Version classiqueVersion mobile

Literature Against Criticism

 | 
Martin Paul Eve

Part II: Critique

3. Aesthetic Critique

Texte intégral

  • 1 Graff, pp. 98–100. Graff does point out two features of this that are worth noting: 1) there were (...)

1It is an often overlooked facet of early university English programmes in the United States that there was greater agreement between academicians on the texts to be taught than on the very rationale for the study of literature. As Gerald Graff has demonstrated, while some felt in the early period that literature could not even be taught and simply stood alone as art, those who wanted to professionalise the discipline began prescribing set lists of texts for examination. Surprisingly, as Graff notes, there was consensus on these texts, mostly because this gave the appearance of a coherent object of study for university English, even if this coherence was artificially constructed.1

  • 2 See, for instance, Warner Berthoff, ‘Ambitious Scheme’, Commentary, 44.4 (1967), 110–14.
  • 3 For more on this, see Eaglestone.
  • 4 Ted Underwood, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Stud (...)

2Since that time, Marxist, postcolonial, queer, and feminist schools, among others, have historicised and challenged the value judgements of the academy, culminating in the so-called ‘canon wars’ of the 1980s. However, as above, the charge persists to this day that the archive consulted by academics studying contemporary fiction remains partial and non-representative; an accusation that has by now been laid at the door of almost every taxonomic grouping, whether national or periodic, and one that continues to induce anxieties of method.2 This inadequacy is not just because the ‘archive’ of contemporary fiction is ever-growing and reflexively self-modifying, which is true of all archives.3 It is also because this archive is intentionally limited for practical reasons alongside gatekeeping market forces; there is simply too much to read and, for the university, too much to study. As a result, publishers exclude and select, and the academy prioritises and focuses. In the university, these practicalities are best demonstrated in what Ted Underwood has called a “disciplinary investment in discontinuity” where it can be seen that English studies falls back on descriptive period movements (romanticism, modernisms, postmodernisms) from which represented figures are elevated as canonical exemplars (Wordsworth, Joyce, Eliot, Pynchon, Morrison, etc.).4

  • 5 Even if there is no guarantee that a homogeneous canon will be taught uniformly.
  • 6 Moretti, Distant Reading, p. 66.
  • 7 Levine, p. 59.

3While this periodisation balances the demand for synchronic understanding (the way a text works internally) against diachronic historical development (literary history), the result of this selective periodisation is that from the reservoir of hundreds-of-thousands of published texts, academic value is conferred upon relatively few works, with comparatively little distinction between institutions’ taught canons.5 As Franco Moretti frames this, “if we set today’s canon of nineteenth-century British novels at two hundred titles […] they would still only be about 0.5 per cent of all published novels”.6 Yet ever since the first contemporary literature courses were taught in the 1890s at Columbia and Yale, aspersions have been cast about the value and method of literary studies for ascribing worth. As a result, we sit within a present shaped by the “path dependency” of periodisation and/or national literatures.7 Anxieties about classification and historical/future value certainly continue to sit at the core of the discipline’s identity. A central part of what university English does in its writing and teaching is to discuss and theorize canon formation and literary history.

  • 8 The most recent tract on which is Boxall, The Value of the Novel; but see also Helen Small, The Va (...)
  • 9 The way in which intertexts function is never straightforward and a range of theories have been ad (...)
  • 10 Justus Nieland, ‘Dirty Media: Tom McCarthy and the Afterlife of Modernism’, MFS: Modern Fiction St (...)

4In this chapter, I examine the ways in which two novels — predominantly Tom McCarthy’s 2010 work, C, and as a correlative text with less emphasis, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) respond to these ongoing debates about canonisation, generic taxonomies, and questions of value that are central to university English and literary criticism.8 There are three interlinked points of argument that I seek to make here. The first is that novels like C and House of Leaves pre-anticipate their own academic and market reception as ‘literary fiction’ and attempt to place themselves within various aesthetic lineages that confer value, usually through intertextual reference.9 In McCarthy’s case, I will argue, these intertextual affiliations comprise a lineage of modern and postmodern fiction, even when the text is ambivalent about its own relationship to these forms. In this chapter, I particularly focus on the latter camp of postmodern influence since it has been relatively under-studied to date in McCarthy’s work. While, then, McCarthy has been read as a “forensic scientist of modernism”, I here am more focused upon how these works become ‘histories of the present’ in terms of literary genre, within a broader intertextual frame that stretches into the postmodern period.10

5Secondly, this chapter teases out the methods by which these types of intertextual referential strategies functionally act in ways similar to the academic discipline of literary criticism with respect to value ascription and canon formation. In the case of C and House of Leaves, this manifests itself most notably in the works’ allusive self-placements within authority-conferring canons — even when the placement is ambiguous — but also through an implied process of research. In other words, although C does not contain overt depictions of academics or universities, its knowing nods to Freud, Derrida, Woolf, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Ballard — alongside its implied archive of historical research and the author’s journalistic writings on high modernism — signal that the novel is, at least in part, about the classificatory history of twentieth-century literature. Traditionally, discussing this classificatory history has been the role of the academy but it is also clearly encoded within novels such as C and House of Leaves.

6Thirdly and finally, then, in its network of references I will argue that C might be seen as a literary-historical novel; a text that charts the death of realism, the exhaustion of modernism, and the ongoing struggle to classify that which lies beyond the postmodern. With its high-academic, ‘difficult’ reference points, its implied (but ultimately empty) historically researched archive and its patrilineal authority-conferring self-situation, C becomes a text that reveals a quasi-academic process of canonisation through a mirror imprint of university English. I demonstrate these phenomena through a tripartite analysis of C as a work of literary history, moving then to explore the under-examined postmodern intertexts for the novel, and closing with some remarks on canon and authority.

McCarthy and Novels About the History of Literature

  • 11 I am grateful to David Winters for our ongoing work together on a co-authored article about McCart (...)

7By way of background, Tom McCarthy is a London-based writer of literary fiction best known for the three novels Remainder (2005), C, and Satin Island (2015), with the latter two of these texts both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is also the author of a number of less well-known pieces, notably Men in Space (2007) and a work of literary criticism, Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006). Furthermore, alongside Simon Critchley, McCarthy is responsible for the founding of the ‘Necronautical Society’ and has authored a number of ‘General Secretary’ s reports’to the society — Navigation Was Always a Difficult Art (2002) and Calling all Agents (2003) — although the precise purpose of this avant-garde organisation-of-two is purposefully never specified.11

  • 12 Tom McCarthy: ‘“Ulysses” and Its Wake’, London Review of Books, 19 June 2014, pp. 39–41; ‘Writing (...)
  • 13 Idem, Satin Island (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), pp. 21–22, 30.

8Importantly for my argument here, though, McCarthy has, in recent times, begun to position himself as that rarest of intellectual (although specifically not academic) types: a popular literary critic. Writing on Ulysses (1922) and Ballard’s Crash (1973) in the London Review of Books in 2014, as he did on Toussaint in 2010 when C was published and on Steven Hall in 2007 to coincide with Men in Space, McCarthy makes a concerted effort to showcase his intellectual erudition in public.12 This would seem to be part of a calculated strategy to tie in with the publication of his new works. For example, the sudden outpouring of LRB pieces in mid-to-late 2014, after a four-year hiatus, appears, to the cynically-minded, to coincide with the publication of Satin Island, a novel that is of note to this study since it contains apparent references to specific sociologists, such as Sarah Thornton, alongside the philosophers Deleuze and Badiou.13

  • 14 Idem, ‘The Death of Writing — If James Joyce Were Alive Today He’d Be Working for Google’, The Gua (...)
  • 15 For more on Joyce and the canon, see Robert Alter, Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Au (...)
  • 16 As I pointed out in the introduction, it is also notable that the canonical modernist period repre (...)

9It is not just a general erudition that is at stake here, though. McCarthy’s populist criticism, usually on highbrow literary fiction, affiliates his non-academic authorial presence with the high literature of the modernist and postmodernist schools favoured on difficult university syllabi, an aspect that can be seen in his 2015 Guardian article, again on Joyce.14 Unlike, say, the fusion of Homeric and biblical intertexts as canonising sources in Ulysses, however, McCarthy’s use of modernist and postmodernist referents is not just designed, as Joyce once claimed of his own novel, to keep the professors busy, but to supplant them.15 Although McCarthy’s affiliation with modernist and postmodernist canons is neither straightforwardly one of lineage nor of homage, it nonetheless generates an authorial presence with a prefabricated canon lineage behind him, an aspect that almost certainly applies to other public-intellectual writers who deploy such marketing techniques, such as Will Self. McCarthy’s identity projection then becomes the author-critic; the figure who is not an academic but who can demonstrably play that game, while choosing to write fiction.16

  • 17 The acknowledgements in Satin Island, which deal with the institutional contexts within which the (...)
  • 18 Tom McCarthy, Remainder (London: Alma, 2015).

10Despite the sense that McCarthy might be one-upping the academy and other centres of artistic authority by supplanting their function, his early career has been blessed with praise from those very university spaces in what almost amounts to a pre-canonisation.17 His first novel, Remainder, famously originally published by Metronome before being picked up by Alma, was deemed to be “[o]ne of the great English novels of the past ten years” by no less a figure than Zadie Smith. In an introduction to a recent edition, McKenzie Wark called the text a “remarkable novel” and read its narrative as one charting historical shifts in mimesis.18

  • 19 Ibid., p. 15.

11To some extent, though, this aura of academic canonisation comes about because McCarthy’s works trade in the same themes as literary criticism. For instance, in Remainder the narrator is significantly injured in some kind of never-specified accident but receives a large compensatory sum, on condition that he never speaks of the accident again. However, the protagonist of the novel becomes obsessed with paradoxically trying to recapture and re-enact his pre-accident experience of a time when he felt authentic: “it was a performance […] to make my movements come across as more authentic”.19 Although Remainder’s protagonist has an almost psychopathic level of emotional detachment (in common with most of McCarthy’s narrators), the focus here on techne and mimesis as a path to authenticity, achieved by performance (and presumably also an implied metatextual act of writing) is presented as therapeutic. The protagonist continually ‘re-enacts’ situations in the hope of feeling a pure, unmediated, un-enacted experience. The protagonist seeks literary realism.

12Yet representational mimesis gets a bad rap in Remainder. It is associated with a detached psychopathy: the protagonist is not upset by the fact that cats are dying in his re-enactments at a “loss rate of three every two days” (140), a euphemism that resonates with the banal yet evil statistical language of industrialized genocide. The mimetic impulse of the protagonist of Remainder turns out to be an artistic socio-pathology engendered by a neuro-pathology. Reading in this light, Remainder becomes a novel that is about the history of representational art; it works to chart a generic and stylistic history, aiming to bury the realist forms (mimesis seeking authenticity) that are depicted as pathological. Remainder can be read as a novel that is about literary-historical criticism and one that presents implicit value judgements on various historical forms of the novel.

13At least part of this technique of plotting a literary history is extended within McCarthy’s later novel, C. I will now turn to read in more detail some of the ways in which McCarthy’s later novel signals itself in these literary traditions through an analysis of its prose stylistics; through an examination of the way in which text situates itself in a lineage of historical fiction; and through a range of intertexts that strengthen this affiliation.

Quasi-Historical Fictions and Implied Archives

  • 20 For such a mixed review, see Peter Carty, ‘C, By Tom McCarthy’, The Independent, 14 August 2010, h (...)
  • 21 Tom McCarthy, C (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010), p. 48.
  • 22 This type of irony most famously appears in the works of Thomas Pynchon. See for instance, Thomas (...)

14Although it has elicited mixed critical responses, C tells the life story of Serge Carrefax, a character born at the turn of the industrial (and interrelated technological) revolution.20 A figure blessed with analytical rather than emotional intelligence, Carrefax represents the blossoming and abrupt death of technological utopianism. After all, as the text notes with supreme irony, there is a belief in Serge’s lifetime regarding war that “the more we can chatter with one another, the less likely that sort of thing [war] becomes”.21 C certainly wades deeply in the tradition of postmodern irony.22

  • 23 McCarthy, C, p. 39.
  • 24 Nieland, p. 570.

15Like Remainder, though, C is also a novel that focuses upon a literary history through knowingly futile generic re-performances of paradigms such as experimental modernism. In fact, it is partly that C continues the project of Remainder that makes its re-performance of high modernism problematic; for what would be the difference between the damaged protagonist of Remainder seeking to recover a past realism and McCarthy’s recovery of modernism in C? It is clear that, when read in the context of Remainder, C cannot be seen as a text that sincerely re-performs modernism any more than it re-performs realism. For the latter genre, this challenge is encoded in the novel’s near-plotless structure and emotionally devoid characters; Carrefax “sees things flat” and has a “perceptual apparatus” that refuses “point-blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration” for realism.23 Yet, McCarthy knows that, by spurning the realist paradigm, his novel will be read in terms of ‘-modernisms’. Pre-anticipating this reception, McCarthy gives signals that the text should not be read as a re-performance of modernism either. In terms of modernism, Justus Nieland, for example, notes that C “stands not as the empty resuscitation of an avant-garde idiom but as its crypt, as a way of presiding over modernism’s death by reenacting it traumatically, by lingering in the remains of its most fecund catastrophes, which are also those of the twentieth-century itself”.24 This is nowhere better borne out in the text than in the moment when Serge’s sister Sophie dies, most likely by suicide of chemical ingestion. Her death occurs in the laboratory, the site of (high modernist and avant-garde) experiment. In this way, like Remainder, and when coupled with McCarthy’s own extra-fictional engagements with literary history, C starts to become a historical fiction of sorts; a historical fiction about aesthetics and literature that signals its own generic placement.

16If C should be considered as a history of literary genre, though, then it must also be compared to and contrasted with other forms of the historical novel. When thinking of historical fiction, even if the historical subject is literary history, the subtitle of Walter Scott’s most well-known novel, Waverley (1814), still forms the basis of a particular conception. The phrase “‘Tis Sixty Years Since” is the grounding for the rules of the annually awarded Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. This prestigious (and relatively lucrative) award stipulates that the temporal setting of the submitted novel must be at least sixty years prior to the time of writing. In turn, this rule is based on the assumption that, at current human lifespans and levels of productivity, this interval will prove sufficient to exclude the author’s direct experience, as a mature adult, of the period in question.

  • 25 Richard Lee, ‘Defining the Genre’, Historical Novel Society, 2014, http://historicalnovelsociety.o (...)

17This ‘sixty-year rule’ is undoubtedly a definition with which many readers would have sympathy and within which the vast majority of texts that we consider ‘historical fiction’ fall. It is, however, hardly the only conception. For instance, the Historical Novel Society, a UK-based self-confessed ‘campaigning group’ that was formed to champion historical fiction, puts the figure at fifty years but also includes works “written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research)”.25

18It is also the case that, as with any taxonomy of literature, a cluster of characteristics are expected of the historical novel that are not purely to do with its subject period. For Sarah Johnson, the aesthetics of writing and parameters of reading are generically codified. As she puts it:

  • 26 Sarah L. Johnson, ‘Historical Fiction — Masters of the Past’, Bookmarks Magazine, 2006, http://www (...)

[t]he genre also has unofficial rules that authors are expected to follow. To persuade readers that the story could really have happened (and perhaps some of it did), authors should portray the time period as accurately as possible and avoid obvious anachronisms. The fiction and the history should be well balanced, with neither one overwhelming the other.26

19Likewise, while noting that historical fiction is frequently more of a meditation on the present than on the past, Jerome de Groot shares Johnson’s formulaic characteristics of the historical novel:

  • 27 Jerome de Groot, ‘Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction: The New Time-Travellers’, The Scotsma (...)

[h]istorical fiction works by presenting something familiar but simultaneously distant from our lives. Its world must have heft and authenticity — it must feel right — but at the same time, the reader knows that the novel is a representation of something that is lost, that cannot be reconstructed but only guessed at. This dissonance, it seems to me, lies at the heart of historical fiction and makes it one of the most interesting genres around.27

20From these observations, a series of commonly-held characteristics of the historical novel can be roughly, but fairly, schematised thus: relative periodisation (the sixty-year rule); writing beyond experience (research); accuracy, heft and credibility (generic conventions); and a suspension of disbelief at enclosed epistemologies of the past (dissonance).

21C certainly fulfils some of the criteria traditionally ascribed to ‘historical fiction’ in the way in which it both plays with genre and represents its historical periods. Regardless of whether one takes the fifty-year or sixty-year rule, the setting of McCarthy’s novel in the early twentieth century is well outside of this banding. This even holds if, as I do, one considers McCarthy’s work to be a literary-historical fiction (i.e. a text about the history of literary forms). For most, if not all, of the referent texts for his (deliberately failing) re-performance of modernism (and even postmodernism), to which I will turn shortly, are now over fifty or sixty years old. However, in other areas of McCarthy’s text, the definitional elements of historical fiction are less pronounced. Consider, for instance, McCarthy’s research base for the text and the “accuracy, heft and credibility” of this research.

  • 28 McCarthy, C, p. 173.

22One of the most significant aspects of the research base for C is the text’s cryptic references to the plane of Lieutenant Paul Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Kempf, against whom the protagonist, Serge, fights in an aerial battle in the later part of the novel. Kempf, a recipient of the iron cross, had the words ‘kennscht mi nocht’ painted on the wings of his plane, a fact that C accurately re-conveys, and which, roughly translated, means ‘do you still remember me?’.28 This slogan on the aircraft wing is, however, the only piece of identifying information that C gives to signal that the enemy pilot is Kempf, who is not a particularly well-known fighter ace.

  • 29 Greg VanWyngarden, Jagdstaffel 2 Boelcke: Von Richthofen’s Mentor (Oxford: Osprey, 2007), pp. 6, 9 (...)
  • 30 Norman L.R. Franks, Frank W. Bailey, and Rick Duiven, The Jasta Pilots (London: Grub Street, 1996) (...)

23That said, from this single reference we can begin to dig into the research base and archive. Kempf was a member of squadron Jasta B (which was originally called Jasta 2) and, later, Jastaschule I and was credited with four victories over the course of the First World War, thereby narrowing the potential date for Serge’s encounter with him to four specific moments.29 Two of Kempf’s takedowns were of Sopwith Camel aeroplanes (on 20 October 1917 and 8 May 1918 respectively) and one a Sopwith Pup (5 June 1917), both types of single-seater biplane, but a victory is also logged to him on either 29 or 30 April 1917 against a two-seater plane (a BE2e).30 At no point in the war that I have managed to find, however, did Kempf down an RE 8 aircraft (of the type in which Serge flies).

  • 31 McCarthy, C, p. 166.
  • 32 Franks, Bailey, and Duiven, p. 179.

24Depending on one’s level of inclination, it is possible to trace this further into the archive. Given that Serge has a conversation with Walpond-Skinner “one afternoon in January”, when he is preparing to lay tunnel mines, it seems probable that the engagement at which Serge fights could be either the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9 to 12 April 1917) or the Battle of Messines (7 to 14 June 1917).31 Kempf was in Jasta B between 4 April 1917 and 17 October 1917 (i.e. for both battles) and then again from January 1918 to 18 August 1918. He was, conversely, in Jastaschule I between 17 October 1917 and January 1918 and then from 18 August 1918 to 11 November 1918.32 Even assuming that Kempf was not Serge’s sole adversary, or that he was not correctly attributed with shooting down Serge’s plane, I have not been able to track down any known victories against RE8 aircraft from 104 squadron by anyone in Jasta B.

25As with all historical fiction, however, it is unwise to mistake the aesthetic use of historical detail for a correlation with reality. At some point in all historical fiction the connection with reality is severed. It seems most probable that C’s dogfight is not based upon any one specific account, although the use of Kempf rather than the ‘Red Baron’ (von Richthofen) would narrow McCarthy’s potential sourcings. This technique, however, also encourages a readerly hunt for a factual underpinning through the curious specificity of its detail. After all, once a reader has linked ‘kennsch mi nocht’ to Kempf the next step is to ask what else the novel might not be saying. Pinpointing such data is not, however, the purpose of this historical digression. It is rather to show, by example, that C’s aesthetics and content presuppose, or at least insinuate, the presence of an archive, regardless of whether one exists. In terms of its research-base and its accuracy, C implies an archive by splicing true but obscure details (kennscht mi nocht) into a fictional world of quasi-facticity. The fact that this cryptically sown detail of the wing insignia is also a statement about memory (‘do you still remember me?’) and therefore intertwined with the nature of history (historiography) transforms the detail into a clue for the reader to decode. The level of specific historical detail here — that the reader is given the markings of one precise plane as Serge’s foe — invites a type of paranoid reading that the text must ultimately frustrate. This is not a difference of type or kind to other historical fiction, which always relies on such a withdrawal from fact, but rather a difference of degree as to where a reading becomes ‘paranoid’, a difference of placement in where the suspension of disbelief is triggered. When this type of historical thinking is applied to McCarthy’s literary history, the significance of the holes in the fiction’s archive becomes clear. The fact that the history of the text is not fully rooted in a verifiable past, even while the novel signals that there might be a factual underpinning, runs in parallel to McCarthy’s relationship with modernism and postmodernism. The signposts are there but the pathway from past to present is blocked.

26McCarthy’s is hardly the only text in the contemporary period to toy with an implied archive within a framework of genre play and, perhaps perversely, it is one of the texts that does this less overtly and academically than others. At the extreme other end of this spectrum is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a novel where the entire plot is based around the reconstruction of an archive. The premise of the book is, at a first outline, a straightforward frame narrative. The narrator, Johnny Truant, has come into possession of the disorganised archive of the recently deceased character, Zampanò. Through the archive, a book is constructed that at once weaves the day-to-day hedonistic life of Truant into the reconstruction of an academic text concerned with a fictional film called The Navidson Record. This metacinematic undertaking details the filmmaking of the eponymous Will Navidson as his family move into a house that is eerily able to reconfigure its internal space into impossible dimensions, weaving a dangerous labyrinth around them (the word ‘house’ in House of Leaves is always superscripted but also colourized in certain editions). The novel itself is cited as a prime example of ergodic literature, that is literature with a non-linear flow that involves heavy reader involvement. In Danielewski’s novel, the text becomes the house, with the typography on the page breaking down, rotating, fracturing and extending as the dimensions of the building depicted change and as Truant’s world also begins to disintegrate, bringing a fresh significance to the material presence of the codex, which must be reorientated and physically manipulated by a reader.

  • 33 Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (London: Anchor, 2000), p. 98.
  • 34 Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), (...)
  • 35 See Amy Hungerford, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 (Princeton: Pri (...)

27House of Leaves, like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), is notable for its proliferation of footnotes throughout. Some of these notes contain Truant’s own story at great length while others solely make reference to fictional academic texts, such as “‘Naguib Paredes’ Cinematic Projections (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 84”.33 These notes serve a twofold function. In the first place, they act to parody the academy through a structure of empty reference. For the supposed purpose of footnotes in academic texts is to provide a chain of verification. As Anthony Grafton has put it in his study of the footnote: “the culturally contingent and eminently fallible footnote offers the only guarantee we have that statements about the past derive from identifiable sources. And that is the only ground we have to trust them”.34 Yet, it is also an obvious, yet usually unspoken, fact that the vast majority of footnotes go unchecked and merely trusted. Instead, their presence is enough; an indication that, if enough are recognisable and enough are in the work, then their accuracy can be assumed. House of Leaves plays with this expectation as we cannot check the fictional referents. In the second place, the footnotes in House of Leaves work in the same way as McCarthy’s C in the creation of a fictional archive; an attempt to represent the structure of facticity that is knowingly only half true and that the reader knows is unverifiable. This is a transfer to the archival/research space of a sort of postmodern theology in which the structure of belief remains even while it is devoid of content in which to believe.35

28In this way, Danielewski’s fictional archive of academic articles and books deliberately works to undo both of the supposed generic functions of footnotes in a true academic text, thereby simultaneously invoking an academic lineage and parodying/destroying that same line. C works slightly differently, parodying less the known conventions of academic writing than toying with the conventions of the historical novel and the decoding paradigms of literary criticism. What both these texts share, though, is a structural affinity with history, cultural lineages, and an implied archive, while also deliberately fracturing an identity with the academic disciplinary form of history by yielding only empty referents, signposts to nowhere.

  • 36 Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988).
  • 37 Hayden White, Metahistory: Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns H (...)
  • 38 McCarthy, C, p. 85.
  • 39 Ibid., p. 290.
  • 40 Ibid., pp. 280–81.

29One final and useful way in which we might understand C’s stance on history is by locating it as a work of postmodern historiographic metafiction — a term coined by Linda Hutcheon to denote fiction that highlights its own fictionality while dealing with the nature of history36 — rather than as a more conventional historical novel because of the many meta-narratorial statements within the work that conflate history with narrative. Building on the work of Hayden White, texts such as C perform the claim that the predominant difference between history and fiction is the former’s claim to truth.37 Firstly, to make this case, consider that C’s historiography is constructivist. In McCarthy’s novel, history in its formal sense is written by the victors and usually consists of privileging ‘great figures’ and wars. This is perhaps most clear when Serge is flipping through the brochure for the Kloděbrady Baths. We are told, at this point, that “the accompanying text gives the town’s history, which seems to consist of a series of invasions, wars and squabbles over succession”.38 Elements of personal narrative and “secrets of the heart”, however, are elsewhere revealed to be omitted from the official historical record in C and are referred to as “clandestine history”, a gesture that immediately pluralises the truth of a singular historical record and summons a paradigm of ‘history from below’.39 At the same time, however, institutional history as recounted by Laura, a character who “studied history at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford”, is shown by McCarthy to be entirely concerned with mythological narratives. Laura’s ‘history’ dissertation was on Osiris and consists of recounting the “well-known myth” and “cosmology” of Ancient Egypt from an intra-diegetic perspective that speaks of the ancient gods as though they were factual occurrences: “[t] he sun itself entered the body of Osiris”.40 For Laura, who comes from the heart of formal and institutional academic history at Oxford, myth-making and history-making are similar, if not the same.

  • 41 Ibid., p. 143.
  • 42 Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, p. 123.

30As Serge’s recording officer demands, then, asking for the history of their recent flight in the First World War section of the novel: “[n]arrative, Carrefax”. Serge’s reply demonstrates how history, in the formal senses that the novel critiques, elides specificity and is based on subjective reconstruction: “we went up; we saw stuff; it was good”.41 The result of this disjuncture between levels in C — in which we are shown the initial events but then given a reductive ‘history’ — is “to both inscribe and undermine the authority and objectivity of historical sources and explanations”, as Hutcheon puts it.42 In this way, C critiques the historiographic underpinnings of realist historical fiction through a postmodernist approach. However, since McCarthy is also interested in the way in which texts are classified, it seems to me that, by implication, C also sets its sights on the truth claims of literary history.

Canon, Genre, and Intertextuality

31C can be considered, then, as a non-referential historical fiction of sorts, one that subverts the form through an emptiness of content (perhaps a ‘quasi-historical fiction’) but also a text where these remarks on history/fiction apply as much to its theme as to its meta-statements on its own generic placement in literary history. This text, however, also begins to make a further incursion into the same space of critique as university English when this proto-historicity turns its attention to literary genre. Typically, charting or describing literary generic discontinuity and generating a historical taxonomy has been the preserve of university English. As I noted in the introduction, such classificatory activities remain core to the activity of literary history and contextual criticism, even if they are also extremely important to the literary marketplace. The primary way in which C makes this incursion, though, is through its complex intertextual signalling by which the text seeks to classify itself.

  • 43 Eco, The Role of the Reader, p. 32.

32Novels such as C signal their acts of self-classification in literary history in a variety of ways, but do so especially frequently through the intertextual allusions within their narrative and linguistic structures. For readers who can perceive these signals, these intertextual references productively restrict the valid frames of interpretation. As Umberto Eco has put it under his well-known semiotic approach, “in order to make forecasts which can be approved by the further course of the fabula, the Model Reader resorts to intertextual frames”.43 Classification and resemblance is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, a negotiated process wherein texts work to place themselves in various lineages and histories through accordance with convention (‘genre’) before readers decode these contexts to provide a frame for comprehension.

  • 44 McCarthy, C, p. 58.
  • 45 Interestingly, Gravity’s Rainbow begins with a similar metafictional pronouncement about its own s (...)

33To begin with an obvious example of how this intertextual framing plays out in McCarthy’s novel, consider that C is, undoubtedly, a disorientating read. As the text itself puts it, in one of its many metatextual moments but supposedly describing the intra-diegetic theatre event, “the next few scenes are confusing”.44 Although not obfuscating in its narrative to the same extent as Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the reader can feel constantly wrong footed, several steps behind his or her authorial guide.45 Evidently, this places the novel in the tradition of ‘experimental’ work favoured by the high (post) modernists in which ‘difficulty’ plays a core role.

  • 46 Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing: A Novel (New York: Hogarth, 2015), p. 3.
  • 47 Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy(...)

34Naturally, there are various different lineages of difficult fiction. Some ‘difficult’ contemporary novels, such as Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013), evoke modernist minimalism and syntactic experimentation within the frame of late Beckett (as in, say, Worstward Ho [1983]), as seen in the text’s opening lines: “[f]or you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say”.46 Others, such as C, eschew radical linguistic experimentation and instead aim at the maximalist postmodern canon of proliferation, confusion, and overcoding. In the case of C, this is partly a result of the text’s contrivance and its high ‘clever clever’ game-playing to which I will shortly turn. This is additionally linked to the novel’s rich linguistic and structural signification, and it is worth briefly evaluating a few aspects of this. For in addition to specific literary resonances/allusions, there are, as always, also broader generic intertextual frames guiding the reader’s comprehension in McCarthy’s text. How could there not be? In Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s words, “no judgement is or could be objective in the classic sense of justified on totally context-transcendent and subject-independent grounds”.47 To demonstrate the rooted contexts that most strongly condition C, after charting the ways in which the novel directly invokes the works of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and J.G. Ballard (with knowing nods to Woolf’s Between the Acts), the three core elements to which I will draw attention within the novel might broadly be schematised as: 1) a ludic mode; 2) micro-proplepsis and epistemic play; and 3) differentiated repetition. These elements are key to the way in which C attempts to signpost its own literary antecedents and placement.

  • 48 Tom McCarthy, ‘Gravity’s Rainbow, Read by George Guidall’, The New York Times, 21 November 2014, h (...)
  • 49 Pynchon, V., p. 278; I first made this point in Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy, p. 28.

35To begin this, a set of authorial comparisons can be used to understand the frame of reference for C, which I argue is broader in range than Remainder and encompasses an overlooked postmodern canon. The works of Pynchon, for instance, form an apt touchstone given that McCarthy recently reviewed the audiobook of Gravity’s Rainbow in The New York Times.48 Beyond this, consider, for instance, that mid-way through Pynchon’s influential first novel, V. (1963), the reader is introduced to Kurt Mondaugen, a wireless radio operator stationed in the colonial German Südwest. Mondaugen is there to investigate the atmospheric disturbances (‘sferics’) that have been detected and the strange messages thereby conveyed. The most notable of these messages, as decoded by the sinister Lieutenant Weissman (the ‘white man’ and, later, Nazi, of Pynchon’s subsequent novel Gravity’s Rainbow), reads “DIGEWOELDTIMSTEALALENSWTASNDEURFUALRLIKST”. As Weissmann sees it: “I remove every third letter and obtain: GODMEANTNURRK. This rearranged spells Kurt Mondaugen. […] The remainder of the message […] now reads: DIEWELTISTALLES WASDERFALLIST”. Mondaugen replies, in a fashion as ‘curt’ as his name, that he has: “heard that somewhere before”.49

  • 50 McCarthy, C, p. 304.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 178.
  • 52 Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 727.

36These themes of cryptanalysis, anagrammatic play, modernist (or at least Wittgensteinian) philosophy, and radio waves also find a locus in C. McCarthy’s text opens and closes, for instance, on themes pertaining to a misunderstood message about “Incest-Radio” and a mis-transposition of messages because of a telegraphic fault, to which I will return shortly.50 It also contains long Pynchonesque cryptographic strings that invite interpretation and plurality: “BY. NF. BADSAC7 SC-CS 1911; BY. VER. BUC2 SC-CS 1913”.51 Furthermore, the edition of C cited in this book even has a blurb that compares the novel to Pynchon. That Pynchon, perhaps the grandmaster of postmodern literary irony, should sit as a central reference point for McCarthy’s work is hardly surprising. Pynchon has, after all, made a career out of weaving detailed technological knowledge into the tapestry of novels that exhibit deep technological scepticism, denouncing the neutrality theory that there could be “a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide”.52

37This connection between the writers runs more deeply, however. For one, as a side link, McCarthy is represented in the United States by Melanie Jackson, the literary agent to whom Pynchon is married. This is certainly of strategic benefit for a writer who wishes to be seen as ‘serious’ but also ‘postmodern’; Jackson is an agent with a fearsome reputation in her own right, handling such eminent figures as Wole Soyinka, Lorrie Moore, and Percival Everett. However, these textual and extratextual affinities between Pynchon and McCarthy stand for more than their specific relations. As almost the archetypical postmodernist, it is difficult but to read a writer’s relationship to Pynchon as a metonym for a relationship to postmodernism, in its many guises, and the affiliated academic critical machines.

  • 53 A connection previously explored elsewhere in McCarthy’s Remainder. See Jim Byatt, ‘Being Dead?: T (...)

38This is not all, though. Rather than just ‘between the acts’, the Woolfian modernist reference point with which C clearly toys in its village theatre scene, we might also consider whether C is a text situated in the ‘angle between the walls’, that is, a text that is riffing on the postmodern fiction of J.G. Ballard.53 Take, for instance, the resonance with the geometric perversions of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) that are clearly seen in several of C’s passages:

  • 54 McCarthy, C, p. 251.

[m]ore than anything, it’s what he hears in Petrou’s voice, its exiled, hovering cadences — and what he sees in Petrou’s face and body, his perpetual slightly sideways stance: a longing for some kind of world, one either disappeared or yet to come, or perhaps even one that’s always been there, although only in some other place, in a dimension Euclid never plotted, which is nonetheless reflecting off him at an asymptotic angle.54

  • 55 J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (San Francisco: RE/Search, 1990), p. 76.

39It would be possible to select almost any passage from Ballard’s experimental novel and to find much of McCarthy’s work as a replication, or, if feeling uncharitable, a weak parody, of his style. Consider, for instance, the notion that “[t]hese embraces of Travers’s were gestures of displaced affections, a marriage of Freud and Euclid”, the last clause of which seems perfectly to embody the topological slant to C’s curious sexual encounters.55

40More specifically, C’s resonance with Ballardian geometric tropes is ensconced within notions of subjunctivity; of a world hiding behind this world, disallowed from coming into possibility but forever remaining on the cusp of realisation. In Ballard’s text, such subjunctivity and ontological instability are engendered through a pluralisation of worlds, as it is in C. For The Atrocity Exhibition this is framed through notions of inner and outer worlds, with the inner being primarily concerned with the psyche. Consider that, at the core of The Atrocity Exhibition — in a passage that bears close similarity to many of Ballard’s own pronouncements on the novel, such as the introduction to the Danish edition — Dr Nathan says that:

  • 56 Ibid., p. 47.

[p]lanes intersect: on one level, the tragedies of Cape Kennedy and Vietnam serialized on billboards, random deaths mimetized in the experimental auto disasters of Nader and his co-workers. Their precise role in the unconscious merits closer scrutiny; by the way, they may in fact play very different parts from the ones we assign them. On another level, the immediate personal environment, the volumes of space enclosed by your opposed hands, the geometry of your postures, the time-values contained in this office, the angles between these walls. On a third level, the inner world of the psyche. Where these planes intersect, images are born, some kind of valid reality begins to clarify itself.56

  • 57 McCarthy, C, p. 214.
  • 58 Ibid., p. 114.
  • 59 Ibid., p. 178.

41In other words, there is a mediated public sphere; a world of interpersonal relationships; and an inner landscape of the mind. In C this plays out slightly differently with a dysfunctionally narrated broad public and historical plane (“I liked the war”),57 mediated through a character who is incapable of forming meaningful interpersonal relationships in his localised world (“[t]urn around”, he says. “I want to see your back”),58 and whose interior mental landscape is contoured and rocky (a space “that seems to have become all noise and signal”).59 The Atrocity Exhibition and, to an extent, C, attempt to map the intersection of these spaces in new ways that avoid: 1) the sensationalised mediation of the first sphere; 2) the usually sentimentalised depiction of the second; and 3) the conventional Cartesian separation of the inner world from the outer.

  • 60 I’m not meaning to imply here that Baudrillard influenced White Noise; the historical timelines do (...)

42Ballard, however, is not the only other point of postmodern anchorage for C. Rather, on top of the allusions to Pynchon, one moment in the novel feels particularly motivated by a recreation of the themes of Baudrillardian simulation mirrored in Don DeLillo’s wonderful White Noise (1985).60 Towards the end of McCarthy’s novel, Abigail relates to Serge her experience of watching tourists at the pyramids in Cairo, tourists who

  • 61 McCarthy, C, p. 262.

got their cameras out and started photographing them, although I don’t know why because their photos won’t turn out as nice as the ones in the book and brochures either. And they didn’t even photograph the things for very long, because there was a buffet laid out on the deck […] but then of course they realised that they had to show a certain reverence towards the Pyramids, while still not missing out on lunch, so they revered and ate and photographed all at once.61

43This relates to, but is not directly the same as, one of the most celebrated passages of DeLillo’s novel, namely the incident with the “most photographed barn in America”:

  • 62 Don DeLillo, White Noise (London: Picador, 2011), pp. 13–15.

[s]everal days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book. “No one sees the barn”, he said finally.62

  • 63 Ibid., p. 14.

44These two passages, while overlapping, are very different in their outcomes. DeLillo’s text is concerned with the displacement of reality and the endless proliferation of simulacra engendered by mechanical reproduction in the era of late capital: “[w]e’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura”, he writes.63 McCarthy’s passage, on the other hand, effects the more pedestrian critique that is surely familiar to anybody who has acted as a flâneur among tourists: that the act of photographing supersedes experiencing.

45This is not to say that C achieves its resonances merely through textual similitude. It is rather that C is not confined to the modernist frames that others have suggested; its literary-historical lineage and the contexts within which it pre-anticipates its reception project further forward in time. There are, as I have suggested above, many more generic tropes that McCarthy uses within his work but that nonetheless imply connections to specific, more recent literary histories. For instance, to begin to see evidence of how McCarthy encodes a ludic mode through moments of metafictional reflexivity, usually centred around linguistic games — a trope found in much postmodernist writing — consider, as an example, how the reader is told, early in the text, that:

  • 64 McCarthy, C, p. 38.

Serge gets stuck on words like “antipodean” and “fortuitous”, and even ones like “tables”. He keeps switching letters around. It’s not deliberate, just something that he does.64

  • 65 Ibid., p. 230.

46This instance is just the first of many in which McCarthy distils the novel’s totality into a microcosmic metonym at the levels of language, of theme, and of authorship. Firstly, in terms of language and anagrams, when Serge confuses the letters in “tables”, McCarthy asks us to consider whether the character might be the ‘ablest’ (the most competent to deal with the trials of modernity?), in a ‘stable’ condition (with his stagnation and focus on blockage, to which I will return), whether he might ‘be last’to survive, or whether he is simply playing with a ‘lab set’, an apparatus that proves so fatal for his sister. Secondly, and as just one example, at the thematic level, this passage connects with the ‘tilting’ table of the séance later in the novel where Serge rigs a device to interfere with a medium’s trickery.65 In this sense, Serge’s early “switching letters around” in the word tables parallels the rearrangement of letters that he later conducts on the medium’s table. Finally, in terms of authorship, all moments of metafiction suggest an easy reading in which we might consider whether there is a parallel between McCarthy and Serge; is Serge, in some way, the ‘author’ of C? McCarthy’s novel, I would argue, tends to stop just short of such metatextual gimmickry. After all, the linguistic playfulness does not occur consistently throughout the novel. It seems, rather, that the flattening of diegetic levels that is suggested by McCarthy’s metatextual play even demonstrates self-aware of the metafictional tradition and works to signal this.

  • 66 Ibid., p. 6.
  • 67 Ibid., p. 12.

47At the microcosmic level, however, this postmodern style of disorientation and aesthetic swirling is also a result of the text’s microprolepsis. By this, I mean the fact that the text makes no concession to the reader’s lack of foreknowledge of events only later revealed, in spite of its otherwise overwhelmingly linear, chronological character. Take, as an example, the initial instance at the beginning of the novel where Carrefax senior is sending for a doctor to tend to his pregnant wife and the ‘F’ and ‘Q’ s in his telegraphy system are substituted (‘F’ [..-.] and ‘Q’ [--.-] being inverse codes in the Morse system).66 This invention of telegraphy is the closest that C ever comes to depicting a wholesale academic environment (despite the fleeting reference to an Oxford historian earlier); a research laboratory. In this instance, though, the context is clearly private, not a public institution, and the text is saturated with mentions of patent races and other commercialisations of the new technologies. This has implications for a representation of the contemporary academic sciences, frequently enmeshed and encouraged in the pursuit of profitable research with commercial aims. The reader is, however, aware at this stage neither that early telegraphy will form a central thematic tenet of the novel nor that such a prototypical system has been developed by the character. Only a few pages later, this is explained in more detail to the reader.67 The length of stretch between mystery and resolution here is not substantial enough to make the work as taxing as many of the high modernist and postmodernist fictions, but it does immediately call to mind the premise on which their ‘difficulty’ rests.

48However, while epistemic play is a frequent feature of all fiction and may even be intrinsic to its form, particularly within modern and postmodern varieties, C is curious in its presentation because it chooses to conceal information from the reader only for brief periods before revealing its hand. It is also an outlier in this respect because the chronological macro-structure of the novel is entirely linear; a mode that does not usually lend itself to abrupt retrospective enlightenment (for a counter example, one could compare the temporal leaps of Graham Swift’s Waterland [1983] and the moment of grim revelation in that text that is facilitated by its final analeptic shock). Although there are portions of Serge’s life that are not narrated (i.e. the text’s chapters are non-adjacent in chronological terms), C’s quadripartite structure of “Caul”, “Chute”, “Crash”, and “Call” moves definitively forward in time through the life of Serge Carrefax.

  • 68 Ibid., p. 105.

49Although this may, at first, sound more like a realist mode than a postmodern styling, this structure actually shows, in terms of literary history, why C appears to do something different to the forms of modernist epistemic play to which it pays homage. While the dark tone of McCarthy’s war-saturated novel might induce a temptation to think that it is a dystopian historical work in which the critical force of history is brought to bear on the present — a didactic text that might warn us of the dangers of the past repeating (which depends upon cycles and historical analogy) — C does not seem to be wholly convinced by the logic of cycles and repetition. Instead, its structure is aptly ‘C’ -shaped. The homophonic titles of the first and last sections of the text (“Caul”/“Call”) imply the loop, the cycle, but eventually shy from it in a differentiated repetition. Likewise, the cleansing instructions of Serge’s doctor at the clinic are to think in terms of change, not cycles: “things mutate”, he notes, “that is the way of nature — of good nature […] You though, […] have got blockage […] instead of transformation, only repetition”.68

  • 69 Brian McHale, ‘Change of Dominant from Modernist to Postmodernist Writing’, in Approaching Postmod (...)

50To reiterate: through the fact that its first and last section titles sound identical (“Caul”/“Call”) in conjunction with the above in-text diagnoses of ‘repetition’, C hints that the reader should expect to see parallels and cycles. This extends to the interpretation of the generic structures within which C might be read; echoes of and affinities with modernism and postmodernism. However, Serge seems incapable of closing the loop (and such repetition is presented, as above, as a pathology) and so, while his death bears the hallmarks of his childhood, the repetition is imperfect. This changes the focus in the novel from epistemology (in which we would know and recognise elements of the past by their resemblance to the present) to one of ontology (in which the present is a newly transformed world and way of being). This is the classic shift in dominant — from epistemology to ontology — charted by Brian McHale and that he claims defines the postmodern novel, situated at the heart of C’s historiography.69

  • 70 McCarthy, C, pp. 22, 60–61, 253.
  • 71 Ibid., pp. 252, 304–10.
  • 72 Brian McHale, ‘Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow’, Poetics Today, (...)

51To demonstrate this ontological mutation, which is reflected in McCarthy’s language, consider the textual collocation of “incest” with the name of Serge’s sister, “Sophie” (imperfectly repeated as “Sophia”), at the end of the novel that harks back to the familial nearvoyeurism and his sister’s use of his penis as a telegraph key in the life of young Serge.70 Yet, at the moment of Serge’s death it is not the term “incest” that appears, but rather we see that term, which characterises his childhood and where it “all began”, transformed into an “insect” bite.71 Through such moves, McCarthy’s text invites literary-critical “pattern-making and pattern-interpreting behavior” from its readers (by implying an affinity between chronologically distant moments in the text) only to frustrate such text-processing (by showing and stating that such affinity is always imperfect in its analogy), a trope of interpretative refusal that, again, McHale famously ascribes as a core feature of the postmodern novel.72

52The same observation can, once more, be extended to literary taxonomy and canon formation. In the endless proliferation of ‘-modernist’ suffixes that are now applied by the academy as terminological markers, it is clear that the same phenomenon is at work: a failed differentiated repetition. All new genres of the serious novel must be, under this logic, related to modernism, the category of serious experiment. At the same time, they are not allowed to be the same as the high modernism of 1922. They must still make it new, but not too new. McCarthy’s play on differentiated repetitions, while depicting the modernist ‘period’, within a work that situates itself within (post) modernisms, exemplifies and echoes the problems of canonising taxonomies of the academy.

Auto-Canonisation and Aesthetic Critique

  • 73 Heike Bauer, ‘Vital Lines Drawn From Books: Difficult Feelings in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Ar (...)

53As I noted in the introduction, C is hardly the only text that takes on this role and function of charting its own literary-historical placement (in this particular case, David Foster Wallace’s ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’ [1997] also springs to mind). It is in fact common over a diverse body of texts in a range of styles. One could, for example, think of the explicit references throughout Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) to Ulysses, among many other works. In one sense, this archival construction is a mediation and historicization of Bechdel’s own life. As Heike Bauer has put it, “[v]ia books — including British, Irish, and U.S. texts and European writing in English translation — Bechdel’s memoirs historicize her family and interrogate the queer entanglements of her own lesbian life with the lives of parents who are trapped in a damaging emotional void forged during the socially repressive and sexually persecutory Eisenhower era”.73 In another more formalist sense, though, it is a validating move, a self-situation by Bechdel of her work within a high literary tradition.

54By contrast, some writers, such as Jonathan Franzen, use this technique counter-intuitively both to affiliate and to disaffiliate themselves from various traditions. For instance, in Freedom (2010), Franzen’s rock-star character, Richard Katz, is first introduced reading a copy of Pynchon’s V. This allows Franzen at once to validate his work as ‘serious’, high fiction that knows its antecedents, while also serving to complicate the canonical status of such novels, due to Katz’s ambiguous status within that text. Indeed, Richard Katz in Freedom is a deeply flawed character, one who causes a great deal of pain to Walter through his affair with Patty. Nonetheless, he is educated, articulate, and emotionally sensitive to a far higher level than many other of Franzen’s characters.

  • 74 Pynchon, V., p. 380.
  • 75 Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy, p. 44.

55This dis-and re-affiliating stance towards canon is one that Pynchon had himself explored in V. For, at one point therein, Rachel Owlglass remarks, of the Whole Sick Crew, that “that Crew does not live, it experiences. It does not create, it talks about people who do. Varèse, Ionesco, de Kooning, Wittgenstein, I could puke”.74 Yet, as I have previously pointed out, “Rachel Owlglass is a conflicted character who has an erotic encounter with her car, but who is ‘disgusted’ by Jewish girls undergoing plastic surgery to erase their Jewishness, and, most prominently, is the chief protagonist in the campaign to intercept Esther and Slab on their way to a Cuban abortion clinic”.75 Intra-fictional veneration of a canon, voiced through a double-edged or ambiguous character morality, serves to affiliate but also to question the works that are targeted.

  • 76 Danielewski, p. 355.
  • 77 Ibid., pp. 354–65.

56What we do see is that in the combination of historical and/or academic-discursive forms encoded within fiction, we tend towards works that begin to jostle with the academy for the right to speak about literary history; the conditions of aesthetic possibility. This interpretation is given further credence if we return finally to Danielewski’s novel, which begins increasingly to use the names of real academics and novelists throughout. For instance, in addition to The Navidson Record another fictional artefact within the book is a film of supposed interviews called “What Some Have Thought”. The transcript of this ‘film’ features a range of fictional figures: “Jennifer Antipala” for example is claimed to be an “Architect and Structural Engineer”, although I have been unable to locate a record of such an individual.76 By contrast, other figures ‘interviewed’ are real and include: the French poststructuralist philosopher, Jacques Derrida; the professor of cognitive science, Douglas R. Hofstadter; the American feminist critic Camille Paglia; the (very different) gothic/horror novelists Anne Rice and Stephen King; Hunter S. Thompson, the celebrated journalist; the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick; the co-founder of Apple computers, Steve Wozniak; and the American university professor perhaps most associated with the role of academia in canon formation, Harold Bloom.77 It would be possible, but tiresome, to recount the ways in which this act of naming real people simultaneously gestures towards extra-textual realities while maintaining a separate intra-textual representation; this approach has been done to death. In fact, Danielewski’s copyright page contains a humorous variant on the standard disclaimer:

  • 78 Ibid., p. imprinture, emphasis mine.

[t]his novel is a work of fiction. Any references to real people […] are intended to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity. Other names, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, as are those fictionalized events and incidents which involve real persons and did not occur or are set in the future.78

57What is perhaps more relevant, for the discussion at hand, is the way in which Danielewski selects the academics here as the most probable generators of frameworks within which his own work might be read. Derrida, for example, is an easy target for parody. It is also likely, though, that a work that plays on the bounds between fiction, its construction, spatiality, and the archive would be read, in an academic context, through Derrida. In parodying Derrida, Danielewski somewhat invalidates such a reading. A similar approach might be taken with each of the figures here cited, but I’ll only pause, finally, to examine the specific instance of Harold Bloom.

58Bloom is well known not only for his book The Anxiety of Influence (1973), which is the work that Danielewski here parodies and which is concerned with the ways in which writers feel and channel the burden of tradition into their creations, but also for his writing on the Western canon. Without wanting to recount the entire history of the ‘canon wars’, which is far better covered elsewhere, in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), Bloom defended the value structures that had produced the traditional canon against various schools of feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, and poststructuralist approaches. Bloom refers to these projects as the ‘School of Resentment’, claiming that the members of these communities wish to modify the canon to include aesthetically inferior works in order to advance their own political purposes. Bloom’s analysis is, in many ways, dubious as it presupposes an apolitical environment prior to cultural studies; it seems to imply that all was well when straight, white men were the pure arbiters of quality, anointing their brethren. To then brand those who work on redressing the historical imbalance of the canon as ‘resentful’ is troubling.

  • 79 Hayles notes that Danielewski attended Yale. Hayles, p. 237.
  • 80 Danielewski, p. 467.

59This seems reflected in Danielewski’s depiction of Bloom, which is perhaps a caricature from the author’s own time at Yale.79 In a possibly legally-actionable passage (despite the aforementioned disclaimer), the Bloom represented here is extraordinarily patronising. The interviewer, Karen Green, is referred to as “my dear girl” by Bloom, throughout, which is probably a reaction against his dismissal of the feminist literary schools. The Bloom character also then goes on to describe the house as being “endlessly familiar, endlessly repetitive […] pointedly against symbol”. Danielewski’s Bloom thinks that this means that through creating this “featureless golem, a universal eclipse”, The Navidson Record (and, by extension House of Leaves) works to “succeed in securing poetic independence”. In the parody that is enacted, however, Bloom comes across as at once simply a figure of “academic onanism”, as the text later puts it, and at the same time a representative of canonisation processes.80 In this way, House of Leaves gives the clearest signposts yet for a discussion of intertextuality as a process of canonisation.

Novels that Act Like Academics

60In this chapter, I have argued that C and House of Leaves begin tentatively to show us the ways in which works of fiction can speak over the academy by pre-anticipating their own reception (through intertextual frames) and by working as novels that obliquely chart literary histories. Both of these novels contain gestures towards or even representations of taxonomies of literary history that university English would typically call its own preserve. Both texts also play with the structure of academic writing, yielding empty referents and a quasi-facticity that has the structure of literary history but not necessarily the content. Both novels and in the case of C, the author, are also concerned with canon and the ways in which value is ascribed within the academy. In this way, both these novels perform a type of aesthetic critique and self-situation within literary history. The fact that the histories in these texts are a broken chain, though, achieved through a set of postmodern historio-graphic tropes, casts doubt upon the act of literary placement/classification typically enacted by the academy.

61It is this type of activity, I contend, that begins to pitch fiction and university English into a kind of legitimation struggle. If fiction can claim to depict literary history better than the academic descriptions, at a time when university English feels itself under threat, then it is unsurprising that certain anxieties should begin to emerge. In many ways, though, these texts are formalist critiques of aesthetic modes. What I would like to turn to now is the flip side of this: texts that seem to play in the same ballpark as the political and ethical critiques of the academy.

Notes

1 Graff, pp. 98–100. Graff does point out two features of this that are worth noting: 1) there were two canons, one for breadth and one for depth; and 2) although a canon was prescribed, this prescription could not dictate its teaching and reception; for more on the situation with respect to the homogeneity of contemporary syllabi, see Joe Karaganis and others, ‘The Open Syllabus Project’, 2016, http://explorer.opensyllabusproject.org.

2 See, for instance, Warner Berthoff, ‘Ambitious Scheme’, Commentary, 44.4 (1967), 110–14.

3 For more on this, see Eaglestone.

4 Ted Underwood, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), p. 170.

5 Even if there is no guarantee that a homogeneous canon will be taught uniformly.

6 Moretti, Distant Reading, p. 66.

7 Levine, p. 59.

8 The most recent tract on which is Boxall, The Value of the Novel; but see also Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Humanities in the Twenty-First Century Beyond Utility and Markets, ed. by Eleonora Belfiore and Anna Upchurch (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Michael Bérubé, ‘Value and Values’, in The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, by Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 27–56.

9 The way in which intertexts function is never straightforward and a range of theories have been advanced. I signal this here since some readers may object that intertextuality does not only affiliate but may also be a form of slaughter of antecedents. See Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 37; Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. by Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997); Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978); Julia Kristeva, Semeiotike. Recherches pour une sémanalyse (Paris: Seuil, 1969); Roland Barthes, ‘An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’, trans. by Lionel Duisit, New Literary History, 6.2 (1975), 237–72, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/468419; Harold Bloom, Poetry and Repression (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976); Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Ulrich Broich, ‘Intertextuality’, in International Postmodernism, ed. by Hans Bertens and Douwe Fokkema (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1997), pp. 249–55.

10 Justus Nieland, ‘Dirty Media: Tom McCarthy and the Afterlife of Modernism’, MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, 58.3 (2012), 569–99 (p. 570), http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/mfs.2012.0058.

11 I am grateful to David Winters for our ongoing work together on a co-authored article about McCarthy, from which parts of this background sketch derive.

12 Tom McCarthy: ‘“Ulysses” and Its Wake’, London Review of Books, 19 June 2014, pp. 39–41; ‘Writing Machines’, London Review of Books, 18 December 2014, pp. 21–22; ‘Stabbing the Olive’, London Review of Books, 11 February 2010, pp. 26–28; ‘Straight to the Multiplex’, London Review of Books, 1 November 2007, pp. 33–34.

13 Idem, Satin Island (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), pp. 21–22, 30.

14 Idem, ‘The Death of Writing — If James Joyce Were Alive Today He’d Be Working for Google’, The Guardian, 7 March 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/07/tom-mccarthy-death-writing-james-joyce-working-google.

15 For more on Joyce and the canon, see Robert Alter, Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

16 As I pointed out in the introduction, it is also notable that the canonical modernist period represented a high point for the author-critic paradigm. See McDonald, p. 81.

17 The acknowledgements in Satin Island, which deal with the institutional contexts within which the novel was written, might even be considered parodic, poking fun at art residencies. Also, at the 2011 conference on McCarthy’s work, Simon Critchley was somewhat disparaging of an attempt to classify the novels in academic terms, stating that the matter was “of absolutely no interest to him”. These two factors at once demonstrate the curious and ambiguous relationship that McCarthy has to institutional settings.

18 Tom McCarthy, Remainder (London: Alma, 2015).

19 Ibid., p. 15.

20 For such a mixed review, see Peter Carty, ‘C, By Tom McCarthy’, The Independent, 14 August 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/c-by-tom-mccarthy-2049878.html, which notes that “C contains numerous framing passages to underline the text’s concerns with signals, codes and transmission, and they can become obtrusive”.

21 Tom McCarthy, C (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010), p. 48.

22 This type of irony most famously appears in the works of Thomas Pynchon. See for instance, Thomas Pynchon, V. (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 245, where the author notes of the numbers killed in the Herero genocide that “[t] his is only 1 per cent of six million, but still pretty good”.

23 McCarthy, C, p. 39.

24 Nieland, p. 570.

25 Richard Lee, ‘Defining the Genre’, Historical Novel Society, 2014, http://historicalnovelsociety.org/guides/defining-the-genre.

26 Sarah L. Johnson, ‘Historical Fiction — Masters of the Past’, Bookmarks Magazine, 2006, http://www.bookmarksmagazine.com/historical-fiction-masters-past/sarah-ljohnson.

27 Jerome de Groot, ‘Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction: The New Time-Travellers’, The Scotsman, 18 June 2010, http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/books/walter-scott-prize-for-historical-fiction-the-new-time-travellers-1-813580.

28 McCarthy, C, p. 173.

29 Greg VanWyngarden, Jagdstaffel 2 Boelcke: Von Richthofen’s Mentor (Oxford: Osprey, 2007), pp. 6, 90.

30 Norman L.R. Franks, Frank W. Bailey, and Rick Duiven, The Jasta Pilots (London: Grub Street, 1996), p. 179; VanWyngarden, p. 39.

31 McCarthy, C, p. 166.

32 Franks, Bailey, and Duiven, p. 179.

33 Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (London: Anchor, 2000), p. 98.

34 Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 233.

35 See Amy Hungerford, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

36 Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988).

37 Hayden White, Metahistory: Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), pp. 93–97.

38 McCarthy, C, p. 85.

39 Ibid., p. 290.

40 Ibid., pp. 280–81.

41 Ibid., p. 143.

42 Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, p. 123.

43 Eco, The Role of the Reader, p. 32.

44 McCarthy, C, p. 58.

45 Interestingly, Gravity’s Rainbow begins with a similar metafictional pronouncement about its own structure on its very first page: “[n] o, this is not a disentanglement from, this is a progressive knotting into”. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 1.

46 Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing: A Novel (New York: Hogarth, 2015), p. 3.

47 Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 6.

48 Tom McCarthy, ‘Gravity’s Rainbow, Read by George Guidall’, The New York Times, 21 November 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/books/review/gravitysrainbow-read-by-george-guidall.html.

49 Pynchon, V., p. 278; I first made this point in Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy, p. 28.

50 McCarthy, C, p. 304.

51 Ibid., p. 178.

52 Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 727.

53 A connection previously explored elsewhere in McCarthy’s Remainder. See Jim Byatt, ‘Being Dead?: Trauma and the Liminal Narrative in J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, 48.3 (2012), 245–59, http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/fmls/cqs017.

54 McCarthy, C, p. 251.

55 J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (San Francisco: RE/Search, 1990), p. 76.

56 Ibid., p. 47.

57 McCarthy, C, p. 214.

58 Ibid., p. 114.

59 Ibid., p. 178.

60 I’m not meaning to imply here that Baudrillard influenced White Noise; the historical timelines do not quite match.

61 McCarthy, C, p. 262.

62 Don DeLillo, White Noise (London: Picador, 2011), pp. 13–15.

63 Ibid., p. 14.

64 McCarthy, C, p. 38.

65 Ibid., p. 230.

66 Ibid., p. 6.

67 Ibid., p. 12.

68 Ibid., p. 105.

69 Brian McHale, ‘Change of Dominant from Modernist to Postmodernist Writing’, in Approaching Postmodernism: Papers Presented at a Workshop on Postmodernism, 21–23 September 1984, University of Utrecht, ed. by Douwe W. Fokkema and Hans Bertens (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1986), pp. 53–79.

70 McCarthy, C, pp. 22, 60–61, 253.

71 Ibid., pp. 252, 304–10.

72 Brian McHale, ‘Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow’, Poetics Today, 1.1/2 (1979), 85–110 (p. 88).

73 Heike Bauer, ‘Vital Lines Drawn From Books: Difficult Feelings in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother?’, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 18.3 (2014), 266–81 (p. 267), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10894160.2014.896614.

74 Pynchon, V., p. 380.

75 Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy, p. 44.

76 Danielewski, p. 355.

77 Ibid., pp. 354–65.

78 Ibid., p. imprinture, emphasis mine.

79 Hayles notes that Danielewski attended Yale. Hayles, p. 237.

80 Danielewski, p. 467.

Acheter

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search