Interpretation as a Fine Art

CuscoverAnna Aslanyan's interviews Tom McCarthy, in 3 AM Magazine:

I seem to be surrounded by Tom McCarthy fans. In a small bookshop, I run into an acquaintance and, after a brief hello, he moves on to McCarthy’s latest novel, C. A friend who, upon reading his first, Remainder, realised her boss reminded her of its protagonist (she herself felt like one of its extras, the lady who is required by contract to fry insane amounts of liver), comes round and asks me what I make of the new book. Another friend tries to predict the author’s trajectory over the next decade and says about C, “You can’t pretend life is a literary quotation any more.” I realise that, when the conversation turns to the book, each of us is talking about a different one, which makes me think of my own perception of it as incomplete, perhaps totally skewed.

A hot summer day, C not yet out, the Booker judges still busy deciding on this year’s longlist, I go to meet Tom McCarthy. On the way to the cafe, I remember the last time I interviewed him, a couple of years ago, when C was but a distant signal in the space, part of the white noise. Back then, Tom said the book was about mourning, quickly adding for my benefit: “Mourning with a ‘u’.” He was the first to burst out laughing, but the memory still does little for my confidence as a critic, so the first question I ask him is: “You’ve read my review of C – what did I get wrong?”

Tom McCarthy: I don’t think you can actually get things right or wrong when it comes to books. As a writer, you can only set up a number of possibilities, things to be interpreted. It there were one interpretation it would probably be a rather one-dimensional book. But then again… who am I to say? I can just share some anecdotes of its production.

3:AM: Let’s do anecdotes then. Your Black Box Transmitter project has been launched a while back. Is it related to the book in any way? I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg question.

TMcC: The precursor of the Black Box was the chicken – it was while I was researching it that I had the idea for C. This link between telephony and death, communications and family structures, which in literature have always been incestuous, from Sophocles onwards. Also, Nabokov is a large presence in the novel. I’ve been reading Ada – I think it’s his masterpiece, the best book by a long, long way. Strangely, a lot of Nabokovians don’t like it… Anyway, it’s all about encryption of some kind or another. Telephony is key – even though it is the one thing completely banned in the book. Again, this is by the same token as sex has been banned in Remainder. That book was all about sex, of course, so having it there in any explicit form would have diluted the message.