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Tom McCarthy's International Necronautical Society

British novelist Tom McCarthy is best known for his novels 'Remainder' and 'C', both of which received high praise from critics. He is also the leader of a strange and thought-provoking art movement called the International Necronautical Society.
The Man

Tom McCarthy is becoming a force to reckon with in the realm of contemporary literature. His most recent novel C was nominated for several prizes, including the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Man Booker Prize.

Previous novels have received similar levels of critical acclaim, although they remain on the fringes of popular fiction. It's easy to see why you probably won't find copies of McCarthy's novels in your local hair salon-McCarthy is not exactly light reading. He has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, and the similarities are most evident in C as compared to his other works.

The Ideas

The difficulty in McCarthy's novels doesn't even begin to approach Pynchon's density. However, so potential readers aren't be put off, in terms of sentence structure and style, McCarthy's writing is actually more readable than many popular novels. It's the ideas he uses that make his writing so challenging, inspiring, and exciting, but it can be difficult to tease these ideas out of the narrative of his novels. For anyone interested in learning more about McCarthy or in getting some background and intellectual guidance to help understand his novels better, the International Necronautical Society is a good place to start.

The International Necronautical Society

Although many INS documents are available online, a collection of essays and other documents related to McCarthy's semi-fictional International Necronautical Society (INS) is now available. The volume is titled The Mattering of Matter: Documents from the Archive of the International Necronautical Society, and was published in September 2012 by Sternberg Press. This collection includes the founding manifesto of the INS, along with all the society's published reports. Many of the reports were authored by McCarthy himself, and some were written by other INS members, including Simon Critchley and Anthony Auerbach. In addition, transcripts of interviews and other public appearance discourses are included.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction written by Nicolas Bourriaud:

"On December 14, 1999, readers of the Times happened upon a manifesto. But unlike the Futurist manifesto, published eighty years earlier in Le Figaro, the insert announcing the birth of the International Necronautical Society was not the expression of a simple "artistic movement": drawing from sources of radicalism, filtered through a deliberately corporate irony, the initial declaration of the INS was cast in the dominant forms of its era-that is, the language of entrepreneurship, mass communication, and conspiracy theories. Onto these forms and not entirely without violence, it grafted key terms from the world of artistic avant-gardes and modernist poetry: death, sacrifice, transcendence, transgression, secrecy. This unconventional collage brought about a collision between two irreconcilable worlds (for what brand in the world would want to associate its image, intimately or otherwise, with death?) and two mutually countermanding forms (the manifesto, associated with the avant-gardes, and business. "Death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonize, and eventually inhabit," stated this first public declaration. Note that death here is presented as a territory that can be occupied, rather than as a "moment" cranking out a "before" and an "after." This places us at the antipodes of an idealist vision in which death still represents a fall or an ascent-in other words, a movement from one plane to another. Whereas metaphysics is constructed around precisely this verticality, the intellectual position of the necronaut takes as its starting point the horizontalization of death."

INS Documents

It's difficult to describe the contents of The Mattering of Matter, since many of the documents read like works in progress. For example, several of the interview transcripts come from conversations McCarthy had with other INS members during a residency in Austria. The group was attempting to come to a better understanding of the INS' founding ideas, and to do so they discussed everything from philosophy to shark attacks, leaving no stone unturned. By the end of the book, though, the reader gets a fairly good idea of some of the ideas McCarthy is trying to express through the INS and his novels.

Some INS Themes

As the name suggests, the International Necronautical Society is concerned with death, specifically how death impacts the way we live, what we do, and how we think. Judging from INS documents, however, McCarthy's intent is not at all a morbid one. In fact, the importance of laughter and comedy are important themes throughout The Mattering of Matter. The INS also embraces ideas about art, politics, and philosophy. The Sternberg collection includes a few lists of numbered theses that describe the INS' beliefs. One of these is written in the form of a report to President Obama regarding the economic recession in the United States. The report is composed as if it is written in response to a request from Obama himself. At one of the collection's most thought-provoking points, McCarthy suggests that recession should be celebrated because it creates the difficult conditions necessary to create art and bring about political change.

With both the INS and his novels, McCarthy is challenging traditional divisions between literature, philosophy, and art. He seems interested in engaging in all of these disciplines at once. This can make his work a little difficult to understand, but it is clear that McCarthy is striving to develop a style that's universally accessible. The Mattering of Matter is highly recommended for anyone interested in McCarthy or his ideas.
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Published: September 5, 2013
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