Thoughts from “Calling All Agents”: The first symposium on the work of Tom McCarthy

A quick roundup/review post from the “Calling All Agents: A Symposium on the work of Tom McCarthy” conference, held at Birkbeck and organised, superbly, by Dennis Duncan on zero budget. As might be expected, there’s a slight (paranoiac?) Pynchon-bias in the reporting below, but I hope it proves useful. As always, I’m happy to correct any errors/omissions on authorial request.

Eric Langley

The day kicked off with a panel exploring aspects of sound in McCarthy’s work. Holly Pester examined the role played by the INS Black Box transmitters, particularly in reference to signal-to-noise ratios, querying the very essence of poetry, an aspect furthered upon by Henderson Downing, whose paper looked at the metaphor of the crypt in both poetry and encoding. Indeed, “all code is burial“. Finally on this first panel, Jane Lewty brought to light the preoccupation with spiritualism that occurred alongside the early development of radio as it occurs in McCarthy’s novel, C.

The second panel began with Julia Jordan, who took up the spatial aspects of swerving, veering and curves in McCarthy’s work, happily bringing in the first of several Pynchon references throughout the day. This was followed by Gill Partington, whose paper considered McCarthy’s reworking of the quixote figure, blurring the distinction between the fictional, and real, worlds. This has interesting generic implications as, in Brian McHale’s view, the shift to ontology (“a” universe, not “the” universe), places works into the postmodern camp, an aspect returned to later in this overview. Lastly for the “space” panel, Mark Blacklock presented, extremely compellingly, the geometrical obsessions in McCarthy’s work, drawing particular parallel to JG Ballad (The Atrocity Exhibition).

The first panel after lunch was cut short owing to speaker illness, but Eric Langley (pictured) gave an insightful, and delightfully visual, presentation on the influence of Herge and Tintin on McCarthy’s work, even daring to suggest that the Wolfman case, a key interpretative cipher for C, might allude to Snowy, for: “The wolves sitting on the tree were in fact not wolves at all but white … dogs with pointed ears” (Sergei Pankeiev, letter to Freud, 1926). Certainly my vote for most enjoyable paper of the day! Finally for the academic papers side of things, Andrew Gibson gave a dense but informative paper associating McCarthy with the movement known as Speculative Realism, a contemporary reworking and furthering of Foucault’s anti-humanist stance and a critique of Kantian perception. This was interesting, as a Pynchonite, for the priority that Speculative Realism places upon the object, a theme with which Pynchon’s work has been involved since the publication of V..

The day then moved to a panel discussion between Simon Critchley, David James (who stepped in at the last minute) and Peter Boxall. After opening remarks from each of the participants, including the resonances between Coetzee, DeLillo and McCarthy from Peter Boxall, the conversation began. The initial foray into the field was made by David James, who wanted to attempt to place McCarthy’s work within the field (modern, postmodern, post-postmodern, other?) This was an interesting question, until Simon Critchley rudely cut down the discussion stating that matters of generic were of “absolutely no interest” to him, made all the more abrasive by the fact that David James had volunteered for the panel at the last moment. Presumably, given this response, Critchley is able to talk about multiple works without any kind of comparative nominalism and, for this superhuman feat, if not his manners, he should be given credit. The discussion then moved, due to repeated audience questioning, onto the means by which realism in McCarthy’s work could be assessed, in the absence of any definition of the real. After much debate, including an attempt to map the entire field of realism by Critchley, Peter Boxall nailed it: we never had a realism in literature, only a fluctuation between the world as it is experienced and literature’s perceived correlation to that experience. The inference to be made is, of course, that realism must, therefore, be temporally specific.

The final component of the day was the coup of having Tom McCarthy read from his latest work and then answer questions. The work he read was set in an airport and featured a protagonist intent on provoking outrage from his unfortunate liberal-minded companion, asking repeatedly whether an oil spill could not be considered as the ultimate work of nature, far from being unnatural at all. The Q&A revealed McCarthy’s extreme erudition; it felt somewhat like having one’s mind assaulted with a sandblaster and I was, again, struck by the number of Pynchon references, at one point stating: “Yeah, but Pynchon is infinitely more interesting than Baudrillard”. I’d have to agree. Another insightful comment McCarthy made, which explains perhaps his preoccupation with the theme of transmission, was that all western fiction is essentially concerned with the transmission of violence across some form of space. “A screaming comes across the sky”, perhaps?

Overall, this was a great day and I thoroughly enjoyed all the panels. Thanks again to Dennis, a figure I frequently spot at the British Library, for his organisational efforts. I’ll also plug the forthcoming edited volume on McCarthy’s work, for which contributions are welcome. If you’d like to submit a piece, please contact Dennis.