A Death Manifesto

On the 14th of November, 1999, a curious advertisement appeared in the London Times next to a story about a Monaco based financier. After close scrutiny the reader could surmise that the advertisement was actually a declaration from the “First Committee” of an institution calling itself the International Necronautical Society, or the INS. Nobody had heard of it, since the INS was a just-launched semi-fictitious organization with a strange objective—what might be best summarized as a death manifesto. Holding the important title of “General Secretary” was an INS member by the name of Tom McCarthy.

With his third novel, C, that same Brit, Tom McCarthy, made the 2010 Man Booker short-list. His second published novel, Men in Space, was met with relatively less excitement; however, his debut novel, Remainder, had instantly established an excited following of readers. Some heralded McCarthy as the new avant-garde—Remainder was the book that Zadie Smith called “a glimpse of an alternative road down which the novel might with difficulty travel forward.”

Perhaps like many readers on this side of the Atlantic, I was acquainted with McCarthy “the author” before I knew of McCarthy as “General Secretary” of the INS. Further investigation into the dealings of this mysterious organization revealed that Tom McCarthy had been spearheading conceptual arts projects with the INS over the course of several years. For me, Remainder had been an entirely consuming work of fiction on its own: delivered with an inventive voice, his work was a decisive allegory for the absurd paradoxes of the contemporary experience that managed to be as humorous as it was austere. The discovery of the INS manifesto, however, revealed an almost artistic preoccupation with death that I had not entirely grasped on my first reading of Remainder—and it was only when embarking on C that the entire picture of Tom McCarthy came together.

Both books begin with deceptive simplicity. Set in present day London, Remainder commences with an unnamed male protagonist in recovery from an accident with an unidentified “technology.” Given eight-and-a-half-million pounds in law-compensation from the government, he is faced with the question of what to do with such a large sum of money. In C, set at the turn of the 20th century, we are introduced to the main character Serge as he grows up on the wealthy property of “Versoie.” A father who preoccupies himself entirely with wireless radio technology, a deaf mother who is emotionally vacant, and a devilish older sibling, Sophie, soon instill the young boy with an aberrant view of the world.

In Remainder, the relative normalcy starts to disintegrate when a moment of déjà vu leads the protagonist to embark on a recreation of this vision in the hope to rouse his lost memory. “I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again,” he explains. “I wanted to; I had to; I would. Nothing else mattered.” He subsequently hires a facilitator called “Naz” from the management company “Time Control,” who attempts to help him recreate this memory in a kind of staged reenactment. It fails, and with repeated attempts to make the reenactment perfect, the protagonist himself starts to ruin the very notion of “real” that he has constructed—leading him instead to stir the pot towards his own demise without any concern for how it will end:

The realness I was after wasn’t something that you could just “do” once and then have “got”: it was a state, a mode—one that I needed to return to again and again and again. Opioids, Trevellian had said: endogenous opioids. A drug addict doesn’t stop to ask himself: Did it work? He just wants more—bigger doses, more often: more.

Even at age seven, for Serge the future is already “anemic, faded, halfway dead,” and it is only through escape into the world of Morse code and radio technology that there is hope for some kind of redemption. This hope is lost with a death in the family. People subsequently appear and then recede from Serge’s life without impression. As he grows into a handsome young man, his affairs with women come with ease; however, he is seduced not by physical attraction but by the erratic connections that he creates in his disturbed mind between the disparate aspects of his life.

Serge, looking at her neck, sees that it’s flushed. She pauses for a while and sips her drink. Serge, following the red flush from her neck down to her blouse, recalls his nights spent DX-fishing in Versoie: the sense that, in transcribing all the clicks, notating all the messages, logging the stations and their outposts, he was performing a task so vital that a single wrong entry would have disastrous consequences for whole hierarchies of—of what?

As he progresses into adulthood devoid of human connection, Serge becomes the objective observer of death. Men tangled in parachutes are “flies caught in spider’s webs,” and human loss of life is relative to all things—objects, radio waves, substances, chemicals, sensations and memories—except to that which it is in reality. Both characters in Remainder and C, in their increasing disconnection from “reality,” are complacent on this path—as the protagonist in Remainder says, “there is no beauty without violence, without death.” It is the reader who is perhaps the last one to accept that contrary to the usual literary conventions McCarthy’s characters will not change, they simply have no choice but to hurl themselves towards a predetermined fate.

While McCarthy “the author” offers no clues as to where this artistic preoccupation comes from, McCarthy “the artist” does. The INS founding manifesto, after all, outlined as its goals notions such as “to bring death out into the world,” and to “tap into its frequencies.” Between 1999 and the present, the fictitious INS has staged various events and conceptual happenings with this purpose in mind, including the creation of a broadcasting unit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 2003. For this particular project the INS transmitted worldwide over FM radio a montage of texts gathered from what McCarthy calls the “media-sphere”: radio, television, fax, telephone, newspaper, internet, book and archival media. McCarthy explains that the project’s aim was to follow the “fault-lines in culture: between literature and philosophy, art and propaganda, fiction and phantasmagoria, territory and map.”

He has done this via everything from radio waves to film, so there is no surprise that his death manifesto should be found making its way repeatedly into the literary medium as we experience in Remainder and C, infiltrating the “fault lines” of “fiction and phantasmagoria.” Not just in subject matter either, but in various insidious forms (the purposes of which may be entirely overlooked if the reader isn’t looking for them), such as the references to actual ancient Egyptian funerary texts in C. Perhaps one could go as far as to assume that to McCarthy the modern narrative is another vessel that should be cleverly subverted, which he does primarily by denying his characters their promised transformation. This could well be what makes Tom McCarthy’s fiction so groundbreaking, that despite having clearly conquered the literary medium, he sees its place more broadly amidst the follies of our media industries, raising questions about the contemporary paradigms by which we operate. While McCarthy himself rejects the very notion of “authentic,” in doing so he has shown that artistic mediums must be reinvented and that new directions in literature, art, and life are not a preference but a necessity.

“Why death?” we find ourselves asking of McCarthy. Yet, as we go down this thought path, we are invariably lead into embarrassingly esoteric ponderings about the broader meaning of life, with the consciousness that the joke is on the reader at every attempt to summarize and categorize. McCarthy himself offers no resolution. Instead we must accept that his characters in their convoluted experience of the world—just are. And for them, just as for us, there is only one conclusion. 

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