Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays by Tom McCarthy

Book Review by Katie Goh | 28 Jun 2017
Book title: Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish
Author: Tom McCarthy

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish is the first collection of essays from Tom McCarthy, a novelist twice nominated for the Man Booker prize for C and Satin Island. A Marmite author, McCarthy has divided critics and readers; phoney and pretentious or a radical modern day Joyce? 

Previous readers of McCarthy’s novels will hardly be surprised by the essays’ subjects which provide a highlights reel of 20th century avant-garde culture. Joyce, Derrida, Foucault, Lynch, Ballard, and Kafka are names which repeatedly recur. Critical theorists are name dropped without explanation as it becomes apparent that McCarthy has a particular intended reader in mind, hardly surprising as Tristram Shandy was written as an introduction to Sterne’s novel and the Joyce essay was originally given as a university lecture.

The book’s highpoint is Kathy Acker’s Infidel Heteroglossia, a piece which seamlessly intertwines jellyfish, the body, and language. The Acker essay almost makes up for the only other female-centred piece, the disastrous and porny short story about Patty Hearst. Almost.  

Despite being written over a ten-year span, McCarthy’s scope of subject matter is narrow and Anglo-American focused. Herein lies the book’s problem: despite being well executed and intellectually stimulating, the repetition of subject matter becomes, at best, frustrating, and, at worst, tedious. Read in isolation (as they were originally published), the individual essays are engaging pieces of criticism, however, as a collection, the essays become a self-congratulatory and impenetrable ivory tower of high art.  [Katie Goh]

Out now, published by the NYRB, RRP £10.99