Tom McCarthy, NYRB, 2017.
Reviewed in The Skinny (28 June 2017)
This muddled review begins with a self-invented posit that Tom McCarthy has “divided critics and readers” (for the most part, McCarthy has been critically successful, and his original and striking novels popular with readers who relish his challenging prose), and that people either view him as “phoney and pretentious” or a “radical modern day [sic] Joyce” (no middle ground available, and more radical than Joyce?!). A comparison with Joyce in a review (akin to comparing any rock band to The Velvets) is usually used to indicate to the reader “this author is difficult”, and in this case, “rather than probing further into McCarthy’s real textual influences, I will merely invoke Joyce to persuade those who have already dismissed the book as pretentious to continue with their judgement, and I will not explain in what exact respects the author resembles Joyce, for I have chosen Joyce as the easiest example of ‘avant-garde’ that springs to mind to end my first paragraph.” Having wielded comparisons to Joyce and Marmite in the opener, the reviewer then slams McCarthy for referencing theorists “without explanation”, and for “having a particular intended reader” (who that particular reader might be is not explained, except the sort of person who reads Tristram Shandy, whoever that sort of person is—someone who has read Tristram Shandy, perhaps?). Having expressed their scorn at the mention of these theorists, the reviewer finds something of interest (“the book’s highpoint”, of course) an essay on Kathy Acker (whose work was informed by the same theorists whose names were wantonly dropped), then takes the author to task for what he hasn’t written (not enough on female authors, apparently) and berates a “porny short story” (???) on Patty Hearst. There are no nods to McCarthy’s witty, playful pieces on the cultural significance of dodgem jockeys, or the meterological London essay, or on the stylish erudition on show, or McCarthy’s essaying skills at all. His talents as a writer are not worth comment to this reviewer. And, to conclude, having said earlier that McCarthy provides a “highlights reel” (is that a thing?) of avant-garde culture, having listed these wide-ranging cultural figures in the second paragraph, the reviewer complains that the “scope of subject matter is too narrow” (!!). Having expended their patience with this collection, the reviewer places McCarthy in the “phoney and pretentious” camp, writing from his “impenetrable ivory tower of high art”, or, in other words, “this went over my head, so it will probably go over your head too”. This unconsidered review finds the reviewer yielding to their evident lack of interest in the topics, and their seeming dislike of the author’s style, and objectivity is swiftly trounced.