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robson on mccarthy on (implicitly) mcewan and the aimlessness of innovation

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In his fine review of McCarthy’s C, Leo Robson refers to a review-cum-manifesto that McCarthy wrote recently in the LRB. I was absolutely sure that I’d written something on here about this, and in particular the very passage that Robson astutely cites, but as it turns out there’s nothing more than this, which isn’t very helpful. Probably there’s something frozen deep in drafts that never quite made it up. But at any rate the relevant passages from the LRB piece (a review of a couple of novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint) are these:

What this aesthetic shares with its uncomic nouveau roman forebears is an anti-naturalist, anti-humanist bent: we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on – but rather to an encounter with structure. In a wonderful sequence in Camera, Toussaint sets up a scene of dialogue in a restaurant and, having placed a bowl of olives on the table (as a naturalist writer would do to provide background verisimilitude), suppresses the scene’s dialogue entirely, and describes exclusively the movement of hands as they reach towards the bowl, the trajectory of fruit from hand to mouth, the ergonomics of pit-transfers from mouth to tablecloth and, most striking of all, the regularly spaced imprints made by the back of a fork’s tines across the skin of the lone olive the narrator toys with before stabbing it. We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.

In The Bathroom, this logic frames the entire book, which – prefaced by Pythagoras’ rule about the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides – assumes a triangular form, its three sections entitled ‘Paris’, ‘Hypotenuse’, ‘Paris’. 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 the towel-rails, as though space itself was like the olive, embossed with evenly spread lines. Watching his lover move round their flat, he discerns the ‘curves and spirals’ described by her arms. We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a spot on or traverse the grid: an implicit assertion that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze. Geometry is not just an aesthetic: it is, to borrow a term from Deleuze, our ‘habitus’. When the narrator finally leaves the bathroom and the flat whose passages he’s ‘stalked’ (shoes intercepting shafts of light, half-open doors on each side providing symmetry and rhythm), he travels in the cube of a train compartment to a Venetian hotel, there to install himself in a new bathroom, to stalk new hallways, all of which he describes in careful detail. His lover, joining him, tries to entice him out to see Renaissance works of art, but he’s not interested. Pictures can’t be inhabited, unlike the neutral, unanimated surfaces and planes of corridors and door-frames.

OK. A few things about this:

1) Robson wonders the following about McCarthy’s pseudo-manifesto:

McCarthy, for his part, is fed up with “middlebrow aesthetics” and “liberal humanism”, especially as manifested in the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on”. What has he been reading? If McCarthy thinks that is what most novels are like, it is little wonder he doesn’t enjoy them.

I think this is slightly unfair on Robson’s part. Sure there are exceptions, but by and large the norm that McCarthy names remains fairly hegemonic. For instance, I’ve reviewed a bunch of novels in the last few months – some I asked to do, some I was asked to do – and I can’t think of one that didn’t conform fairly solidly to McCarthy’s description. Some were better than others, but each indeed centered on “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on.”

But there’s something else that’s operating behind McCarthy’s assumption I think, something a bit interesting and almost funny. I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time, and in fact I’ll cop to teaching it frequently, despite the fact that I hate it, and putting it to just such a use. And further, it just now occurs to me that I’ve written and said more about Saturday this summer than any other work of fiction. Odd, and worthy of more reflection I think, its seemingly unspoken but universally acknowledged bad architypicality. (Just finished another piece the other day – and one that drew heavily on Marco Roth’s excellent piece on the neuronovel from n+1).

2) But there’s something even more important to say about McCarthy’s initial manifesto. It should be clear from my other posts that I definitely agree with him in his frustration about the novelistic norm, the stasis that it brings, the sclerosis that’s engendered. But what bothers me about his pronouncements here as elsewhere is that he never explains why we should make the turn that he is advocating. “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” OK, sure, a bit vague – actually really vague – but why do we want that? There seems to be an politics lingering behind these pronouncements, and to be clear no one’s asking for the novel of the future to maintain rigorous fidelity to some sort of vivid political rubric, but I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be. In the work I’m doing on the aggregate – which of course is more than simply a critical or theoretical proposition on my part – it’s something that I’m struggling, successfully or not, to put into artistic practice – I am trying to be as clear as I can about the reasons why the changes I am sketching would be an improvement over the status quo.

At any rate, pseudo-avant garde propagandising without purpose simply doesn’t appeal to me. It comes to seem like a marketing tactic, a repetition of the worst bit of modernism: that ultimately economically mimetic utterance “Make it new!”, a translation into art theory of the barest and blindest logic of capitalism.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

9 Responses

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  1. […] it himself, but obliged to give over to the DBE. We shall see we shall see. (adswithoutproducts asks the necessary […]

  2. I think I agree. The McCarthy piece in the LRB is fantastic, and it makes me want to read Toussaint, but even if I loved him, I would hardly propose his fiction as the only avant garde model, especially after McCarthy has so carefully delineated Toussaint’s lateness. Isn’t there a Jameson essay where he links the Nouveau Roman to a ‘Foucauldian’ moment of ‘total vision’ that we have now surpassed, conjuncturally?

    Remainder was very well made, I thought, but surely part of its popularity owed to the vague continental frisson it emerged trailing? It was even published by an art press! In Paris! Spanish language (and especially South/Latin American) literature seems just as aesthetically radical, but far more diverse in its strategies, far more genuinely ‘experimental’, than what I’ve read of McCarthy – one only needs to compare Roberto Bolano to Cesar Aira to Jose Manuel Prieto to Jorge Volpi to Enrique Vila-Matas. And when you write ‘pseudo-avant garde propagandising without purpose’ surely part of the purpose you’re referring to has to be explicitly political and there is an opening for this kind of act in, say, South America, in a way that isn’t true for our societies.

    Penelope

    August 18, 2010 at 5:19 am

    • Where is that Jameson? I think I remember it too but where is it?

      Yes to all the rest of what you say. But I’m not sure I agree with this: “in a way that isn’t true for our societies.” There are significant political differences between the places, but as of now I’m going to go with aesthetic failure rather the idea that there’s no window for it. But that might be a Pascalian wager on my part…. Obviously I know what you’re saying on my part….

      adswithoutproducts

      August 18, 2010 at 10:27 am

      • The Jameson comment is in a long essay called Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity – haven’t read it in a while but I remember it being particularly edifying. I think its in the collection of essays on the postmodern.

        I like the idea of a Pascalian wager: if the risk of disbelief is hell, the risk of claiming that in a determinate fashion aesthetic breakthroughs require societies where political breakthroughs – of a type defined by person making the argument – are in the offing is that special hell of those forgotten people in history who proclaim – while great art swirls around them – the end of this or that branch of the arts.

        In McCarthy’s case I’ll agree it was independent aesthetic failure – Remainder was a first novel (and Men in Space was an abandoned first novel) too much in thrall to its not-all-that-interesting conceit. But he still seems in some ways symptomatic of a larger problem with the self-appointed anglo-american avant garde (‘Conceptual’ poetry is a particularly egregious offender in this regard) – it enacts gestures whose meanings have fundamentally altered without a sufficient critique both of the gestures themselves and the new role they play in the aesthetic economy.
        And I do think this can be done: take Kent Johnson’s/Araki Yasusada’s Doubled Flowering – read as a novel or a book of poems, seems to be one of the few recent works in English that takes cognizance of the new coordinates and attempts to counter them with an ‘authentically’ avant garde response.

        Penelope Aira

        August 18, 2010 at 11:03 am

  3. Penelope, this is a brilliant formulation:

    “it enacts gestures whose meanings have fundamentally altered without a sufficient critique both of the gestures themselves and the new role they play in the aesthetic economy.”

    That’s pretty much exactly what I was trying to get at.

    I just booked tickets to see TM read at the LRB (and I never do that sort of thing, at this point, go to readings, unless required by work propriety etc) and I am so going to pose a question based on exactly this. May borrow some of your very concise phrasing, if that’s OK….

    adswithoutproducts

    August 18, 2010 at 11:14 am

    • Thanks. And of course. I’m interested to see what you think of Doubled Flowering.

      Penelope Aira

      August 18, 2010 at 11:41 am

  4. Just ordered Double Flowering, btw.

    adswithoutproducts

    August 18, 2010 at 11:17 am

  5. It comes to seem like a marketing tactic, a repetition of the worst bit of modernism: that ultimately economically mimetic utterance “Make it new!”, a translation into art theory of the barest and blindest logic of capitalism.

    i guess so, though at the same time i kind of admire people who write manifestos, at least it’s some sort of gesture towards actually having an aesthetic or a set of political beliefs – and it’s ballsy too since you can immediately judge McCarthy’s work against this manifesto (from the little of what I’ve read of C so far, for all its positives I don’t really see it fitting his, er, pattern). and it makes teaching easy too…

    the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on”. What has he been reading?

    I think it’s actually quite generous that you think Saturday fits into that genre – one of the most striking things about the novel is how little the character develops, especially given that it’s a self-conscious rewrite of Mrs Dalloway. I think he might be thinking of Netherland – the book Zadie smith compared to Remainder in the NYRB. At least that provides development, emoting, etc.

    I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be

    Yes – this is it. I’m not sure he knows, deep down, aside from ‘making something new’.

    shake

    August 19, 2010 at 5:29 pm

  6. […] of middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill convention. As one literature professor recently put it in a blog post (in reference to Tom McCarthy slagging off the conventional middlebrow humanist […]


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