This is a collection of essays by the novelist Tom McCarthy, not the filmmaker and actor Tom McCarthy. I have previously read his novels Remainder, which I absolutely loved, and Satin Island, which I was lukewarm about in general. This collection is a kind of odds and ends collection, not either a focused effort in terms of theme or time period. The timeframe of the whole collection is an oddly situated 15 years from about 2002 to 2016. That time period involved a lot of discussion of Bush and Blair and the War in Iraq, and the ending of it involved Trump and Brexit, but oddly these bookends are missing and the resulting collection of essays feels more timeless (or out of time more so) and are about a wide variety of literary and artistic topics.
The essays are erudite and well-researched and argued. More so than other novelists who write about fiction and art, McCarthy’s focus feels much more academic and criticism focused than readerly. It’s lucky for us that he’s done his homework in these fields because otherwise it might feel amateurish, or worse grad schoolish.
The best parts of the essays do the following: they make you want to read the books he’s talking about. His focus tends to be within the broad field of the post-modern in literature, so there’s long essays about Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, James Joyce (Modernist, but still), and Nabokov. These might not be your wont, but for the inclined McCarthy’s reading of them is interesting and enthusiastic, which is infectious.
His use of critical theory is also quite accessible. He brings in Heidegger and Derrida and Carl Schmitt in light ways to illustrate dominant cultural paradigms, without getting too far in the weeds. He spends much longer with Foucault, who I tend to find less inaccessible and more relevant than Derrida, and spends some quality time with the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who is incredibly relevant in today’s political clime.