a kind of simulation but better than the real thing ever was - the Tom McCarthy thread

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So, after Ishmael K's comment that he felt ILB could sustain more threads, I thought I'd start this, mainly to discuss C without spoilerizing/cluttering up the what are you reading threads.

I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it slightly less than I thought I was going to enjoy it after the first section, which I really enjoyed. And although I'm going to be nitpicking, I do want to stress that I enjoyed it.

The first section, with its combination of child's viewpoint, and yes, the slightly stilted present tense delivery, the naive lack of distinction between animate and inanimate substance, then the wonderful pageant, where the various relationships and indeed the environment are redefined in the mythological terms of drugs, rape and the underworld, as well as the narrative drive of Sophie, Widsun, half seen through the child Serge's eyes all worked brilliantly. And while I found the spa a bit of a let down, the continued conflict between light (Lucia) and the dark troglodytic masseuse, seemed to continue Serge's voyage in the underworld, and his ultimate rebirthing into adulthood out of his caul.

And then, well, I'm not sure the rest of it really lived up to that for me. The style is great for the reconfiguring of sensational reality set pieces, like the drugged-up flights, but does seem to toil slightly otherwise. Also, I don't know, what suited the child Serge increasingly seems a narratorial imposition (especially in the final Egypt section), not really justified by his own perception of reality.

Also by and large avoided in the first section, but more and more obvious through the book, is explanatory and meta-analytic dialogue, also characters spewing out information. The narrator acknowledges this, and after all, it makes sense in McCarthy's universe, but this didn't really ever stop it feeling like I was being fed author research.

This in turn can make some of the linking between the thematic bric-a-brac of the novel (coherers! scarab beetles! copper! carbon!) seem like the sort of fanciful linking between stuff that we've probably all engaged in, a linking of haphazard resemblances, but which smacks more strongly of Coleridge's 'fancy' than his 'imagination'. This is probably also misleading - there's a clear and strong will to produce a metaphysics of machinery and substance, (a sort of reverse gnosticism?), to convey the material nature of the immaterial, so the Egyptian stuff is a natural conclusion and synthesis of much of the material being dealt with. Still doesn't stop it feeling slightly arbitrary.

Gravity's Rainbow is a clear antecedent - nothing wrong with that, except that perhaps the comparisons don't do C too many favours. I thought I detected strong echoes of Kipling's They as well, in fact his latter writing generally (the similarity and conjoining of man and machine). The indifferent distinction between man and machine I guess is a Beckettian thing as well.

But really this novel's great achievement, and the thing that stops it sinking beneath the various issues I had with it, is the aesthetic of a sort of coldly sexualised and tangible metaphysics (the book is laden with death and a very underground, earthy underworld), and the teeming ether, that substance holds the key to existence, not spirit, that what lives after death is not the soul, but the body. All this as an aesthetic framework, and the spiritual drive of the book (clearly continuing some of the obsessions of Remainder) is I think extremely successful and compelling. It just gets a bit diffused from time to time.

the too encumbered madman (GamalielRatsey), Friday, 24 September 2010 09:12 (twelve years ago) link

i've sorta/maybe given up on this for the moment. i'm at the fighter pilot part & its lost enough of its momentum that when i think of picking it up again it feels like a chore. jennifer egan was talking about this book on a podcast and she sd that the most interesting/remarkable thing about it is that it inverts the 'traditional novel' by foregrounding the 'technical'/'interpretive' part of of the novel and backgrounds the narrative part. & so the reader is sort of peering through the exposed architecture of the novel at the extravagant story within.

which... maybe? there is the "explanatory and meta-analytic dialogue" and the attempt at mimicking 'thought'. hmm. really i should probably finish the novel, before i post much about it.

swagula (Lamp), Friday, 24 September 2010 17:01 (twelve years ago) link

pretty sure i wont be into this...

just sayin, Friday, 24 September 2010 17:33 (twelve years ago) link

posted this on Rolling Contemporary Lit thread not five minutes ago:

read mccarthy's C and eh I don't know. I thought this dude was supposed to be all "postmodern" but this seemed like your basic "dude saunters through various representative historical situations" (I don't really know how to express this but where the time period is exhibited by the main character experimenting with radio, fighting in WWII, going to a seance, being in Egypt as the country gains its independence and the British Empire collapses) novel. I feel like I was missing something big.

Also I haven't read Remainder but everyone says it's funny, and there was like almost no trace of humor in C at all. It was interesting enough that I finished it but overall it left me cold.

― congratulations (n/a), Friday, September 24, 2010 12:24 PM (10 minutes ago) Bookmark Suggest Ban Permalink

congratulations (n/a), Friday, 24 September 2010 17:35 (twelve years ago) link

Agree with GR for the most part. The opening is great, stalls, with flashes of brilliance after that. Liked it a lot, have more to say, but posting from phone. Will expand when at a keyboard.

portrait of velleity (woof), Friday, 24 September 2010 17:46 (twelve years ago) link

The opening is great

so much of this reminded of the childhood idyll part of "ada, or ardor" although i really cant put my finger on what, exactly, resonated so strongly

swagula (Lamp), Friday, 24 September 2010 18:04 (twelve years ago) link

Entirely incidentally, thought the whole London section was extremely similar to the second, poorly received but execellent imo episode of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes.

I say entirely incidentally, but I read the Professor Challenger/Ac Doyle account of a seance and i have to say found it more convincing that McCarthy's despite its clear propaganda. Reality as a version of decodable information. Really did love that Sherlock Holmes series on the BBC.

the too encumbered madman (GamalielRatsey), Friday, 24 September 2010 21:55 (twelve years ago) link

Also I haven't read Remainder but everyone says it's funny,

Fuck, would love to read a new novel in the English comic tradition but... well, what happened to funny? Remainder was amusing, only occasionally found it funny, but yes, would entirely agree. lolz?

the too encumbered madman (GamalielRatsey), Friday, 24 September 2010 21:59 (twelve years ago) link

Kinda sad to keep hearing the Pynchon comparisons - not that I don't expect C to be a mighty fine piece of work, but, well, Remainder really was something else, y'know? I've read more than a few grandiose sprawling epics of Pynchoneon dimensions and, after Remainder, it strikes me as a step back.

But then again, I've yet to read the book.

R Baez, Saturday, 25 September 2010 18:12 (twelve years ago) link

Not sure what my drunken posting on Friday was about. I think 'lolz?' was meant to indicate 'whither the lolz?' or something.

Anyway, went to see him talk last night, a colleague having picked up some tickets. I'm often reluctant to go to these things, and I'm not sure why really, perhaps because I just feel slightly awkward at them. Despite I got a fair bit of scowling done last night, I enjoyed it, found it stimulating.

Scowling first - If you're going to contrast Marinetti with Wyndham Lewis, you're probably better off picking something like Blasting and Bombardiering and saying it sounds like Wodehouse. Blasting and Bombardiering was written, as Lewis says at the beginning, to give a popular insight to modernism and to a certain extent his own personal history. Probably worth having a look at Lewis's proto-Beckettian play Enemy of the Stars, set in an abstract postwar landscape, then the contrast becomes less marked.

Still, there's an argument to be made for Lewis being more satirist than modernist, and furthermore, Lewis's belief that the English sense of humour was inimical to art that would perhaps help solve the question returned to throughout the evening, why modernism didn't graft to English culture. I'm not sure I buy that anyway (I'm sure we've talked about this on another thread) - McCarthy means specifically High European Modernism, and that's kind of exclusive of English modernism by definition. It may well be, even in this argument, that the English comic novel (as the literary representative of the English sense of humour) has a role to play in explaining why England's modernisms were different from Europe's. (Lewis blessed as well as blasted the English sense of humour iirc).

What Lezard slightly lazily called the literature of 'common sense' may be fitting in somewhere round here, but I'm not really sure where.

Still, you've got to say something, and by and large Lezard was a congenial host, notwithstanding an amusing tic where, when he wanted to move things on a little, he would punctuate McCarthy with a very sceptical sounding 'hmmmmm'. And McCarthy was eloquent, amusing and interesting about the things he likes, about competing realities, the problems of realism, and about the various elements that go into C (and I thought the talk stood as a good gloss to the novel).

Lamp - McCarthy mentioned Ada, or Ardor as a specific influence, saying that he lifted the insect/scient/incest thing from there.

the too encumbered madman (GamalielRatsey), Tuesday, 28 September 2010 09:13 (twelve years ago) link

So, just some of what I recall on C.

Started terrifically I thought: that whole country house/pageant section very good. Sets a lot rolling very quickly - communication networks, hidden vs open, hive-humanity, symbol systems, the invisible & secret - with a great style. Enough momentum to carry me through the spa stuff, which felt a little pastichey, but well executed. Some of the best prose in the flying/war section, and yes a fine rendering of the experience of a peculiar flat consciousness; the prisoner section was starting to feel tired (like the escape committee that might not exist might as well be pulled straight from Gravity's Rainbow), and then in the 20s london section that I felt research was really weighing it down. There's a bit of predictability too: feel like once things are set up, you know there's going to be spiritualism (i mean he sort of has to go to a seance, right, once you've got him in 20s London?), gnosticism.

Again, I really enjoyed it, and yes, it's the right novel for me, but like most I'm a bit disappointed after Remainder, which as R Baez rightly says, was something else.

The marketing of this has been quite odd: strange to see it pushed in this 'are you read for an EXPERIMENT that will BLOW UR MIND' way, with everyone reading or reviewing having to say 'actually, it's pretty straightforward. Conventional even. A bit cold is all'.

portrait of velleity (woof), Tuesday, 28 September 2010 13:56 (twelve years ago) link

i just finished remainder - i really, really liked the idea, the concepts, and i do think the expression of them was really articulate... but i just didn't enjoy this novel at all. i can't really put my finger on it except to say that it's 'just not my thing', i guess??

the concepts really resonated with me, but they made me really uncomfortable at the same time.

just1n3, Sunday, 3 October 2010 02:46 (twelve years ago) link

Lamp - McCarthy mentioned Ada, or Ardor as a specific influence, saying that he lifted the insect/scient/incest thing from there.

yeah lol shouldve caught that really.

i finished it but idk what 'ideas' were really all that important & it was kind of boring to read? wish i had more to say, really

swagula (Lamp), Tuesday, 5 October 2010 04:23 (twelve years ago) link

did you like remainder?

just sayin, Tuesday, 5 October 2010 09:12 (twelve years ago) link

kind of want to read this dude

his journalism is kind of 'english lecturer at further education college' tho

laughing out loud lol (history mayne), Tuesday, 5 October 2010 09:13 (twelve years ago) link

... specifically what? i can sort of believe that, i guess, but all i've read is his review of josopovici's new book and his book on hergé, neither of which quite fit that bill; also his philosophical manifesto bullcrap, which eh

thomp, Tuesday, 5 October 2010 12:41 (twelve years ago) link

i have been carrying around a copy of 'men in space' but i have started reading three or four other books in various places instead of reading it

thomp, Tuesday, 5 October 2010 12:41 (twelve years ago) link

"his review of josopovici's new book" -- yeah, this. and i think there was s.thing in the new statesman

laughing out loud lol (history mayne), Tuesday, 5 October 2010 12:43 (twelve years ago) link

Here is a review I wrote of Remainder, the first paragraph of which I've reproduced here:

In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, a man suffers a traumatic injury and adopts an unusual method of recovery: a quest for authenticity. He builds enormous sets and hires actors to resurrect his life from before the accident, careful that his stagecraft not only mimics but recreates his previous more perfect life. The narrator’s form of therapy, in other words, is nostalgia, a way to reach back to a time when his life still felt whole and authentic. Yet as the narrator grows more and more obsessed with living only in these flawless moments, Remainder suggests that our fixation with authenticity may be itself a trauma. It describes the truth of representations and stars a man who erects his memories as gigantic art pieces and finds himself frustrated by how simulations can only stand-in for reality. Think here of postmodern metafictional novels and their precursor Beckett, whose plays also resemble art installations; like Krapp’s Last Tape, Remainder is a non-stop quotation of stark repetitions. But Remainder is also about another more political conception of “truth”—being true to one’s own self. Sharing some territory with the works of David Foster Wallace, Daniel Clowes, and Alexander Payne, Remainder is a story about how modern life corrodes the self’s ability to live a “right” life.

kensanwaychen, Sunday, 10 October 2010 21:54 (twelve years ago) link

i have now read men in space

thomp, Friday, 22 October 2010 09:04 (twelve years ago) link

Any good?

Pork Pius V (GamalielRatsey), Friday, 22 October 2010 09:05 (twelve years ago) link

it has a really awful blurb explaining that the characters are "negotiating all kinds of space - social, emotional, physical" (not exactly phrased that way, but just as bad.) which, hey, thanks for that.

thomp, Friday, 22 October 2010 09:06 (twelve years ago) link

it is pretty good though. (sorry, xpost.)

thomp, Friday, 22 October 2010 09:06 (twelve years ago) link

it's very pynchonesque. in the way the cast are handled, and in a lot of turns of phrase, and in a lot of sentences about concrete things that turn out to be abstract things, or vice versa.

thomp, Friday, 22 October 2010 09:07 (twelve years ago) link

which i think a bunch of people thought this was written before remainder, on those grounds -- that it wouldn't make sense for a voice as strongly felt as in his first novel to then fall back to another person's style in his second. but if c is like this, as well, than maybe that is what happened.

thomp, Friday, 22 October 2010 09:11 (twelve years ago) link

Cheers, thomp, will probably give it a go at some point, although I'm all McCarthy'd out at the moment. Argh I hate blurbs like that - movie descriptions often particularly culpable. Yes, I am only a member of the public and you are a top film student who understands these things thx.

xpost, I think it was his first work, but published after? I think probably the idea was so strong in Remainder that it helped define the voice to an extent that isn't the case in C (or from the sounds of it Men in Space).

Pork Pius V (GamalielRatsey), Friday, 22 October 2010 09:12 (twelve years ago) link

two months pass...

i am in the home stretch of this right now & am only posting to say that the phrase 'a kind of simulation better than the real thing ever was' appeared to me hugely more powerful from having seen it on Site New Answers so many times. like reading a john donne sermon and finding 'ask not for whom' in its native place for the first time.

the tune is spacecadet (c sharp major), Sunday, 16 January 2011 03:22 (eleven years ago) link

btw i liked it. i liked the authorial perverseness-- the way that people never seemed to be described (except i guess the nurse at the spa and that for obv reasons) while places might be excessively (the description of the house right at the beginning pissed me off tbh but thankfully that seemed restricted to learmont-pov); the way that all these modernist symbols are written of with such unmodernist style. The allusions and repetitions didn't feel belaboured, either, you registered them and kept moving rather than having to sit through an explanation. There was a lack of hysteria that I liked. When you're calling up the ghost of Wyndham Lewis or Marinetti or Blavatsky (or even even Evelyn Waugh who is secretly there in all writing abt the 20s even if only in my heart) it is hugely refreshing to have something that does not use hysteria as a tool.

the tune is spacecadet (c sharp major), Sunday, 16 January 2011 14:34 (eleven years ago) link

i had a 'wait is that a quote from something' moment

well chosen phrase for thread imo. i spent a long time convinced it was somewhere in 'remainder' even though i had read remainder and it is not to be found in there


thomp, Sunday, 16 January 2011 15:52 (eleven years ago) link

yeah i had assumed it was a ref to remainder, because all i've read about remainder (yes yes i need to read remainder, i know) suggests toward it. but no!

the tune is spacecadet (c sharp major), Sunday, 16 January 2011 16:35 (eleven years ago) link

glad people like the quote - chose it as a connecting point between Remainder and C.

in some ways think the obsession with that which is residual in 'reality', that which remains after the simulation and is issimulable, is more of a connecting obsession, (rather'n it being 'better than the real thing') but also ended up liking the quote as a sort of McCarthian definition of fiction/art.

also glad you liked C, c#m - find myself getting a bit tired of feeling defensive about the book, cos although it's not a masterpiece I do think it's quite interesting (in a good way - like cricket ahem - rather than as a euphemism for 'dull'), and I'm not sure any sort of it's great!/it's crap! conversation serves it v well.

writing this in the pub, Probs not making much sense.


Herr Kapitan Pugvosh (GamalielRatsey), Sunday, 16 January 2011 16:44 (eleven years ago) link

seven months pass...

i just finished C, which came out in paperback last week.

i really liked it! which is probably to be expected.

its hard to talk about it without thinking of pynchon: the deadpan comedy (tho pynchon's much funnier), the "world war adventures," the thematic obsessions with communication, translation, mapping, modeling, 'modernism,' etc.

hes much colder than pynchon tho, and less of a show-off; pynchon's novels are mostly shaggy-dog stories, late-night dorm-room "whatever happens happens" kinds of bullshit sessions; this is more mechanical and plotted. you dont get the sense that mccarthy writes 1/3 of the book stoned the way you do with pynchon.

i havent heard the egan thing that lamp talks about in the second post (and i need some more time to marinate on the book) but i wonder if she's not getting at what i liked about it--the kind laying-bare of mccarthys elaborately fashioned network of ideas.

max, Thursday, 15 September 2011 22:10 (eleven years ago) link

i suppose for some people it might even be too "obvious"? or "trying too hard"? i didnt much care; it was trying at things im interested in.

max, Thursday, 15 September 2011 22:12 (eleven years ago) link

and yes i agree with everyone that the first half is much stronger than the second, and even if it picked up a bit in the egypt section it was starting to get very on the nose at that point.

max, Thursday, 15 September 2011 22:14 (eleven years ago) link

now read remainder

diouf est le papa du foot galsen merde lè haters (nakhchivan), Thursday, 15 September 2011 22:22 (eleven years ago) link

hi, i did

max, Thursday, 15 September 2011 22:51 (eleven years ago) link

read it again

diouf est le papa du foot galsen merde lè haters (nakhchivan), Thursday, 15 September 2011 22:53 (eleven years ago) link

and again

diouf est le papa du foot galsen merde lè haters (nakhchivan), Thursday, 15 September 2011 22:54 (eleven years ago) link

i think the most interesting thing about 'remainder' is that its become such a cultural touchstone

Lamp, Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:14 (eleven years ago) link

it has?

diouf est le papa du foot galsen merde lè haters (nakhchivan), Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:15 (eleven years ago) link


max, Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:16 (eleven years ago) link


Lamp, Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:24 (eleven years ago) link


diouf est le papa du foot galsen merde lè haters (nakhchivan), Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:25 (eleven years ago) link

it probably has attained some sort of afterlife that 'c', or perhaps anything else he writes, is unlikely to

diouf est le papa du foot galsen merde lè haters (nakhchivan), Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:27 (eleven years ago) link

this is p empty-headed and flimsy but i guess i feel like its becoming/has become 'the infinite jest of the oughts' with all that implies about its critical status/readership/'importance'

Lamp, Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:35 (eleven years ago) link

you think really? we hang out in different crowds

max, Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:38 (eleven years ago) link

lamp do you work in publishing? or are you retired or what? i can never remember

max, Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:38 (eleven years ago) link


diouf est le papa du foot galsen merde lè haters (nakhchivan), Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:39 (eleven years ago) link

i have no idea what that means?

max, yeah, i feel like thats true, or at least becoming true. i think zadie smith's essay about 'remainder' and 'netherland' was p impt in helping to develop its reputation as a novel thats capital-i important but i also think the whole backstory to it, the types of ppl i know who have read and really admire it, idk, i just think its sorta slotting into that 'space' in the discourse.

i think nabisco and pinefox touch on this a little itt where they/we discuss that zadie smith essay btw

Lamp, Thursday, 15 September 2011 23:51 (eleven years ago) link

do you have a link to that thread? one reason i am/was skeptical of 'remainder' being the 'infinite jest of the aughts' is that (id thought) ilx hadnt discussed it very much! the thing is i dont hang out with many people who are 'into' literature/literary culture so i guess it wouldnt surprise me if i had just missed out on the remainder phenom

max, Friday, 16 September 2011 01:49 (eleven years ago) link

thanks pf, tho i have to say my review was more disappointment that it didn't live up to expectations set by his other fiction.

and apologies - quickly skimming my hastily put together screed i see that some of the sentences don't.

Fizzles, Friday, 27 March 2015 13:53 (seven years ago) link

did you ever get on with magris

nakhchivan, Friday, 27 March 2015 20:25 (seven years ago) link


nakhchivan, Friday, 27 March 2015 20:27 (seven years ago) link

yeah i like magris - i have a problem with the diffuseness that associational writing brings to the categories of the world. Ontology - quite easily defined as 'what is there' - becomes 'what my investigations reveal'. It's the inverse of 'nothing will bring nothing' - 'everything will give evereything'. it feels like writers makes it too easy sometimes. if you want to do that everything thing, do finnegans wake.

Fizzles, Friday, 27 March 2015 22:18 (seven years ago) link

lol thats meaningless pissed shit.

Fizzles, Friday, 27 March 2015 22:55 (seven years ago) link


nakhchivan, Saturday, 28 March 2015 15:49 (seven years ago) link

Mark McGurl with some interesting observations on on TMcC here - http://www.publicbooks.org/fiction/the-novels-forking-path

lutefish, Thursday, 2 April 2015 04:50 (seven years ago) link

not entirely with all that article - is "experimental fiction that works" rare? looks suspiciously like they're asking experimental fiction to work according to non-experimental standards.

but he's right about a lot of satin island. this is an appalling piece of writing:

We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen. When the shapeless plasma takes on form and resolution, like a fish approaching us through murky waters or an image looming into view from noxious liquid in a darkroom, when it begins to coalesce into a figure that’s discernible, if ciphered, we can say: This is it, stirring, looming, even if it isn’t really, if it’s all just ink-blots.

the overused Pauline quote, the subsequent inability to counterpoint the biblical cadences, the quick rendering of technological modernity into hackneyed "fish coming out of dark waters" and "ink blots" all add up to a seriously uninspired, underworked example of satin island's style and content.

Fizzles, Thursday, 2 April 2015 07:30 (seven years ago) link

oh and a+ find nakh.

Fizzles, Thursday, 2 April 2015 07:30 (seven years ago) link

The description of a Sebald/Cole personalized and lyricized encounter with theory resonated for me, particularly in recent TMcC essays. I think you're spot on that experimental fiction that 'works' is a conveniently moving target in the essay.

lutefish, Friday, 3 April 2015 04:37 (seven years ago) link

one year passes...

Remainder adaptation is pretty good then

imago, Wednesday, 6 July 2016 22:31 (six years ago) link

not quite better than the real thing ever was but not far off

imago, Wednesday, 6 July 2016 22:32 (six years ago) link

ten months pass...

Have this. Might start it tonight.


the ghost of markers, Thursday, 18 May 2017 23:53 (five years ago) link

things that make u go hmm. be interested to hear how you find it, gom.

Fizzles, Friday, 19 May 2017 07:20 (five years ago) link

At least a couple of his LRB essays, which will be in this book, are dreadful.

the pinefox, Saturday, 20 May 2017 10:23 (five years ago) link

I'm pretty convinced Remainder was a happy accident, given how abysmal C was

ban violent jinks (imago), Saturday, 20 May 2017 10:37 (five years ago) link

Also, did anyone else see the Remainder film?

ban violent jinks (imago), Saturday, 20 May 2017 10:37 (five years ago) link

no, i didn't really feel v compelled to tbh.

by the way pinefox there's a post upthread where you say you weren't able to understand a post i'd made. i read the post again and literally i did not have the first clue what the hell i was on about. couldn't make head nor tail of it. i found this reassuring.

Fizzles, Saturday, 20 May 2017 12:11 (five years ago) link

Thank you Fizzles! Glad we agree :D

the pinefox, Saturday, 20 May 2017 22:28 (five years ago) link

"It's that hacking of literary register to find a single plane where close impossibilities forge a landscape. The alkahest is the code of information, variously understood and manipulated via fantasy into something that looks very like materially embodied reality."

!! :P

the pinefox, Saturday, 20 May 2017 22:32 (five years ago) link

i think i know what i'm on about there, but it's much easier to say differently. in both C and Satin Island (badly, boringly), he updates the old notion of a sort of black and formless crudely sentient and primal darkness. This is what our organic forms descend into on death (and it is a physical or material condition). For McCarthy it has the capacity to preserve information/data in it as well, for reconfiguring material reality again. It is also oil and oil derivatives like plastics, and celluloid etc.

Out of this you can create things, including alternate realities. 'Hacking of the literary register' was a bad way of saying, these can be... nope, gone again. Broadly though, because it's so protean you can create worlds from things that have no real connections. It implies at base an inherent fungibility.

Now of course none of this makes him 'good' or 'bad' particularly (he is both - Remainder and parts of C are good, Satin Island is very bad, and his essays are extremely variable). But it does seem to be his central subject matter.

There. You are going to tell me that it doesn't make sense again, I know it. Still, I think it's right. This isn't about simulation, in this case, tho that is clearly his other obsession and probably linked somewhere. It's been a while since I've read any of his stuff.

Fizzles, Sunday, 21 May 2017 13:55 (five years ago) link

I'm sure it makes sense to you, Fizzles! :D

For me, I think it's either beyond me or perhaps the message is so simple ('writing can imagine alternate realities' or something) that we already know it. Probably it's just beyond me.

the pinefox, Sunday, 21 May 2017 15:03 (five years ago) link

four years pass...

SO I ended up picking up his latest, The Making of Incarnation, despite being embarrassed by his most recent piece in the LRB, and thinking Satin Island was crap.

uneven doesn't cover it. so, more or less at random - I'm only two chapters in:

the 'prolegomena' (yes, ok, just) is fine, and more than fine in bits. it's about the Versuchsanstal für Wasserbau und Schiffbau (Research Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Shipbuilding), which it turns out does actually exist:


the fact of its actual existence means that what is really just documentary reporting is rendered into Tom McCarthy's particular prose diction and... well, i think it makes that diction look a bit silly. Take the very first sentence of the book:

From the S-Bahn, through shuttling latticework of tree branch and bridge truss, you glimpse it just below Tiergarten as you travel east-to-west, or west-to-east: a five-storey blue hulk.

Why not 'through *a* shuttling latticework of tree *branches* and bridge *trusses*'? Well presumably because McCarthy is trying to establish a form of poetic cadence across both reportage and the content that won't fit in there so well. Only I'm really not sure this is the *right* cadence for what he's trying to do. It feels underexamined and inherited from other forms of 'literariness'.

This friction is there through most of this first section, but then there is the first of a couple of moments so far where you feel what he's doing thicken and intensify - in this case how the vectors of water affect the physical model of oil rigs and boats and cities in the hydraulic tank: 'Computer modelling won't show you everything. Sometimes you have to actually *do* it, make a little world, get down amidst dumb objects and their messiness.' What is notable about these sections is that the force literary cadence is far less present and noticeable.

Remainder worked very well because the central character's desire to recreate a simulated world was entirely cognate with the writer's task - the authorial/narrative voice was very much unified with the actions and thoughts of this character v much on an obsessive part of the spectrum. that's not the case here.

anyway, prolegomena, C+: hasn't caused me to throw the book down, colour me mildly interested enough to carry on reading.

which is more than can be said for the first chapter. this throws us back into the '80s, and a school bus trip of 10 year olds to the Tate. Fine.

Across the side of one (bus) someone has finger-scrawled the word *Fuck*; beneath this, somebody (the same person perhaps) has written *Thatcher*; but this name has since been scored through, substituted by *GLC Commies* – which, in turn, has been struck out and replaced with *You*.

My immediate response to this was 'no'. I think it was 'GLC Commies' that was the immediate cause (tho I had registered that i didn't like 'finger-scrawled'). It just didn't sit right as van-dust graffiti. Then I realised that 'Fuck You' was also problematic. Now, I hope someone older and wiser can correct me if i'm wrong, but I don't really feel Fuck You entered into British vernacular from the US until later than the '80s? Fuck off was pretty standard, and fuck you sounded wrong and american, and not right here.

then they get to the tate after some uneven description of the bus trip (some bits good, some bits... not so good).

... his voice seems to rise from the the whorled depths of the staircase down which the floor's two-tone mosaic disappears.

again, ready to be corrected here, but that's a description of the entrance and 'rotunda', which wasn't rennovated until 2013 and according to my recollection of the Tate back then, wasn't a feature in the 80s.

so anyway, so far so subeditor.

scene drifts momentarily to peckham swimming baths a couple of weeks earlier, when the main character in this chapter, Markie, and his friend are getting changed and realise they're in a changing room next to some girls and peer under the cubicle to take a look.

They had to press their cheeks right to the quartz-and-granite slab to reach the vantage point: from there ... they saw two sets of bare legs towering above them like the trunks of redwood trees, paralllels playing perspectival tricks by narrwing *and* widening out into thighs before converging, at what should have been infinity but was in truth a mere two feet away, into unfoliaged waist canopies...

never mind the 'redwood tree' set-up, 'unfoliaged waist canopies' in this context is one of the very worst things i have ever seen committed to print. i feel bad about even reproducing it here, but its so unutterably awful it needs to have witness.

absolutely not, no, was my immediate response and i very nearly put the book down there and then.

oddly, the chapter very much improves later - again, something of an intensity as McCarthy moves onto his area of obsession - that is to say the orientation and relative positioning of things to each other in time, space and simulation. this is often managed in quite a dull way, with the description of how lines connect - A to B to C - objects with each other. The inevitability of geometric vectors across time. This was where McCarthy headed in the latter, much less successful half of C and there are ofc elements of Gravity's Rainbow in this obsession. Beckett's use of geometric intersection in the Trilogy is much more successful ofc, but McCarthy's own obsession here means it produces a different style and motive of interest that make sections of the book outside these particular occasions seem bad and unnecessary, stylistically gauche and pointless.

so that's one obsession, another is that inanimate objects - like the models of the city in the hyrdraulic tank, and a bird in a picture in the tate - are aware of and somehow will their own destruction, through a glitch in cause and effect caused by replays and simulations. i guess this is a perverted form of immanence in his world. here i think McCarthy gets closer to genuine points of interest in his writing. in the first, very good, section of C this took the form of constructing a metaphysics for how what survives of us after we die is communicated physically rather than spiritually.

unfortunately i think the fundamental problem is that outside Remainder the mode he picks for this is all wrong. his style needs to be radically different from what feels like very baggy writing generally inappropriate to precision.

anyway, i'm going to carry on.

Fizzles, Sunday, 23 January 2022 11:33 (ten months ago) link

But why though

mardheamac (gyac), Sunday, 23 January 2022 12:48 (ten months ago) link

well, cos i’m interested in some of his central ideas. there’s also at this early stage a sort of “which way will it fall” fascination.

Fizzles, Sunday, 23 January 2022 13:04 (ten months ago) link

My immediate response to this was 'no'. I think it was 'GLC Commies' that was the immediate cause (tho I had registered that i didn't like 'finger-scrawled'). It just didn't sit right as van-dust graffiti. Then I realised that 'Fuck You' was also problematic. Now, I hope someone older and wiser can correct me if i'm wrong, but I don't really feel Fuck You entered into British vernacular from the US until later than the '80s? Fuck off was pretty standard, and fuck you sounded wrong and american, and not right here.

Good critique, Fizzles.

In what way can you 'finger-scrawl' something on a van? In the dust? If no dust, then you could use your fingernail - and it would come off badly.

'GLC Commies' is all wrong - that diction wasn't used, and there's surely the simpler issue that someone engaged in scrawling on a van isn't going to be McCarthyite (Joseph, not Tom) in that way. It's ridiculous.

Your observation on 'Fuck you' also looks sound to me.

Your criticism of the changing-room scene looks sound.

his area of obsession - that is to say the orientation and relative positioning of things to each other in time, space and simulation

I don't understand how this is interesting. 'Things occupy different places in space'. 'Things move through to space, and their spatial relations to each other therefore change'. Those statements are true. I don't see them as, in themselves, an interesting theme.

I don't like this writer, and won't read him if I can avoid it. Perhaps I should be glad you're doing it for us.

the pinefox, Monday, 24 January 2022 12:45 (ten months ago) link

I don't like this writer, and won't read him if I can avoid it. Perhaps I should be glad you're doing it for us.

i live to serve.

I think you're right on the GLC Commies, though the stronger reaction is against the diction. on the question of politics, i do find myself asking *why* that doesn't seem right (I agree it doesn't), and find myself wondering what it is that isn't conducive to right wing opinions in the dust scrawling classes. one option is that vehement phatic expressions of anti left sentiment are relatively new? that doesn't quite work for me. I think it's probably more because GLC Commies suggests a sort of structural analysis, rather than directed against a hate figure like Thatcher. But then fuck the tories is ofc perfectly plausible. Anyway. Not sure why.

On the things occupy different places in space, I'd agree with you that's not intrinsically interesting, though I would ask what it is in Beckett (or even possibly the Ithaca section in Ulysses), where the relentless depiction of objects, their relation and interrelation, is of interest? I feel you will be able to answer this!

More generally this book is about how we consittute our simulations, in this case a film (Incarnation) with the modern technologies available.

This twitter thread on copywrighting motion capture is very relevant to the book's subject matter:

Jet Li on the ethical reasons why he rejected the role of Seraph in the Matrix movies. Li clearly saw the direction Hollywood was headed. pic.twitter.com/P5mhvZ3AOr

— Minovsky (@MinovskyArticle) December 26, 2021

He plays around with this - eg where motion capture posits points of dynamism that exist *outside* or in a theoretical position

The problem is, it's dull, because there's very little psychological engagement or dramatic tension to show why any of this matters or why it might be interesting. It's descriptions of people talking about and using motion capture, or cataloguing histories of iterated movements in industry. None of these things are without interest as subjects of course, but as fiction, McCarthy has done a bad job here.

he's always been interested in defining co-ordinate space - what does it mean to say 'x marks the spot'? In this novel via descirptions of how motion capture technology works, he's saying that 'the marked position's not the final goal. It's not the spot you want' - the true root of 'solving' the kinetic problem of the human body exists at a conjectured spot. I guess a version of this might 'the archimedean point' or those paintings by Saenredam, where the vanishing point exists outside the picture frame.

again, to come to your point, why is any of this interesting? well, i do think he's *trying* (not successfully - he just sort of throws techbnology descriptions at the reader) to do something I am interested in, which is to explore what constitutes aesthetic comprehension of digital spaces and simulations. and i'm afraid i'm going to have to let that rather opaque observation hanging, because i want to try and put some thoughts together about that anyway!

Fizzles, Tuesday, 25 January 2022 19:15 (ten months ago) link

lol proofing, christ.

Fizzles, Tuesday, 25 January 2022 19:17 (ten months ago) link

Thanks, Fizzles, for your extended thoughts.

I'm afraid your comments about objects in space lost me. I don't understand why this is an issue of interest. The motion-capture issue may be another matter. I know nothing about it.

though I would ask what it is in Beckett (or even possibly the Ithaca section in Ulysses), where the relentless depiction of objects, their relation and interrelation, is of interest?

This looks a worryingly hefty challenge. I think my short answer is that the relation of objects in space is not, as such, what's interesting about those texts, to me.

Most of us admire Beckett, but for me what counts about him would be other matters, like his grasp of finitude, mortality, death, and also his incredible control of language, including in black humour. The Beckett who makes diagrams of A, B, C and D moving around -- is not for me.

'Ithaca' is one of the best things I've ever read, and I concede that it has something to do with standing far back and seeing people 'in space' (even interstellar space) more than the rest of the book - an aesthetic effect, yes, but again, that doesn't seem to me the most interesting aspect of the episode, which is crammed with vast amounts of detail - historical, comic, poignant, poetic.

We strongly agree about the GLC graffiti issue. I think I might as a reader have just passed over it, whereas, as with Lanchester, you're very good at noticing things that are off. But with this, I might have picked up on it too. I was there at the time of the GLC, and this doesn't ring true at all.

the pinefox, Wednesday, 26 January 2022 12:09 (ten months ago) link

i agree on the 'relation of objects in space' observations. i think it can be seen as a comic mode - the spasticity of the human body and the slapstick interrelation of things feel like a beckettian comic style, with an existential edge. And yes, the Ithaca section is much more than that - I mentioned it as I understand it was quite influential on Beckett, but you'll know more than me on that.

The McCarthy book itself has settled into a fairly adequate rhythm. It's really just a series of technical analyses, described in a fairly mediocre literary style. Lilian Gilbreth and here time and motion wireframes are a major theme:


He's beginning to suggest some sort of revelatory moment beyond these graphical reproductions and reconstructions of motion, but it's not clear if this is a major through line that will be resolved or speculation.

A lot of it reads like essays put into literary language. Still, he's expanding spaces and pushing at boundaries. It's just they're boundaries and spaces that have been described and pushed at elsewhere. There's an army drone-flying vet, who's never left the warehouse in his home country, retiring from the warzone with PTSD. One of the characters expresses surprise - 'warzone?' This way drone warfare causes problematises the notion of the 'theatre of war' has already been well explored.

Similarly, the rather feeble drone display in one section only sends you to youtube, and the remarkable light shows that have been a staple of Chinese light spectacles for a while and are being seen more elsewhere too:


The points when he plugs some emotional state into what's happening are better - characters fall into fugue states watching the analysis of motion taking place, so that they start throwing adjectives and metaphorical fancies at what they're seeing. Well, it's better than the v plain and stilted interactions between characters that feel almost transcribed.

Occasionally it works. Two of the characters are using skeletal analysis to try and assess the impact of non-progressive cerebral palsy on a child's motion. They go through the analysis, which starts getting processed, and McCarthy describes the machines winding 'their way back to dark secretes, mysteries of origin, her child's sad incunabula.'

'sad incunabula'. a book written before any level of analysable medicine is available. Something intrinsic, ancient and not available for processing. It's a reach, but I quite liked it. The fans of an aerodynamic testing tunnel starting up at a high pitch, 'soprano, an urgent and indefinitely long *fermata*, drawn from the fraught diaphragm of some mechanical Rhinemaiden' not so much.

It's all very odd, the book does seem to be tending towards some sort of alteration of the ideas its treating, and i'll be interested to see how that comes out. but frankly if McCarthy had submitted this to me i'd've said that it was all very interesting, but he should go away and rewrite it entirely, unrecognisable. At the moment it feels like a set of half-digested LRB essays.

If something like this is going to succeeded he needs to go madder, go stranger. Ada, or Adour or Against the Day, wildly unsatisfactory as they are in many ways, are models here.

A minor solecism, but irritating all the same: In a not-as-bad-as-it-sounds extended sequence looking at the wind-tunnel test of a bobsleigh there is that old literary cliche. A German is asked a question, to which he answer 'Ja, naturlich' before falling back into German. It's the old Poirot trick, where they are unable to translate the easiest phrases and words in their language, but speak fluent English for the rest, a recurrent tic in fiction, completely the opposite of real world behaviour, which while sort of understandable, is always irritating when you notice it.

Fizzles, Sunday, 30 January 2022 18:34 (nine months ago) link


Fizzles, Sunday, 30 January 2022 18:39 (nine months ago) link

'a kind of simulation but just embarrassing dogshit' - a thread of Captain Tom McCarthy walking round his front garden.

Fizzles, Sunday, 30 January 2022 18:40 (nine months ago) link

Fizzles: I don't understand your final point about the solecism.

I think I would not comprehend this book and not enjoy it.

the pinefox, Sunday, 30 January 2022 20:39 (nine months ago) link

sorry pinefox, it was a bit compressed. in agatha christie’s poirot books, to take an example, poirot is asked a question and will respond “ah, non, but the lady is not his wife, evidement?” etc. it’s only the commonest words and forms that he seems unable to speak in english. this is of course to give a flavour of the french, in words that many english speaking people will understand, but considered in terms of the character themselves it’s rather ridiculous.

Fizzles, Sunday, 30 January 2022 20:51 (nine months ago) link

This is like a weird cultural litmus test, he contextualises it as Poirot, I immediately think of Saison Marguerite.

mardheamac (gyac), Sunday, 30 January 2022 21:06 (nine months ago) link

certainly v common, and tbh im not sure i’m not thinking of the poirot tv adaptations rather than the books.

Fizzles, Sunday, 30 January 2022 22:41 (nine months ago) link

A German is asked a question, to which he answer 'Ja, naturlich' before falling back into German.

So did this mean:

A German is asked a question, to which he answer 'Ja, naturlich' before falling back into English.


the pinefox, Monday, 31 January 2022 10:34 (nine months ago) link

he's got you there

mark s, Monday, 31 January 2022 10:48 (nine months ago) link


The latter. He is conversing in English generally in the section, to speakers of other languages.

Fizzles, Monday, 31 January 2022 11:00 (nine months ago) link

oh and i picked up murder on the orient express last night and yes poirot does this all the time.

Fizzles, Monday, 31 January 2022 12:21 (nine months ago) link

t-mac’s word order makes for some seriously gammy sentences. try this for size:

“if a crew member tries obsequiously to return her to her quarters…”

painfuly evading the splint infinitive leads to some serious mashing of the gears. just write “if an obsequious crew member tries to return her to her quarters” ffs. or at least if for some reason you feel some nuance is being lost (it’s not) put “obsequiously tries”. it really doesn’t matter. just not what you did put.

Fizzles, Monday, 31 January 2022 21:29 (nine months ago) link

after the long section about the bobsleigh in the wind tunnel (not as bad as it sounds tho perhaps that is a v low bar), there is a long section where he describes what’s happening in the film. this is worse than it sounds even if that is also a low bar. the film seems not v good. and it’s made worse by little linguistic innovations mccarthy throws in to show science fiction is happening. a drink they’re transporting is called kwavit and he talks about them frolicking in their childhood in the *gzhiardini*. *do you see*. do more of it, to an extreme, or do much less of it, none at all in fact.

Fizzles, Monday, 31 January 2022 21:54 (nine months ago) link

having to force my way through this bit. it’s utter drivel.

Fizzles, Monday, 31 January 2022 21:59 (nine months ago) link

keen followers of this thread during its recent updates will be interested to know that i almost threw this book down in boredom and irritation but then thought of those who needed me to continue and so, shackleton like, i go on.

Fizzles, Thursday, 3 February 2022 19:35 (nine months ago) link

I'm glad to hear that it's bad.

the pinefox, Friday, 4 February 2022 17:01 (nine months ago) link

on the last leg shackleton of his big anarctic journey shackleton encountered (a) an unbelievably vast rogue sea-wave which his little boat nevertheless weathered bcz they were master seamen and (b) this guy:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

(or so the famous footnotes claim, but imo they're a misdirection: it's obviously actually a reference to COUNT MAGNUS)

mark s, Friday, 4 February 2022 17:07 (nine months ago) link

lol imagine the first sentence is written properly

mark s, Friday, 4 February 2022 17:08 (nine months ago) link

keen followers of this thread during its recent updates will be interested to know that i almost threw this book down in boredom and irritation but then thought of those who needed me to continue and so, shackleton like, i go on.

Channeling Oates, specifically Mahon’s Oates, I would have said? He was even kind enough to include me, mark and the pinefox.

The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
He leaves them reading and begins to climb,

mardheamac (gyac), Friday, 4 February 2022 19:14 (nine months ago) link

TLS review has it about right:

The passage, like the novel that contains it, requires maximal engagement for minimal returns,

i’m gradually reaching the end of my desire to read this. it’s that point where you realise the possibility of redeeming some of the ideas presented is not likely to happen before the pages run out.

pinefox, i agree i do not think you would like this book.

Fizzles, Sunday, 6 February 2022 18:36 (nine months ago) link

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