dimensions it may have, always produces pleasure. A reading diary, then, should be a means of recording this experience, as well as providing an account of what it is I find compelling in these novels.

  • 2 I’ve recently participated with Henry Staten in a dialogue of this kind, in a series of discussions (...)

2A criticism that might be levelled against this procedure is that it will inevitably be ‘subjective’ and thus of little value to others. I would prefer to use the term ‘singular,’ since the responding subject is constituted, as is the literary work, by a multitude of circumstances whose unique configuration renders it different from every other singularity—not because it has an unchanging core that marks it out as distinct but because it partakes of the general properties of the culture at large in a unique (but constantly evolving) way. I term the subject understood in this way as an ‘idioculture,’ on the model of the idiolect spoken by each individual as a result of his or her exposure to a variety of languages and dialects. If, then, I respond as a singular reader to McCarthy’s novels, the degree to which my responses will be shared by others, or at least be meaningful to others, will depend on the overlapping of those elements of my idioculture with theirs. I can’t know in advance how much overlap there will be (and the idioculture of each reader of this diary will of course be singular); ideally, these responses would be part of a dialogue, so that areas of agreement and disagreement can emerge in a continuing conversation.2

Men in Space

3Although McCarthy’s first novel to be published was Remainder, I’m starting with Men in Space because it was his first novel to be written, albeit one that McCarthy revised and shortened after the publication of Remainder.3

23rd October 2015; pages 1–104

4It’s evident from the beginning that this novel will make unusual demands. Set in Prague, it’s littered with proper names (most with diacritics) and I find I’m almost overwhelmed with the parade of characters. The mixture of free indirect discourse and Bloomian interior monologue isn’t that hard to follow, especially if one is familiar with Joyce, but it doesn’t remain with a single individual for very long. (Since the novel is written in the present tense, the distinction between narration, free indirect discourse and interior monologue isn’t as clear as it is, for the most part, in Ulysses.) There are eight different points of view in these hundred pages (including a letter and three surveillance reports), each of which requires careful reading to pick up the clues about the particular character and his or her experiences, since there’s no fully external narrator to fill in the details.

5Hard work, but great fun too (more like reading Ulysses than just about any other novel I know). The epigraph has given us a clue: purportedly from an unpublished MA dissertation by one Klárá Jelinkova, it describes the murals of the Bačkovo Ossuary (which Google tells me is real) and explains that its lines do not ‘imply depth’ or ‘confer realism’; ‘instead, they help present the world they depict as unreal, flat and dematerialized’ (1). If this is true of the novel, where does my enjoyment come from? One source is the gradual building up of a complex web of interrelated characters and plot elements with, at the centre, a single object: a stolen painting that is to be copied so that the expected police raid will take away only a fake, allowing the original to be sold. There’s also a certain pleasure in picking up allusions to forgery—fake Soviet hats, a fake pistol, and a (possibly) fake leopard-skin jacket—and webs, especially references to the ‘pivotal point’ that sustains a complex system, whether a honey-collecting device or the global art trade, to be understood as a whole. And, perhaps as a counterpoint, there are several allusions to ‘men in space’: angels, painted and sculpted; ‘a male figure floating above a landscape’ in the painting to be copied; film about the moon landings; and a story about a Soviet cosmonaut who can’t come back to earth because the Soviet Union no longer exists. This story also feeds into another thematic undercurrent: the uncertainties of transition. The events are taking place four years since the Velvet Revolution and a month before Czechoslovakia splits into two nations. Barthes’s ‘hermeneutic code’ is strongly operative, enticing me on in the hope that the many mysteries of the opening part will be resolved.

6And then there’s the sheer brilliance of the writing, sentence by sentence, to enjoy. Just one example: Ivan Maňásek, the artist entrusted with the copying of the painting, watches carp sellers with tanks of live fish on a street corner, and we are given a page and a half of vivid description, first of the ritual of killing—‘The fish’s mouths widen and contract as the axe goes through their flesh and tendons, like the mouths of operatic singers or of ancient oracles and seers whispering deathbed visions’ (51)—and then, as a lever jams, of the overflowing of fish onto the pavement. The information I glean from this passage—that carp sold from tanks in the street are a feature of Czech Christmases—is interesting in itself, but the literary value of the episode lies in my experience of the words’ power, momentarily taking me into new sensory and semantic realms.

25th October; pages 105–83

7I’ve been enjoying the start of each new section, as I recognise familiar mental worlds or encounter yet more new ones. Ivan is working on the painting with Klárá, the author of the dissertation in the fake epigraph. Her point-of-view takes over the section, and then successive sections either return to the perspectives of characters we’ve already met, or introduce new ones, such as the Yugoslav Mladen, through whose eyes we watch the midnight celebration of the new state. This chunk of the novel has more of the conventional novel plot—the completion of the copy (or rather two copies); the arrest of Anton Markov, the Bulgarian who employed Ivan; and Ivan’s unexpected death. There’s a long section relating Anton’s experience in prison before he is released on the discovery that both the paintings seized by the police are fakes. It’s quite a surprise to find writing that grips by means of compelling narrative and affective drive rather than richness of allusion and cross-referencing.

8Other sections have more of what has been most engaging so far in the writing: the non-narrative evocation of a world of networks and systems, mirrors and copies, lines and grids, and a half-glimpsed other world of open space and floating figures. The painting is the major instance of this other world, at once vividly present and yet (since everyone sees it differently) mysteriously indistinct. The account of Ivan’s meticulous forgery provides a different kind of reading experience—an overload of detail that emulates (or parodies?) the hyper-realist novel but also reflects the scrupulousness of the activity it describes.

26th October; pages 183–end

9I find the novel engrossing to the last page, both as a working-out of the themes of networks, mirrors, fakes, and ‘men in space’ and as itself a web of both motivated and chance cross-references. Somewhat surprisingly, I also find myself enjoying it as a story about characters I’ve come to care about in spite of the untraditional way in which they’re presented: Anton, Ivan, Nick (the sole English character), Anton’s wife Helena, and the pathetic surveillance operative. Because of the intricate internal mechanics of the novel, I find I have to engage in a certain amount of paging back to remind myself of details, and I don’t always succeed in finding what I’m looking for. Why, for instance, does Ivan say the name ‘František’ before he dies (188–89)?

10The contrast between the mechanistic operation of systems and the escape onto another plane (symbolised by the mysterious ellipse in the painting) remains important, and the latter element begins to take the form of paranormal connections. The enigmatic words in Nick’s dream reported early in the novel resurface on an Amsterdam poster near its end, and again, more disturbingly, on the painting itself as deciphered by Helena. Near the end, Nick, trapped on the roof of an Amsterdam building, intuits that Anton is dead and that the group of men closing in on the van with the (original) painting are Bulgarian criminals. The many deaths all involve men in space: Ivan falls (or is pushed) from his top floor flat; Joost walks beyond the ice at Tallinn, looking for its ‘limit’ or ‘hinge’; Anton is murdered on the ‘white mountain,’ the highest point near Prague, and next to the star-shaped hunting lodge Hvězda (it can be seen clearly on Google Earth); and Nick faces death by falling. Is this, then, the only kind of transcendence possible?

11Some readers, I suspect, will find all this too clever; it goes well beyond the bounds of realism, and we’re never unaware of the ingenious author constructing the patterns. But for me this ingenuity is a source of pleasure: so many details in this novel, though drawn from a meticulous representation of two real cities and a specific historical period, play a part in the impression of systems whose complex operations are visible but whose ‘pivotal point’ is never found—whether these systems be political, sporting, apicultural, vehicular, criminal, sexual, or aesthetic. And what is remarkable is that this inventiveness doesn’t detract from the growing emotional involvement with the characters, so that for me what we have to assume are the last moments of both Anton and Nick have an intense power. If anywhere in the novel I’m exposed to an affective-semantic complex that is other and singular it is in these depictions of approaching death.


2nd November; pages 1–126

12It quickly becomes clear that this novel is, as regards technique, different from Men in Space in just about every respect: first person instead of third, a consistent single consciousness instead of an abundance of consciousnesses, past tense instead of present. This time we can’t be sure of the date (though it’s before the wide use of mobile phones and Google searches), but the attention to geographical precision remains: the parts of London in which the novel unfolds are traceable on a map. There’s a sense that the narrator is telling someone—us—his story, occasionally addressing ‘you,’ and it’s an engaging, down-to-earth voice. But we don’t learn his name and very little about his past, and there’s no attempt on McCarthy’s part to make him visualisable as a three-dimensional person.

13The novel is certainly less demanding on the reader, at least at first. The opening sentence establishes a mystery, though one we seem to have little hope of ever solving: the narrator is unable to explain the nature of the ‘accident’ from which he has had a lengthy recovery period and on account of which he’s being paid 8.5 million pounds. This accident gives narrative justification to the flatness of the character, who has to relearn consciously all the activities we normally perform unthinkingly, and is never sure if what appear to be returning memories are actual recollections. This raises important questions. What constitutes ‘real’ or ‘natural’ behaviour and experience? When are we not performing a part? The issue of the fake that was so important in Men in Space has quickly become central to this novel as well. There’s a nice irony in the fact that it’s the performance of screen actors that strikes the narrator as authentic, while he feels that his own behaviour has always been inauthentic.

14The most compelling passage for me in this part of the novel is the narrator’s account of the moment when he remembers (or conjures up) an experience in the past when he felt ‘real.’ (Can you feel real? Or if you think ‘I feel real’ have you already stopped feeling real?) The scene is riveting partly because of the very ordinariness of what is remembered, as a crack in a bathroom wall brings to mind a similar crack seen in the past and with it the smell of frying liver and the sound of a pianist practising. Then the story of an odd series of events turns into the story of a bizarre obsession, enabled by the apparent ability of money to make anything happen. So the question becomes, If you have sufficient capital, can you create (re-create?) the experience of feeling real? The intriguing figure of Naz, who is a ‘facilitator,’ is introduced; he’s clearly going to be key to all that happens.

15So our narrator spends a fortune attempting to experience again that feeling of reality by fabricating the exact environment in which it had (perhaps) happened before, and employing an army of actors and back-up people to go through the precise motions he recalls. It’s a bizarre narrative, but I find myself caught up in the mad project—is he going to be able to achieve the perfection he is dedicating his life to? And part of this involvement is the sense that what he is doing is what any wholly committed artist does (though usually without virtually unlimited resources): strive for the accomplishment of the perfected work, without knowing in advance exactly what that accomplishment will consist in (or what its true cost might be).

5th November; pages 127–260

16The narrator’s decreasing hold on what we normally think of as reality as he endeavours more and more to achieve his own sense of the real is disturbing as well as gripping. For me the most disturbing detail in the first re-enactment is the cats: to recreate part of the remembered scene he arranges for cats to be released on the roofs of the building opposite, but they keep falling off. He simply treats this as a necessary consequence of the re-enactment, and arranges for a series of cats to be sacrificed—perhaps hundreds in the end, as the building stays ‘on’ for long periods.

17The cats also alert me more fully to an issue that has been signalled from the beginning: the issue of matter. During my reading of Men in Space, matter emerged as an important topic: the eponymous men could either rise, freed from matter, into the magical ellipse of the painting or fall, as matter, to their deaths. Now the topic is everywhere, from the crumbly plaster when, near the beginning, the narrator pulls the phone wire from the wall (‘It looked kind of disgusting, like something that’s come out of something’ [7], a phrase that will recur), to the ‘shard’ lodged in his knee (which will also return), to his re-learning of how to lift a carrot to his mouth. An art teacher’s explanation that sculpture is a process of getting rid of ‘surplus matter’ (87) comes back to him, and a second re-enactment hinges on the disappearance and reappearance of matter: the sticky blue liquid which, when he starts his car, is discharged over him. Carrying out a re-enactment of a streetside murder, he’s obsessed by the matter of which the road is made. (These moments trigger my own memories of reading Sartre’s La Nausée, especially Roquentin’s apprehension of the tree-root.)

18It strikes me that this novel does away with the traditional accoutrements of the genre more thoroughly than its predecessor. There is nothing like the description of the carp being sold on the streets of Prague; although there is plenty—a surfeit, in fact—of description, it never achieves this kind of poetic vividness. Through its descriptive excesses, in fact, it often seems to block the reader’s apprehension of real objects and events. This, of course, is completely in keeping with the novel’s content. And there is very little humanly engaging narrative: our narrator undergoes strong positive and negative emotions, but I don’t feel any urge to identify with him. The fascination and onward drive of the novel are provided by different means.

9th November, pages 261–end

19What an extraordinary novel this is! Starting as a rather genial tale of a young man’s adventures in south London, it has now ended as a chilling horror story. The final ‘re-enactment’ presents the greatest challenge to any clear distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ or ‘second-hand,’ when the re-enactors carry out a real bank robbery, and the disaster that occurs is the result of the absence of a small bit of matter that was present in the fake. Repetition—one of the most insistent leitmotifs of the book—proves impossible. The narrator’s glee in the resulting mayhem, his delight in the materiality of the spilled blood, his willed repetition of the fatal shooting: all this is shocking, though the fundamental amorality of his enterprise has been increasingly evident at least since the episode of the falling cats. It culminates in the plan to murder the entire team of re-enactors and assistants. The narrator himself appears doomed to die; the narration, which had seemed to be an address to the reader from a particular moment in time, turns out to be an impossible one.

20So: are the re-enactments attempts to escape the drag of matter, or are they attempts to fully inhabit its world? (Which of the two types of man in space is the model?) Perhaps these aren’t opposites, but versions of the same thing: to become wholly one with matter is to shake off its hold on you. When one of the re-enactors in the bank turns to the narrator and says ‘It’s real’ the latter describes his body as being ‘unbearably light and unbearably dense at the same time’ (272). The ‘remainder’ of the title, on the other hand, suggests that such oneness is impossible: there’s always something left over, something that prevents seamless repetition. The plan to dematerialise all those who have been working on the final re-enactment is flawed; just as the blue gloop reappears in the car, so the shards of the mid-air explosion will fall to earth, as the narrator, again rather gleefully, acknowledges. Naz, whose goal was to submit matter entirely to his command, is defeated; what he had to learn, we’re told, is that ‘matter’s what makes us alive—the bitty flow, the scar tissue, signature of the world’s very first disaster and promissory note guaranteeing its last’ (283).


14th November, pages 3–26

21A very different reading experience—starting with the book itself: published not by a small press but by Jonathan Cape, in a lavish edition with see-through jacket and ornamented (if somewhat baffling) endpapers. The first sentence plunges us into the world of Victorian fiction: ‘Dr. Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap….’ But the second lurches back to the present with its unVictorian reference to body parts and its abbreviated words: ‘He has sore buttocks: the seat’s hard and uncushioned’ (3). These opening pages bristle with enigmas. The realistic manner is in tension with the sense that this is not quite our world: not just that no atlas will show West Masedown and New Eliry, but the flora appear not to obey our seasonal rules—the rose-bushes are flowerless, but there’s an abundance of chrysanthemums, irises, tulips and anemones, all apparently flowering together, while the ivy has started to turn red. The ‘poisonberries’ on the trellis are, Wikipedia tells me, a Caribbean fruit, though Dr. Learmont appears to recognise them; on the other hand, he can’t identify the rows of trees with ‘white fruit and green and red foliage’ (nor can I). Other signs that this is an alternative world are the consumption of ‘kenno’ (which appears to be a kind of cheesecake) and the use of charcoal on ‘cotton-backed ground glass’ instead of chalk on a blackboard.

22One question that imposes itself from the start is what ‘C’ stands for. The first part is titled ‘Caul’: the novel’s hero Serge is born with one, which is presumably why he doesn’t drown when he falls into the water on page 25. His surname is Carrefax, suggestive of ‘crossroads.’ A third possibility is the theme that is announced clearly in these opening pages: communication. Carrefax Senior runs a school for deaf children, and is experimenting with radio transmission in competition with Marconi while Sophie, Serge’s sister, pretends to tap out a Morse code message with her little brother’s penis.

23Am I drawn into an affective relation with the characters to any greater extent than in the earlier two novels? Not really; not yet, at any rate. The point-of-view shifts from Dr. Learmont to a more objective narrator and thence to young Serge, but my interest is in what’s happening textually more than in the individuals. Simeon Carrefax comes across as something of a Dickensian grotesque in his obsessiveness and his complete obliviousness to his wife’s parturition; the other characters are only sketched in.

17th November, pages 27–83

24The thematic texture thickens further: webs and weaving, insect life (imbricated with sex), communication. And there’s the mysterious development of the teenage Sophia, seen through Serge’s uncomprehending eyes. For the first time, I find the enigmatic quality of the writing a little frustrating: I’m being asked to do my own detective work on the basis of confusing clues. Does Sophie have sex with Samuel Widsun? Is she pregnant, and if so, by whom? What exactly is she up to in her laboratory? Why does she commit suicide? What does she mean by ‘antolie,’ a word neither Google nor the OED acknowledges? (Serge Pankejeff, Freud’s Wolf Man, was traumatised by his older sister’s suicide: is this relevant?) And there are passages where details pile up to the point of tediousness: the annual Pageant, the funeral, Serge’s activities as a radio ‘bug.’ I’m also baffled by the inappropriate poetry the deaf children are made to recite—Spenser’s ‘Shepheardes Calender’ (the Elizabethan spelling is odd in a phrase spoken by the children), Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Addison’s Hymn. Is McCarthy just having fun?

20th November, pages 84–114

25Serge takes the waters at a spa in an unnamed Central European country in order to cure constipation and a film inhibiting his sight (these were Pankejeff’s symptoms, too, for what it’s worth.) I keep asking myself why the novel is dragging. Serge remains an undeveloped character who elicits very little in the way of affective response (in spite of the physiological details we’re vouchsafed), but that has not prevented readerly involvement in the earlier novels. I think it’s the lack of anything to propel me forward; in Men in Space there was an unfolding plot and a network of interacting characters and in Remainder there was the increasing obsessiveness of the narrator—what will he try next?—and a comic edge, whereas here there’s no comedy and simply a further episode in our hero’s life (which throws no light on the puzzles of the earlier episodes, while introducing more—why, for instance, does Serge utter ‘Poisonberry’ as he experiences an orgasm during his (presumably) first sexual intercourse, and why does the loss of his virginity clear his eyesight?).

23rd November, pages 115–90

  • 4 One small counterfactual is that the ace German pilot Fritz Kempf’s motto, Kennscht mi noch?, which (...)

26Another self-contained section, this time under the heading ‘Chute’: the silk of the first section now becomes the silk of parachutes during Serge’s time as a First World War observer in a biplane operating over the French front line. Does ‘Chute’ refer to Serge’s fall as well? He falls into heroin addiction, and into enemy territory towards the end of the section, but mostly he’s pretty cheerful. I find I’m more involved as a reader now, partly because of the brilliant descriptions of early flight, partly because of the tension generated by the genre of the war narrative with its constant sense of danger and derring-do. There is less obscurity than in the first section, and we seem to have left the alternative world behind: this section is meticulously researched, and every proper name or technical term I looked up turned out to be accurate.4 Communication remains a central theme, with networks and insects making their appearance from time to time.

27But Serge remains an opaque character, for all the frequent accounts of his physical and mental state. One reason for this is that, although the entire section is focalized through Serge, very little use is made of free indirect discourse: the narrative is presented from the outside by a very eloquent narrator.

1st December, pages 193–237

28Another self-contained section, titled ‘Crash’: Serge remains as opaque as ever, and I feel even less encouraged to feel sympathy for him. He is now addicted to cocaine and heroin, and dedicating his life to the London demi-monde of showgirls and easy sex. The only section I found myself gripped by was the account of a séance, in which the running theme of communication finds an unexpected vehicle. Seen through Serge’s sceptical eyes (this section makes more use of free indirect discourse), the goings-on on the stage have the fascination of a magician’s performance, and his unmasking of the trickery behind it is pleasantly satisfying. The crash of the title occurs at the end, when Serge, drugged up to the eyeballs, drives his father’s car into a ditch and overturns it. Do we care?

2nd December, pages 241–end

29The images and motifs of this last section, ‘Call,’ and above all the language in which they are presented, are still resonating as I put the book down. The novel becomes richer than ever as it draws to a close, and the preoccupations woven into the writing from the beginning—communication, signals, networks, insects, fakes, and the inescapable materiality of matter—are brilliantly fused, as Serge is sent to Egypt to assist in the creation of an Imperial Wireless Chain in 1922 (once again, the historical detail is, as far as I can tell, extremely accurate). The novel is able to convey not just the complex machinery whereby communicative power was vastly increased during the years it covers but, more interestingly, the intensification of the mysteries of communication that resulted. The reader, like Serge, is often straining at the edge of something out there, some crucial knowledge, which is not coming through—and may, in any case, be a counterfeit, like the séance in the previous part, or a mirage, like the one Serge sees in the Egyptian desert. His final delusion—which includes many more C’s—is a tour de force of imagery and allusion. It risks arousing that emotional response that the novel, up to now, has firmly resisted.

Satin Island

3rd December, pages 3–49

30I’m immediately riveted by the first person-voice: it’s relaxed, intimate, likeable. The initial two paragraphs offer a characteristic warning against ‘foundation myths’ and a chatty anecdote about being ‘stuck in Turin’ (the name ‘Nietzsche’ comes to mind as a link between these two paragraphs). The cause of the delay is a private jet ‘flying in idiosyncratic patterns,’ and it’s impossible not to recall the ending of Remainder.

31The fact that the paragraphs are numbered gives the text a certain quality of writing: it’s as if I’m reading a scientific article, though this is not borne out by the easy-going tone. The telling is clearly in the present, but the story being related happened ‘a few years ago.’ Where is the narrator now?, I wonder. Once more, there’s no attempt at depth of character: the narrator seems stereotypically male; he’s an anthropologist who has read a lot of French theory and is working for a global corporation; he’s called simply ‘U.’ (Is this an attempt to interpellate the reader? If so, I don’t feel interpellated.) We learn very little else of biographical importance in these opening pages. We’re also warned not to expect a conventional novel: ‘events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now’ (13). But the highly readable, informal prose is a relief after the clotted expositions of C.

32U’s habit of becoming obsessed with a particular story (in the journalistic sense) is also endearing: in particular, stories of an oil spill and a failed parachute haunt him throughout the period covered by the novel (a few months?). The anthropological outlook that makes events like this objects of analytical scrutiny merges surprisingly easily with the capitalist impersonality of the Company; all is grist to both their mills. Even the accounts of meeting his friend Petr or having sex with a woman named Madison convey little in the way of warmth or passion. (It’s not possible to call Madison U’s ‘girlfriend,’ though she is his consistent sexual partner: he doesn’t seem capable of feelings of love, and when they meet they simply ‘have sex.’) And yet…U is funny, idiosyncratic, operating at an interesting angle to the Company (though one suspects it is perfectly capable of absorbing all his apparently irrelevant activities into its projects). We’re never entirely sure how serious he’s being, and it seems he isn’t either. Is U capable of impeding the activities of the Company, whatever they may be? Does he really want to do this?

5th December, pages 50–140

33It’s been hard to put this novel down: the numbered sections either move the narrative on or meditate on its implications, and always in writing that is precise, knowing, buoyant, amused and amusing. It’s a satire on corporate culture, yes—but that’s an easy target; more interestingly, it opens up questions of the operation of meaning in the world we inhabit today. U is our representative in a universe of signs, testing them, questioning them, theorising about them. The oil spill keeps coming back, most remarkably in the hilarious lecture U imagines himself giving, in which he celebrates the pollution of the ‘natural’ world. Petr’s goitre is repeatedly reinterpreted until his death; and the funeral that follows is also a series of signs with wandering meanings. The parachute failure is subjected to a number of interpretations. U wonders how to interpret his ‘Satin Island’ dream about waste engulfing the world, which he relates to New York’s Staten Island and its Fresh Kills landfill site. In all these episodes, the intractability and heaviness (and occasional deadliness) of matter—important in all the earlier novels—keeps asserting itself.

34What keeps me wanting to read on? Is it the sheer pleasure of each paragraph, or is there some narrative momentum? U is supposed to be writing a ‘Great Report’ for the Company, ‘The First and Last Word on our age’ (56) that will reveal ‘its secret name’ (57). So I’ve been reading on partly to find out what progress he makes towards it. (The Report is never written, unless it is the book in our hands—notwithstanding his reference to ‘this non-Report you’re reading now’ [115]). The 30-odd pages which lie ahead—because they are the book’s last—are surely going to serve as a wrapping-up, perhaps a kernel of solid truth revealed amongst the endless relays and permutations of signs…

9th December, pages 141–end

35Well, a conclusion of sorts, but hardly a resounding or comforting one. There’s a long account by Madison of her experience of police brutality around the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa. (McCarthy perhaps misses a trick here: we’ve read earlier about U’s dossier on jeans, but he doesn’t connect the word to the city of its supposed origin.) The question asked of Madison in chapter 1 and later repeated—why was she in Torino-Caselle airport?—is finally answered, in the novel’s longest piece of consecutive narrative. If U’s life is devoid of events, he now discovers someone who has been through a series of extraordinary, and barely interpretable, events; and her account comes as a rebuff to the affectless neutrality of his anthropological investigations. (Madison refers to Nietzsche’s descent into madness in Turin—though she’s not sure it wasn’t Kierkegaard, another figure to contemplate in relation to this novel.)

36Then the final chapter takes U to New York, where, on an impulse stemming from his ‘Satin Island’ dream, he heads for the Staten Island Ferry. (Here’s a reference that has a particular resonance for me, compounded of my own experiences of Staten Island when living in New Jersey and of the rubble-filled trucks on their way to Fresh Kills after 9/11, as well as a memory of Pynchon’s extraordinary description of Fresh Kills in Bleeding Edge. Other readers will of course have other associations.) Staten Island glows distantly in the sunlight: are we going to have a triumphant conclusion? Of course not. It seems right to put the book down with no secret word discovered, no ultimate explanation offered, though the novel-reader in me unavoidably experiences a touch of disappointment at this anti-climactic ending. And we still don’t know where the narrator is now, as he tells us of this culminating non-event.


37Looking back over my reading of these novels, I can now ask: what kind of experience has it been? Has it changed me (as I’ve claimed the experience of good art always does)? We should perhaps distinguish between temporary change, that fades sooner or later, and enduring change, that brings in turn new possibilities for further change. The former is more likely to be something we’re conscious of (C sensitized me for a while to insect life, for instance); the latter is more significant but less accessible to consciousness. At the very least these richly entertaining works have given me a new awareness of the possibilities of fiction outside the traditions of realism, and perhaps a greater openness to the deceptiveness and quirkiness of the multifariously interconnected surfaces of the world I live in.

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Attridge, Derek, The Singularity of Literature, London: Routledge, 2004.

Attridge, Derek, The Work of Literature, Oxford: OUP, 2015.

Attridge, Derek, and Henry Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, Abingdon: Routledge, 2015.

McCarthy, Tom, Remainder, Richmond: Alma Books, 2006.

McCarthy, Tom, Men in Space, Richmond: Alma Books, 2007.

McCarthy, Tom, C, London: Jonathan Cape, 2010.

McCarthy, Tom, Satin Island, London: Jonathan Cape, 2015.

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1 See The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004) and The Work of Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2015).

2 I’ve recently participated with Henry Staten in a dialogue of this kind, in a series of discussions of individual poems; see The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).


4 One small counterfactual is that the ace German pilot Fritz Kempf’s motto, Kennscht mi noch?, which haunts Serge, was painted on his Fokker, not on an Albatros.

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Derek Attridge, « Tom McCarthy’s Fiction: A Reading Diary », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 50 | 2016, mis en ligne le 07 avril 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3033

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Derek Attridge

Derek Attridge is Professor of English at the University of York, U.K., and a Fellow of the British Academy. His publications include books on literary theory, poetics, and South African and Irish fiction. Most recently, he published Moving Words: Forms of English Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2013), The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation (with Henry Staten) (Routledge, 2015), and The Work of Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is currently writing a history of poetry in performance from Homer to the Renaissance.

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