TYPEWRITERS, BOMBS, JELLYFISH: ESSAYS by Tom McCarthy reviewed by William Morris

by Tom McCarthy
New York Review Books, 288 Pages

reviewed by William Morris

I am writing this on Monday May 8, 2017, the night before Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays, a collection of the work of British writer Tom McCarthy, will be published. I checked my watch to be sure of the date, and found that it’s a day off. It claims today is the 7th. This small discrepancy is hardly worth noting, except as it pertains to McCarthy’s obsessive treatment of time in these essays. Time is an illusive business, a difficult thing to pin down, as it’s always moving out from under us. For McCarthy, time is a series of refrains and repetitions, arrests and elisions, and he turns to it again and again in this collection.

McCarthy originally published or presented these essays as lectures, introductions to books, or accompaniments to art installations during the last decade-and-a-half. Readers may know McCarthy better from his novels (Satin Island, Remainder, C), in which case they won’t be surprised by the literary and philosophical topics covered in these essays. In “Get Real, or What Jellyfish Have to Tell Us About Literature,” for example, McCarthy writes about J.G. Ballard’s Crash, in which the protagonist orchestrates car crashes for his entertainment; McCarthy’s own debut, Remainder, is about a man who suffers an injury, then uses his settlement money to re-enact this accident time after time. In both, there is the act of recreating something violent and real, as McCarthy says: “a real that’s linked to repetition.”

In the essay “Get Real,” McCarthy argues that our idea of realism as a genre is flawed. He suggests that most profound kind of realism would be created not by semblance, but by showing how authenticity manifests itself in our lives through violence or mishap, much as Ballard’s and his own protagonists create reality through car crashes and other accidents. The most real moment, he argues, is when the matador is gored during a bullfight. He means:

a real of the type that I suggest we should embrace and celebrate punctures the screen or strip of film, destroying it; a real that happens, or forever threatens to do so, not as a result of the artist ‘getting it right’ or overcoming inauthenticity, but rather as a radical and disastrous eruption within the always-and-irremediably inauthentic; a traumatic real.

In “Recessional, or the Time of the Hammer” (yes, the time of the hammer is a reference to MC Hammer—“Stop! Hammertime.”), McCarthy writes primarily of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, in which the protagonist goes to visit a sick friend “at the sanatorium for three weeks; but, himself diagnosed with TB on arrival, is held up there for seven years.” McCarthy describes time in Mann’s novel as “a complex, spring-like structure […] stretching and contracting such that quite separate moments touch or get embedded one within the other.”

This collection itself is “a complex, spring-like structure” filled with literary and cultural references that recur throughout, often becoming “embedded one within the other.” How else to explain McCarthy’s transitions between Thomas Pynchon and MC Hammer, Don DeLillo and Zinedine Zidane? And stretched throughout the book, an almost constant stream of Mallarmé. There are essays on the weather in London, Kafka’s letters, David Lynch, and J.G. Ballard, making Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish an unceasingly eclectic collection.

Tom McCarthy

My initial encounter with McCarthy was his latest novel, Satin Island, about a man trying to write a report that would cover the entire zeitgeist, the spirit of his time. Despite this hefty task, the protagonist does very little. He watches television, sleeps with a woman, and takes a ferry. I was fascinated by this short novel’s lack of action, the way the narrator’s thoughts about parachuting and oil spills swelled to fill the voids left by his inactivity. Reading his essays, I see a template for some of McCarthy’s concerns in his own fiction. Consider two essays on French literature “The Geometry of the Pressant” and “Stabbing the Olive: Jean-Phillipe Toussaint.” In these pieces McCarthy discusses works from the nouveau roman genre—the new novel. I’ve read none of these books, and have at best a peripheral understanding of their style and concerns, but in McCarthy’s descriptions I feel compelled to read them; I sense a family resemblance between Tom McCarthy and his subjects. He writes, about The Bathroom by Toussaint:

When the hero, in a willed narrative refusal to go out into the world and make something happen, takes to his bathroom and decides to stay there, he luxuriates in the tub’s parallel sides and in the patterns formed by towel-rails and washing wire;

and of La Télévision, whose narrator:

decides at the novel’s outset to stop watching television completely—which of course makes him obsessed with it. Staring for hours at his extinguished set, he reads the TV listings, or looks out of his window at the banked rows of his neighbors’ screens changing the color of the night as they ‘flood’ space.

I see in these descriptions a map of McCarthy’s fiction-writing mind and, more importantly, a philosophy of what it means for fiction to be authentically real. For writers in the nouveau roman style, and for McCarthy, reality is the collision of the will and the world. Toussaint’s heroes enact their will through refusal. They reject the tedium of inauthentic daily life. “The only escape route,” McCarthy writes, “from this [present moment], from its simultaneity, its loops and repetitions, would be violence.” The “irremediably inauthentic” must be punctured with violence to escape life’s ennui.

The essays also offer a summer’s worth of recommended readings. Do you have to be as well-read as Tom McCarthy to enjoy this collection? Not at all. His introduction to Tristram Shandy, if you’ve never read Laurence Sterne’s wild eighteenth-century opus, will make you want to. The essay on Gerhard Richter sent me on a long Internet browse of his work. I’ve never read Toussaint or Robbe-Grillet, but I will soon. In fact, immediately after reading “The Prosthetic Imagination of David Lynch,” I convinced my roommates to watch Blue Velvet. The opening scene of Blue Velvet is perfectly tuned to McCarthy’s sense of reality: soft music, the fireman’s neighborly wave as his truck rolls through town, children walking safely to school under care of a crossing guard; an idyllic moment the viewer might expect to go on into infinity, and then the kink in the hose, the father’s abrupt heart attack. Here is the intrusion of violence, the real puncturing the banal, and then the moment passes.

From David Lynch, naturally McCarthy follows the string to the Japanese artist On Kawara. The following is from the opening of an essay near the end of the collection, about Kawara’s work:

Try to say now. I mean, now: try to say it. Not just to say it, but to mean it too. To truly mean it: mean it in the sense of it being true. It’s just not possible. No sooner has the word been formed […] than it’s already late and, in its lateness, false: as its sound rises to your ears, it’s not now anymore.

The essay, titled “18 Semiconnected Thoughts on Michel de Certeau, On Kawara, Fly Fishing, and Various Other Things,” discusses Kawara’s renowned series of paintings, each of which are of the day’s date, “in the notational shorthand of a host of languages. OCT.15, 1973. 6 MRT.1991. 1 MAR.1969.” Beginning this essay with a rumination on the impossibility of now seems fitting for a discussion of an artist so interested in capturing a series of dates. It also seems appropriate, coming from McCarthy, whose other essays have focused on time in MC Hammer, Thomas Mann, Tristram Shandy, and other works.

This brings us back to my watch with its wrong date, and my writing this review the night before the collection is published. How can I say I am writing this with any certainty when, by the time I’ve struck the keys, the act of writing has become past? And if I don’t finish writing by the end of this evening should I follow Kawara’s example, as McCarthy suggests: “If On Kawara hasn’t finished one [painting] by midnight, he destroys it, since it’s no longer a painting of Today.” I think Tom McCarthy would take issue with my certainty that I am writing this now.

Yet a look at the page of sources at the back of the book leaves me unsure. The last essay (“Kathy Acker’s Infidel Heteroglossia”) “was delivered as a lecture at the Center for Fiction, New York, May 9, 2017.” I check my watch again. It says it’s May 7, which means it’s in fact May 8. If today is the 8th, how was this essay delivered as a lecture on the 9th? This, of course, is an experience I won’t share with most readers, who will encounter the book after its publication. For most, this is a non-issue. And yet, in my pre-May 9 reading, this claim seems monumental. Just think: McCarthy writes about On Kawara’s paintings, the impossibility of capturing Today or now, and in the advance issue of his collection, claims he has delivered a lecture in the future. He is surely a master of puncturing time.

William-MorrisWilliam Morris is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His work has appeared in print and online, most recently at Sediments Literary Arts Journal, Fiction Southeast, and Red Earth Review. He divides his time between St. Louis and Salt Lake City, and is always reading. He also works as an editor at Natural Bridge. His other areas of interest include cats, coffee, and cryptozoology.


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