Tom McCarthy and the Archaeology of Literature

When I first read the headline of the latest salivation for Tom McCarthy’s eagerly awaited novel, C, I rolled my eyes: “Tom McCarthy: ‘To ignore the avant garde is akin to ignoring Darwin’

God help us, another pretentious twit comparing the absence of whatever he or she deems as true literary fiction with the downfall of rational civilization. If the “avant garde” is identified with Darwin, could the comparison of genre fiction with Creation Science be far behind?

But, ever curious about the state of literary theory, I gave the article a go.  I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there, much more nuanced and fair that the above Guardian headline would lead you to think.

This is not to say that the piece doesn’t reveal some pretentious twittery on McCarthy’s part. “All cults of authenticity should be abandoned”? Let’s settle down a little before we start scribbling nonsense on a sandwich board.

But, then I read this quote, with which I could not agree more:

I wanted C to be a kind of archaeology of literature. But I think all ‘proper’ literature always has been an archaeology of other literature. The task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I’m not trying to be modernist, but to navigate the wreckage of that project.

So, yes, he is later quoted spouting a relatively incoherent homily about British humanists, ostriches, and imitation (seriously, if someone can make sense of that paragraph, please do so in the comments) but I feel all of this vague, intellectual silliness redeemed by the principle of “proper” literature being an act of reaching into the past, confirming ourselves on the knowledge of our artistic forebears, to push our envelope of knowledge and art forward.

Right now, the forensics of literature should be — as McCarthy rightly identifies — to seek out what went askew with the modernist vision, where it went wrong.  I would certainly locate that wrong turn earlier than C‘s turn of the century *cough* Transcendentalism *cough* but McCarthy’s goal is true.

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