Interviews with Writers, Episode 2: Thomas Chadwick and the ‘byproducts’ of writing

‘Things don’t always turn out how you intended them to, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing’

Thomas Chadwick discusses his approaches to creating his first collection of short stories, Above the Fat (Splice: 2019).

Thomas’s stories have been shortlisted for prizes such as the Galley Beggar and the White Review short story prize. Above the Fat was also selected by the Republic of Consciousness Prize as it’s Book of the Month selection for April 2019. His writing has been described as having wit and a capacity for understatement that can also instil a feeling of devastation.

We talked about the ‘byproducts’ of people’s lives, but how this idea lends itself to Thomas’s writing process. We also talked about the what we ‘inherit’ and the idea of hauntings as a less than spooky concept. Thomas also reads from ‘Birch’, a story in Above the Fat.

To read more about Above the Fat, visit Splice’s website

Remainder: Lessons at the Limits

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooner, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like having an apple; there is no intermediate remainder” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

There was a time when it seemed that that essay by Zadie Smith – ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ – was more known and read than Remainder itself. But now, McCarthy is one of the most notable and talented British novelists writing today, and two Booker nominations go to show for it. A Booker nomination can be a mystifying accolade though, and what would this ‘avant-garde’ novelist, eschewing the reliable and persisting, lyrical realism Smith riles against , make of being nominated for such a mainstream, literary prize? Clearly his work is not antithetical nor rejecting the culture at large.

This is one of the many paradoxes central to McCarthy’s work; Remainder is a novel that plays with the redundancy of language so it becomes a novel that has plenty to say but doesn’t say anything and more directly, a novel that has had so much said about it, it is a wonder what to say next; what it is made up of, it rejects. Smith uses James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to elucidate the issue when she says:“The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegan’s Wake did not fundamentally disturb realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry a trace of the real”

Let’s look at how it carries this trace of the real.

~

It’s not necessary to do a point by point summary of the plot of Remainder, and instead point toward Smith’s essay and the text itself. However, what is making this task even more subservient, is that the edition that I’m using comes with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, which will be divulged later. We know however, that our nameless narrator (or Enactor as Smith calls him) is bequeathed a large amount of settlement money after an accident. About the accident he says “I can say very little” and this is no journey of discovery or reconciliation. With his money, instead of any hedonistic or philanthropic impulse (as Smith notes, both feel as inauthentic as the other), he decides to reconstruct a moment, that arrives through Deja vu, or a memory that he cannot locate in any time but feels that is inherently his. The reenactments multiply, becoming reenactments of reenactments, before culminating in a bank heist in a real, working bank.

Now, A film adaptation of McCarthy’s Remainder, directed by Omer Fast, has just been released and is coincidentally the impetus for writing about the book here. Putting it into the context of a film adaptation, Remainder shows itself to be the remarkable work that it is. This question of language that was highlighted at the start becomes even more complicated in this new context. Would Jacques Ranciere confidently have written this if he had read Remainder when he wrote in The Intervals of Cinema: “Cinema has been asked to fill the dream of a century of literature…Literature has been able to carry that dream because its discourse on things and their intensities stayed written in the double game of words, which hide from the eye the palpable richness which shimmers in the mind. Cinema just shows what it shows.” Remainder is a novel that just shows what it shows and seems to ask if we’re all anxious about what is real, and if we’re even worried that subjectivity is inauthentic, why divulge and express it with more inauthentic language?

Fundamentally it is grappling with what is real in the image culture, a very classically postmodern issue. And as we witness the narrator become obsessed with dissecting and slowing each moment in his reenactments, watching him only try to grasp at this thing we call real, all that is revealed is more space and vacuity; as Smith says Remainder “makes you preternaturally aware of space” as you read it. Look at the narrator’s continual references to cricket. Smith uses this as one of the cruxes of comparison between Remainder and the ‘other direction for the novel’ Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. But McCarthy is not trying to wedge in any postcolonial metaphor, but is instead trying to understand the sport’s relationship with space and the image. Think of the different types of images that cricket gives to its viewer; the different types of replays; not just slow motion, but super-slow-motion, along with inventions like Hawkeye and Hotspot. These images don’t change the fundamentals of the game but they transform the viewing experience of it, and now, through a referral system, can alter decisions. A replay in effect, can now change the outcome of a game, and has become part of the game, rather than just the viewing experience.

What is the real experience with the image anymore then? Let’s remind ourselves how this starts – through a moment of Deja vu – an image, or a ‘memory’, that we feel that we have already inhabited before it has happened. The narrator says that “I’d been in a space like this before, a place like this” before he recounts the moment of being in that bathroom and looking at a crack in the wall. And unlike Deja vu dissipating, it instead persists. But Deja vu is the remembrance of a thing that hasn’t happened ultimately, of the brain working before itself, or the feeling of a memory that is not located in a particular space; or is not triangulated within the schema of our linearity of past, present, or future? It is as if working on all three, suspended above them all, working on the memory – the arbiter of the past; experience – the recognition passing of the present into the future; and desire – the wish for something to occur. What makes it such a striking experience though is that it is deeply personal. And like a replay, like all the reenactments, it feels like it has happened before, within reality, like the moment a batsman watches his decision overturned and is now considered out and his innings over.

The narrator is trying to understand before experiencing. This is entirely possible: look how after the accident, the narrator receives physiotherapy and begins relearning the basic motor functions that occur automatically in a process called ‘rerouting’. Here is the essential predicament summed up when he says: “[rerouting is to]cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualise things. Simple things like lifting a carrot to your mouth…Understanding this, and picturing yourself lifting the carrot to your mouth, again and again and again, cuts circuits through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. That’s the idea (my emphasis)”. He then goes on to detail all the minute possibilities that are encased within the act of putting a carrot to your mouth – twenty seven separate manoeuvres – and the thousands of imaginary carrots that he has successfully consumed. But when it comes to the actual physical carrot itself, he cannot get it to his mouth. It’s by repetition that he thinks he can understand it, reinforce it and in doing so, make it a real, manifested, repetitive action.

That’s the idea, that’s all it is, and the obsession of ideas permeates in all the reenactments. But the transitions from an idea to the actual, physical completion of something are in different parts of the brain, and might as well be in different worlds. His world, both inside and out, is one of metaphysics and language, and although we can accept that our inner, thinking world is a foundationless one, to accept that the outer, physical world is as well is an abysmal one. This is the crisis, and it is a novel entrenched in crisis. It is embedded both locally within the novel and globally in the postmodern world. Smith says both Remainder and Netherland are enduring similar crises but playing them out very differently. Everything in Remainder is an idea, reducible to language, and not pretty lyrical language (“even my fantasies were plastic, imperfect, unreal”), a language that, even though it is the last vestige, is still stricken with inauthenticity. The narrator however is wanting and desiring to understand, but at each occasion, he’s greeted by more space that is only filled with more lyrical units.

Most books set out to answer why, or resolve, or at least through the dialectical process of reading, allow the reader to resolve. A book’s creation starts with just that though – the desire to create – and the narrator of Remainder at his core is a creator. This is where Smith and Wark converge. Remainder is typically self-conscious for its time and is effectively a creator creating a creation, but through the guise of an affable, naïve sounding narrator (McCarthy seems to have the ability to develop these effectively neurotic narrators that are implausibly limited, but at the same time affable and likeable). Wark addresses this more directly though when he says: “Creation once had a particularly exalted range of meaning. It is what God does. Remaining has more lowly connotations. Those not chosen come Judgement Day remain behind…” before adding that they become “unwanted books sold at knockdown prices are Remainders.” He says therefore that the questions that Remainder asks are: who gets to create? And when something is created, what remains, or is left behind? Furthermore, even if it is in the real physical world, is it real?

It is easy to look at this through the lens of postmodernity and ideology. This is a person who has an excessive amount of money and is investing it in these meaningless endeavours in an attempt to create meaning. The result is more surplus, debris, excess, indeed – remainders. But since the turn of modernity, we believe that we have the will to power, not a divine, invested power through a God. This sense of creation and being a creator is continually criticised, but what’s more, a criticism of critique is underway. The dispensation and availability of different theories to apply to the Remainder and the novel in general is further adding to this sense that all is beneath us is more theory, or more language (McCarthy takes this even further in his latest novel Satin Island). Marxist, Feminist, Poststructuralist, Freudian, or even Theologically, there is no way one to understand, but there’s only one way to do it.

What does feel real however is the sense of anxiety (you may ground this in psychoanalytic interpretation) and as Smith talks of Netherland, even though there is a real anxiety there, it eventually reminds us of our ‘beautiful plenitude’, where Remainder resolves nothing and instead aspires to be more debris, or even, junk. Here is where the naivety of the narrator comes in: if it is a novel that is self-conscious, it doesn’t understand itself as a novel, and the creator doesn’t understand himself as a creator. Yet there is a palpable anxiety, because there is a desire withheld, which we may call creation and accept all of that words umbrage, from artistic to Freudian connotations. What adds to it, is that he is not fully conscious of this anxiety, yet the reader is and feels it right till the very end and beyond. There is, as said nearer the start, no realisation or completion and although the creator produces a text, he doesn’t realise it. He is back to the problem of understanding and doing; he is doing and writing a novel, not understanding the implications of doing so, resulting in a novel that is not, by modern realist standards, necessarily a good one.

This is of course purposefully done by the real creator, Tom McCarthy. But where people like McCarthy and David Foster Wallace began diverging from the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, is that they stop-short of there being some kind of fictive Other on which to project, regardless of the aesthetic of that Other. Think of the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in DeLillo’s White Noise or the Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero mail systems (one fact, one fiction) in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: we know that they are ironic fictions, but there is something there and somewhere to project all this anxiety onto. Whether this is the grounding or not for the obsessive reenactments, but repetition is born out of a desire and an anxiety to understand, in the same way writing a novel is born out of a desire to understand the self and the world. The anxiety acknowledged becomes intensified, even if the narrator doesn’t recognise it as so. Early modernity at least allowed there to be a private self but Remainder doesn’t; what isn’t private is unconscious.

Where it may become more a matter of ideology might be illuminated by some of the work Wark has done on the Situationists International (SI), mainly in his books ‘The Beach Beneath The Street’ (2011: a Situationist slogan, ironically used as an epitaph in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice) and ‘The Spectacle of Disintegration’ (which i’m going from here). The SI were a Marxist organisation that tried to counter the fact that capitalism had become so advanced that it had venerated not just labor and production, but every aspect of life and culture. But where Marx may have grounded his critique of society in philosophy, Guy Debord, the figurehead of the SI, ground his in culture. In his manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle (1968) Debord wrote, “the spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living”. There is clear influence from the likes of Lefebvre and consequently on people like Baudrillard, but capitalism had become so dominant and pervasive that culture had become commodified. Or rather, life, or the experience of it has. Remainder is at least aware that it is mixed up within the garble of slogans and commodification.

And yet, with all these remainders and reminders the novel is centred on the fact that there is no remainder for him after the accident and the fleeting moment he initially has in the bathroom is without substance. Watch how the final scene shows how we need no precedent for there to be experience, or for that matter, a remainder. In the rehearsal for the bank heist there is a kink in the carpet that the actor repeatedly trips over, but when it comes to the actual heist, the kink is not there, which still causes the actor to fall and ruin the heist. The narrator in his perennial naivety says:“But it was a re-enactment. That’s the beauty of it. It became real while it was going on. Thanks to the ghost kink, mainly – the kink the other kink left when we took it away”. Remainder is like a Mobius strip, and even though there’s no definitive starting point, everything has an idea and a desire, and as a result, a remainder. This is why this ‘avant-garde’ novel is so central to late, postmodern culture, because like Warhol’s Soup Cans, it is so eminently made up of it. All the stuff of it.

But there is something real that comes from this; there are real traces and remainders out there to remind us of all our creations. Wark opens his account of the legacy of the Situationists International, The Spectacle of Disintegration with a description of the Great Pacific garbage patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is nothing more than a great mass of dispensed litter. Feeling related in some ethereal way, McCarthy warns in the acknowledgements to his latest novel Satin Island (2015) that all his books are regurgitated ideas and theories. There is some fun to be had in finding the traces in Satin Island.

This is perhaps a real, reluctant lesson to be taken from Remainder. After all, there is an experience of it. Experience is unique in that it is formed by our past, present and future, and sometimes they’re like kinks in a carpet, can only happen before we understand what it means. But understanding just means more language and relativity. Experience cannot simply be transformed into words: that is a reluctant, real, transcendent matter.

Remainder directed by Omer Fast, and starring Tom Sturridge is out now. A new edition of Remainder (originally published in 2005) by Tom McCarthy, with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, has just been published by Alma.

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy is published by Vintage.

McKenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration (2013) is published by Verso.

Review: The Swimmers by Joaquin Pérez Azaústre

In Joaquín Pérez Azaústre’s The Swimmers, a separation from his wife and stalling career send protagonist Jonás Ager into a kind of tense disconnect from his world and so he takes solace in swimming; this is not a Zen process or other spiritual journey but a connection between body and mind that he cannot find out of the water. Here he can “reduce himself to a pulse.”

Jonás is usually joined by a friend, Sergio, although their lives follow different trajectories, as Sergio is settled with a family and successful job, but when together…

They discussed where they saw themselves in the future, discovering that the same attitudes and behaviors could occasion the same auspicious results in apparently unrelated occupations: photographer and executive at a major insurance company.

This is not to say that Jonás is striving, or envious of his friend’s success, nor is the novel about the development of their relationship, even though that relationship consequently does. If anything, these sentences work to express Jonás’s further detachment from the sort of life the two men previously dreamed about. Interestingly, his detachment does not remain a figurative matter, but is dealt with again and again by Azaústre. It infiltrates the novel’s construction and prose rhythms, creating a kind of recursion that mirrors the movement of swimming as phrases accumulate and gather a steady pace, sometimes turning laps over the pages.

Since Jonás’s career has stalled, the reasons for which are only hinted at, an opportunity arises for a way back into photography. Jonás summons a name for his work – Reality Without Actors – which the inspirations and implications of become hazy: How much do we draw inspiration from life in art and how much does art influence our view on life? Jonás’s thoughts tumble and accumulate and he decides to:

…try to capture the settings separated from the cast: when the performance is done the stage so often continues on, defiantly, still bearing the traces of its protagonists.

It is not just a question of photographic art, but the art of the novel, and indeed the boundaries of artifice. Azaústre implies that the novel could be read as a meditation on photography; Barthes’s Camera Lucida is mentioned as a book on one of his mother’s bookshelves, and indeed Barthes is an influence. The point of view is strictly Jonás’s, and the fictional world is in control of Jonás and his detachment. But his art gives him back some level of control as the world starts to depopulate, like the premise (or hypothesis?) of his exhibition.

Things come to a head when his mother disappears (it is also worth mentioning that Camera Lucida was also a personal eulogy to Barthes’s mother), which is where the questions of metafiction interject. In Zadie Smith’s essay “Two Directions for the Novel” she says of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a book immediately drawing parallels, that,

…it forces us to recognise the space as a non-neutral thing – unlike realism which often ignores the specificities of space. Realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.

How then does Azaústre fill his pool of the novel; who are the swimmers and what are they swimming in?

Searching for his mother, Jonás investigates her apartment, where the usual family relics are not, in this case, given any emotional symbolism but instead revolve around water. Barthes’s influence is obvious from his work in mythologies. As Jonás comes across the television stand, “out of habit,” he opens the door and finds a video inside that is “the first sign of life he has encountered… there is another life on this tape, the possibility of another existence” (psychoanalysts might be inclined to read into this more).

So what is the remainder in this case? Other reviews have likened Azaústre to Murikami, and there is something of Camus, but as mentioned earlier, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant but under-appreciated Remainder draws a lot comparisons. The geography of The Swimmers is not as important as it is in Remainder, but they both question the environment of the novel and the world, and also ask when does our act of everyday living stop, and if so how do we carry out that act? It is best said here by Jonas, “it’s not a ghost town – but rather a theatre where the actors have disappeared or vanished into thin air.”

This idea is perhaps best elucidated by Marius the doorman. We do not know anything about him, at least for the majority of the novel apart from his ceaseless reading of novels that are “typically about voyages or sometimes mysteries or detective stories, although he much prefers science fiction.” And Jonás and Marius’s interactions are always the same; Marius never reciprocates Jonás’s questions because:

…his only concern is that such interruptions last more or less thirty seconds, or a minute if Jonás stops to check his mail; that’s the time it typically takes Jonás to cross the foyer and leave the doorman behind, once again absorbed in an alternate universe.

In this way, the minutiae of Marius’s life is deconstructed and made subjective like every other actor, but we as the reader become aware of him, and aware of the Mariuses in our lives, and our own subjective existence to others.

Jonás seems to find power in the collective; of water and seemingly, people. His dad tells him he “was on the wrong side” in the protests, and for whatever reason he lost his job at the newspaper. It is that detachment though; how much of it is willed by Jonas, or even can it be willed? Is it only through swimming that Jonás can reduce himself to the pure self to which he has either descended or willed? Indeed, to the pulse he desires at the start of the novel. What are the waters that we as swimmers swim with and against? This is the beauty of how Jonás uses swimming, not as a physical act, but an internal, psychological act.

Toward the end, however, The Swimmers loses some focus. Because of the way in which Azaústre chooses to “fill” his novelistic space, and drive his point home, the style does become slightly laboured in the final parts; whilst it is wonderfully weighted and pleasing, it can also slow the pace in places where it doesn’t need to. And even once borders on the absurd as Jonás, in a tense situation, finds time to disseminate, with detail, the notes of the whisky he is drinking. Along with this, the metaphors about water and an over-reliance on the colour blue, become strained and tired toward the close; “sky blue” for instance pops up noticeably often in the final pages.

So we are left with The Swimmers as a title. Deceptively mainstream looking, but it tells everything; it is not possessive, it is not the swimmer attaining something, like a novel of realism would fulfil. Zadie Smith said of Remainder’s antithesis, the lyrically realist, contemporary novels (she was specifically talking about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, but I generalise) which are only ‘‘partially aware of the ideas that underpin them and always want to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude.’‘ The Swimmers, like Remainder, is fully aware of its own ideas.

Ironically, The Swimmers is listed under Amazon’s “Thrillers and Mysteries” section; those seeking that type of novel in the strictest sense will be disappointed, but so will those seeking the lyrical realist novel, despite the prose being very pleasing and “arty.” Instead, Azaústre chooses to fulfil us, not with emotion, but with essential metafictional questions of the novel, and essential questions of life. This is not a novel that will make you feel good about yourself along those lines of “beautiful plenitude,” nor will it solve any superficial mystery, but it is undoubtedly a novel of essential fulfilment.

The Swimmers by Joaquin Pérez Azaústre is published by Frisch & Co, and is out now. This review originally featured on Necessary Fiction