Donna Haraway, Paul Virilio, JG Ballard. … Then, following backwards, Martin Heidegger – monumental thinker of technical and poetry; and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, psychotic harbinger of the age of speed and violence. And further back: Mary Shelley, whose ‘Frankenstein’ marks a sort of year zero for the influence of industrialized modernity on literature. But in fact, and perhaps counterintuitively, I’d say Joyce is the novelist who has thought most deeply about the penetration — saturation — of the human experience through technology. Everything in “Ulysses” is technologically filtered – through newspapers whose presses we see bellowing and pushing, or telegrams whose typos turn a dying mother into a “nother”, or trams whose steel tinkling turns the urban airspace into a siren chorus. Through “Finnegans Wake” consciousness has become a radio transmission network, with masts and tuners beaming, scrambling and decoding all messages from time and the universe.
What topics would you like more authors to write about?
mediation. I mean, mediation above and before any notion of “inner” or “emotional” experience. I feel that literature, as a mode, or as a set of possibilities, only begins when we recognize that they are irreversibly embedded in networks that both precede and transcend us; to be captivated by history, by processes whose fixtures and mechanisms operate on a scale greater than that of individual perception; in hooks to the symbolic order and, of course, to language – that is, as soon as we recognize that we are irretrievably mediated. I think all the important writers to do acknowledge this on some level. I just mentioned the hypermodern Joyce, but in fact the previously quoted “Oresteia” (458 BC) also begins with an account of a signal crossing space, in Clytemnestra’s lengthy description of the beacon shopping chain spanning ancient Greece. .
Which genres do you like to read most? And which one do you avoid?
When someone asks me what I do and I say I’m a novelist, they usually ask, “What genre?” And I never know what to answer. I just say “the novel”; which is not an answer, it is a tautology – but perhaps a necessary one. Because I’m interested in technology, some people think I like science fiction – but apart from a handful of novels by Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, I’ve hardly read science fiction. And that’s certainly not what I’m writing. All the events that take place in “The Making of Incarnation” – the algorithmic mapping of football games and pedestrian movements on the streets and desert rebellion, the CGI rendering of bodies – take place every day in this, our real world.
How do you organize your books?
I built these giant acacia bookshelves by a Finnish carpenter named Tina Lotila, who has a parrot in her Berlin workshop that can simulate to perfection the sound each of her tools makes. She built them two years ago, and I’d try to start at the top left with poetry, then move to philosophy somewhere halfway down the second row, then third or fourth right to fiction. But I had to give up on that plan. Where is Bataille going, or Ponge, or Derrida? If “Clarissa” is an epistolary novel, then it really is “The Post Card” – and then half of “Tristram Shandy” is speculative philosophy. And what about “I Love Dick”? etc. So I just went alphabetically. Art monographs get their own section, but that’s only because they’re bigger and so only fit in the bottom row of shelves.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
“The Know-How Book of Spycraft”, by Falcon Travis and Judy Hindley.
Disappointing, Overrated, Just Not Good: What book did you feel you would enjoy but didn’t?
I was really disappointed when I read “Slaughterhouse-Five” because I always thought of Vonnegut as a really cool writer who I would love when I got around to reading it; and the book just seemed like motoring journalism — kind of like a heavy version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” minus the drugs and nymphomaniac polar bears. And endlessly repeat the sentence that’s how it goes does not Weltanschauung to make. But then I read his “Mother’s Night” and thought it was brilliant: dark and morally dizzying and (as the title suggests) deeply Faustian.
Who would you like to write your life story for?
No one. My life is not interesting – and even if it was, the writing is not a reflection or “expression” of life. Writing should be taken on its own terms. To learn that Proust incited his servant Albert to spy on another male servant (his driver) whom he was in love with and for whom he bought a plane in the cockpit of which he wrote a line from Mallarmé about a swan: That’s only interesting in the context of the “Recherche” narrator’s obsession with Albertine (whom he lets his driver spy on); his paranoia about her homosexuality; his plan to buy her a boat in whose cabin he would write the same line; the way the story imitates that of his other character Swann; and so on. And then, only as a footnote. Or, to apply our Coleridge Tea Test again here: Knowing that Proust dipped a madeleine in tea is not interesting; that his novel turns this into a treatise on the architecture of memory. It’s all about the writing.