A night with Tom McCarthy, Man-Booker nominated novelist (who I shall now compare to a certain kind of booze)

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Edinburgh International Book Festival,

Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh

August 30th 2015


As I queued outside the small side tent awarded to Tom McCarthy by the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the gentleman to my right lamented the relative anonymity McCarthy receives even at literary festivals. McCarthy is, I (and many others) would argue, one of the greatest living authors of our time. His expertly crafted novels, beginning with Remainder, and culminating with his (hot off the press) Booker-nominated Satin Island are dense with carefully crafted symbolism and commentary on the repetitive and viral nature of commoditized contemporary existence. They are beautifully written riffs on the material culture and endless feedback loops of self-awareness which characterize our era (McCarthy says buffering is the “symbol of our age”).

But not many people came to hear Mr. McCarthy.

McCarthy’s was the only talk I attended at the Edinburgh International Book Festival which wasn’t held in the fancy tent, and wasn’t sold out.

(btw, if you make it to the end of this article with all its big words and cerebral ramblings, I will reward you with footage of kittens)

The gentleman to my right (first in line, and wielding a fresh, bookmarked copy of McCarthy’s newest novel) asked me why I thought McCarthy did not receive more attention. He made a point, he told me, of attending as many of McCarthy’s talks as he possibly could. And to be fair, the man was clearly a McCarthy aficionado, absolutely gushing with excitement at the chance to hear from his avowed favourite author and waxing lyrical about the incredible deliberateness of McCarthy’s prose – the way motifs recur throughout the chapters, engaging with the strangeness of computerized existence, the absurdity of late capitalism, and the repeated failure of man to achieve any kind of grandeur beyond the everyday. (At one point, the guy even told McCarthy himself where to find a passage in Satin Island… I mean, the dude knew McCarthy’s book better than McCarthy). Why oh why, my mad friend wondered, weren’t more people tuned in to McCarthy’s genius?

satin_island_cover_3212907aI wasn’t sure. In fact, I was surprised myself that the booker-nominated novelist wasn’t being rushed in and out of a big fancy tent by literary bouncers, or being accosted mid-question time by frothing youths in the front row begging to buy him a beer (this actually happened at Irvine Welsh and boy was it awkward). But the fact of the matter is this: McCarthy’s novels are formidable. Dense. Cerebral. You’ve got to be a little bit patient, and more than a little bit bookish to get into McCarthy. In fact you’ve probably got to have a few degrees.

(And the same could apply to his night.)

From the minute McCarthy began his discussion with Stuart Kelly, I felt as though I were witnessing a tutorial, or some kind of literary theory slam. Phrases like “dissident surrealist tradition”, “irredeemably subversive”, “oil is an orgiastic archive” and “post-death curator” were tossed back and forth so quickly across the stage, this reviewer was left gasping for extra brain cells. There may or may not be a small section of my notebook that simply reads: ??? wtf is metastasis ???

It’s not that night wasn’t intriguing, or brilliant. Indeed, Stuart Kelly was incredibly sensitive to the duplicitous meanings woven into the McCarthy’s novels. He was by far the most prepared interviewer, the most engaging host, and the most dedicated listener I had the good fortune to hear from throughout the festival. Where most hosts had clearly prepared little to nothing (cough, Don Paterson), or spent most of the time sorting out which question they were going to ask next (everyone else), Kelly responded with force to McCarthy’s responses, drawing out – and building on – the most intriguing points McCarthy had to make about the construction of his narratives, and the intricate meanings behind them.

But the thing is, it was heavy. There was so much to think about, so much theory, and so many allusions to countless authors, genres, and cultural phenomenon that I was almost reduced to my past self as a first-year masters student at a certain elite London university surrounded by uber hipster liberal avant-garde poets and writers with insane haircuts (!), with nothing left to do for myself but curl up in a corner under a desk wailing I AM NOT WORTHY I AM NOT WORTHY I AM NOT WORTHY

But, reader, I was worthy. I kept up (thanks, degree number 3). And I gained enormous insight into McCarthy’s process, as well as the kind of meaning he was aiming to confer through his writing. Certainly, I would never have made so many connections between his references on my own – turns out his influences range from Richardson’s Clarissa to Forster, to Deleuze and Guattari (god help us). If you want to learn any more, then you’ll have to a) read his books; and b) buy a bloody ticket to one of his talks. It was well worth the trip, and considering I go through an existential crisis once a week or so, when I remember that amazon is taking over the world, and 90% of people only want to read shit like 50 Shades of Grey, it was actually quite an inspiring night. In an age of proliferating media forms and reality television, McCarthy’s work makes a brilliant case for the survival of the novel.

Buttttt… I can see also why people aren’t murdering one another for front row seats. We can’t all be post-modernist buffs who know what transhumanism means.

See, I think of it like this:

If Irvine Welsh is a good pint of Guinness, Tom McCarthy is one of those weird 100 year old bottles of Port few people have the time or money to appreciate. You’ve gotta have some kind of degree in wine or banking to even be into the stuff; and you’ve probably had to invest a lot of your life in getting to know it. You know, swirling it around in a glass. Tonguing it. Spitting it back out.

And most people wouldn’t even bother drinking a glass, because they know they wouldn’t be able to taste it properly. They haven’t had the time or the opportunities or the degrees to really appreciate it. (They’d probably just get a bit drunk, eat some cheese. Move on to tequila.) But for a few people out there – the ones that really give a shit, the ones with the time and the money and the commitment – that 100 year old Port: it’s the best fucking drink you’ve ever had.

Well, that’s Tom McCarthy. In fact, that’s fucking art, man. It just leaves you hanging a little.

So, yeah.

I’m off to drink some port.

Thanks for reading: Here’s something to make you feel better about yourself:

Reviewer : Charlotte Morgan


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