Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tom McCarthy, _Tintin and the Secret of Literature_

I READ REMAINDER a few years ago and had that giddy falling-in-love-with-an-author feeling I've had on a handful of other occasions: The Ghost Writer, City of Glass, The Age of Wire and String, to limit myself to living novelists. That I have urged the novel on two or three dozen people since with terrible results (none of them liked it nearly as much as I did, and many of them hated it) probably ought to have eroded my enthusiasm, but did not, so I was vibrating with glee when I picked up C. a few months ago -- still haven't read it, though, having impulsively decided I wanted to get through the back catalog first.

Which led me to this volume. Tintin is a French comic (ran 1929-1976) about a baby-faced journalist/investigator/adventurer, beloved in France and a cult favorite in the USA and many other places. It had been recommended to me a few times, but I actually had not read a single one of the twenty-odd Tintin collections when I picked up McCarthy's book (a deficit I have since remedied). Add in the fact that I do not usually enjoy laboriously rigorous, theory-heavy analyses of popular culture, and odds that I would enjoy the book were slender...

...but enjoy it I did. McCarthy won my confidence early on by probing the assumptions of the genre to which his book superficially belongs: "All of which raises the question: is it literature? Should we, when we read the Tintin books, treat them with the reverence we would afford to Shakespeare, Dickens, Rabelais, and so forth?" We can (and McCarthy does) train upon them the same sophisticated critical lenses that we use for Shakespeare et al., but does that make them equally worthy of attention? "Or is this bad logic," McCarthy asks, "fit only for cultural theory seminars and Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-as-Postmodern-Signifier conferences?" I barked with joy when I read that.

Now that I knew McCarthy had no plans to clobber me over the head with the High Seriousness of Tintin, I could relax and enjoy the show, and what a performance it is. He keeps a half-dozen or so powerful critical lenses in play like spinning plates: Debord, Bataille, Barthes (especially S/Z), Abraham & Torok on crypts, Derrida's Given Time 1: Counterfeit Money (no Foucault, but perhaps à la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien?). He has a true comics-obsessive's command of the details of the texts and their web of cross-references, patterns, and parallels. His style is a dance on a high wire, witty, nimble but weight-bearing, a breathtaking synthesis of energy and balance.

Hergé (Georges Remi, creator of Tintin) even turns out to have an ambiguous quasi-collaborationist past, like Paul de Man (for the same newspaper, of all things). Is this turning into a turn-of-the 20th-century trope? The King's Speech emphasized Edward VIII's softness on fascism, and it even shows up in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows via Dumbledore's foolish youthful allegiances. Not to mention Remains of the Day or Banville's Shroud. Is naïvete about Hitler now our archetype of the ominous biographical secret?

Secrets turn out to be the secret of literature for McCarthy, or at least the creation of the impression of having a secret, secretiveness without an actual secret. A useful tip when considering Remainder, its plot set ticking by an accident about which one learns nothing, and perhaps even C., according to reviews set ticking by Freud's Wolf Man and Abraham & Torok's re-reading of same. Tintin and the Secret of Literature has nicely whetted my appetite. First, though: Men in Space.

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