Book review: Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays, by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy
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Tom McCarthy is one of the few novelists whom I would not just describe as good, but significant. He is a game-changer, rather than someone playing the game. This collection of 15 essays offers an insight into his various concerns and complexities. It is about flickering signals and what systems leave behind (detritus is a major theme), about the difficult legacy of the 20th century and the possibilities still to be gleaned, about how there might yet be the possibility of radicalism in both aesthetics and politics.

I find reviewing McCarthy’s work challenging, since we are, as it were, cut from the same cloth. I like the things he likes, and in this volume that would include the novels of Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Franz Kafka and JG Ballard, the art of Gerhard Richter, the films of David Lynch and the philosophy of thinkers like Heidegger, Baudrillard and Deleuze. It’s never a comfortable experience to read a book and find your own doppelganger in it. So it is the interstices that fascinate. I would never have been able to write a scintillating essay that somehow elides from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain to MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This. Nor would I ever have unpicked the meaning behind dodgem jockeys. The critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin once described the “Angel of History” who walks looking backwards over the wreckage of the past. “Are dodgem jockeys the Angels of History too?” he wonders in an essay about fairground attractions. Boldly he says “I would say: yes, they are. They’ve seen it all before: these circuits blurring into one, these endless crashes, disasters playing out as pleasure, roar of the generators merging with the screams of the girls, the bellows of the boys who hope to get into their pants later than night, when the ride’s over, generate more generations, send more wreckage the angels’ way”. Forget about the intellectual complexity and look at the prose.

One of the finest pieces here is about Joyce’s Ulysses, and a significant conflation. Joyce, notoriously, had a toilet scene in the fourth section; but he also had an overlooked obsession with money. McCarthy looks at how money – “symbols soiled by greed and misery” as the book puts it – is a metaphor, in its circulation, for the swirling sewers beneath the city. Money becomes the visible subconscious. The old “history of a penny” is a tale of many dirty hands. Few authors could get away with an anecdote about alphabetti spaghetti in the same piece: “eating too much, and consequently being sick; watching the dented letters fall back from him: far from being a tool for refining the world into concepts, language is what mixes with saliva in your mouth, gets kneaded by your tongue and teeth, repeats on you”. But McCarthy’s incantatory style beguiles: he is, rare in these days, taking things seriously, even when he has a comic wryness.

In “Get Real” McCarthy looks at some of the bedrock platitudes of, ironically, fiction – “the real, reality and realism”. To say he does not have much truck with them is an understatement. The essay also reprises the jellyfish theme of the introduction. Jellyfish, apparently, had been saturating areas up to 60 square miles, “destroying fisheries, clogging up the intake-vents of shoreline factories”. The brilliant theorist Donna Haraway made the meme “Octopi Wall Street”. The point, I think, is that the avant-garde ought to be something alien and shape-shifting, not upright and determined. That some “jellyfish”, such as the Portuguese Man o’ War, is not an isolated entity but an accumulation of separate life forms seems a very McCarthyist notion: it is a wandering Internet of the Ocean. The machine and the microbial constantly impersonate each other.

McCarthy is one of the brightest and cleverest writers of his generation. That he uses his writing to question notions of power and identity, the loneliness of always being trapped in your own head aside the fundamental interconnectedness of individuals, is both admirable and brave.

*Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays, by Tom McCarthy, New York Review Of Books, £16.99