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Literature’s Exception(s)

Technology and Formal Innovation in the Contemporary Novel: the Goldsmiths Prize

Technologie et innovations formelles dans le roman contemporain : le prix Goldsmiths
Mark Davies


Le prix Goldsmiths, créé depuis peu, récompense la prise de risque et l’innovation qui bouleversent les standards et ouvre de nouvelles voies pour le roman. Cette création signale un intérêt croissant pour l’expérimentation dans le domaine de la forme littéraire, dans un marché britannique qui s’y est souvent montré réfractaire. Plusieurs romans présélectionnés pour ce prix ont abordé la question des nouvelles technologies de la communication et le rapport qu’entretiennent ces technologies avec la narration et la définition de soi, tout en se servant de techniques stylistiques qui encouragent l’association d’une forme « expérimentale » à cette thématique. Dans un contexte sociétal où l’individualité serait ébranlée par la technologie, il est pertinent de tenter de comprendre comment le roman « expérimental » peut représenter le personnage et la pensée tout en proposant une réponse à la question potentiellement effrayante de leur uniformisation.

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1Many of the forty or so literary prizes for adult narrative fiction awarded in the U.K. specify that the prize is awarded depending on a particular characteristic of the work. Among these prizes, the Goldsmiths Prize, created in 2013, offering a financial reward of £100,000, defines its project with direct reference to the formal qualities of the works it considers. Prioritising formal inventiveness and referring back to Sterne, Diderot and Woolf, the award committee argues that the novel is by definition a genre which lends itself to such innovation. However, as the prize is predicated on the encouragement of experimentation, it might be understood that contemporary novelists are failing to deliver on the inherent promise of their chosen form.

2Encouraging British/Irish novelists to pursue the avant-garde in this way revives an old debate about the perceived value of supposedly non-conformist writing. Twentieth-century European inventiveness met with mitigated success when adopted by British authors such as B.S. Johnson and Christine Brooke-Rose in the sixties (Booth), and since then, as critics have at times complained, the writerly, experimental or avant-garde novel has often been taxed by reviewers with unreadability, gimmickry and snobbery (Pohl). In November 2008 however, Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books article ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ argued that a new resurgence of avant-gardist literature was revitalising English-language novels, as exemplified by Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. The creation in 2013 of the New Statesman-backed Goldsmiths Prize has been accompanied by articles in that magazine and The Guardian extolling the ‘difficult’ novel, and arguing that the reading public is ready for more challenging forms of fiction (Self 2018). Several of the Goldsmiths short-listed authors (including Self) have been outspoken about the need for change, criticising the conservative tradition of the U.K. publishing industry and the country’s reading public, while expressing admiration for High Modernist novelists and poets. Several of these authors are also concerned with considerations of the influence of communications technologies on society and on fiction.

3Modernist anxieties or enthusiasm about communications technologies have long been the subject of critical investigation (Armstrong), and the influence of the wireless, the train, the motor-car and the aeroplane were elements of a cultural and societal sea-change which saw human character and consciousness undergo a radical and abrupt change ‘around 1910’. This change also implies a modified relationship with the body. Sara Darius argues for instance about the phonograph that, ‘the experience of the disembodied voice . . . elicits a new understanding of that bodily entity from which the voice has been detached’ (Darius 13). The phonograph deprives sound not only of its spatial, but also its temporal origin, while making a serial phenomenon, ‘subject to endless reiteration and exteriorization’ (Darius 17). It is argued that this change implied an adaptation of artistic forms to the radically different world that artists lived in: for Joyce its impact encouraged inter alia ‘disintegration of grammar, the abolition of the “tyranny” of narrative logic and temporal succession, the prevalence of expression over communication’ (Alfandary and Nesme 15). Where Sterne had introduced a gamut of innovative narrative tricks, including graphic devices, hectoring of the reader and massive digression to create humour and better construct a modern self, the Modernists were engaged in an undertaking which stemmed from this technological disruption of the world and necessitated a fragmentation of language, otherwise considered to be inadequate to the task of representing a fragmented reality. When T.S. Eliot wrote that ‘poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present must be difficult. . . . The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning’ (Eliot 289), he posited the need for a renewal and complexification of the use of the linguistic tool with the aim of attaining truth. The disruption of form encouraged in Marinetti’s instructions to ‘destroy syntax, abolish punctuation, violate categories of images, shape nets of images and analogies, destroy the “I”, and maximize disorder’ (Alfandary and Nesme 27) demonstrated the violence with which some Modernists considered this ‘forcing’ to be done and is found in his admiration of the technologies of speed and violence.

4The Modernists’ destabilising of cultural, psychological and formal givens remains fertile ground for authors today seeking to continue to ‘make it new’, as its premises inform today’s non-traditional literary production and encourage their attempts to explore alternative forms of narrative. The breakdown of more conventional novelistic form is performed by integrating aspects of contemporary communications technologies or their influence on thought and perception into the form of the text while also making direct thematic reference to them. The four novels we are studying here are Will Self’s Phone, which deals with today’s Internet and mobile phone culture and its influence on mental states against a backdrop of espionage and wartime intrigue, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, which is a reflection on data, knowledge and technology, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, a meta-dystopian attack on group-think, and Joanna Walsh’s Break.up, an ambiguously autobiographical travel journal and novel of heartbreak.

5Two of the authors we are dealing with in this paper have set novels in the early years of the twentieth century dealing explicitly with the Modernist period’s technology and the disturbed, dislocated sense of selfhood which is attendant to interaction with it (McCarthy 2010; Self 2012). Their more recent novels have been set in the contemporary world, but have a thematic link with their earlier novels: Umbrella (Self 2012) dealt with war technologies and the factory line, and C (McCarthy 2010) with radio technology and the car. Significantly, the other two Goldsmiths-connected authors we are studying, Walsh (a member of the award’s committee in 2016) and Barker (the prize-winner, 2017), approach issues of identity in the internet age in equally innovative ways which point to an underlying affinity between formal novelty and a technologically-modified connection between self and world. Questions thus arise as to how the impact of twenty-first-century technology might foster significant literary novelty, and the means by which contemporary novelists are interrogating the place of character and of the linguistic interface in their creation of a literature which incorporates today’s technology.

Character and Consciousness

6Character coherence is under threat in Barker’s H(A)PPY in a way that ties language and technology. A parodic, faux-naïve narrative voice discovers and explains its place in a dystopian world of technologically-defined conformist thought processes where the individual is effaced. There is a SOMA-like mesmerisation of the individual into a state of sublime equanimity, in a network of information which makes thoughts and emotions visible to all, and thus harmless. This narrative, seemingly set in the near future, provides a retrospective vision of today’s technologies. These technologies are seen as imperfect: the ‘past’ (our present) is described as a ‘time of discord, of mischief, of fracture and of pixellation . . . A time of blurred edges’ (Barker 6). These blurred edges of existence have ostensibly been overcome in the world of H(A)PPY. Communication between all characters is performed involuntarily, as part of the community’s communal thought-feed. Since thoughts are visible to all, smoothness and openness of communication define the ideal mode of both communication and of being: no anger, no emotion must be felt or shared with the group. Conformism threatens to abolish individuality. In Satin Island, McCarthy’s affectless narrator, U., observes the ambient streams of data which the internet provides with equanimity, reflecting as he does so its dynamic but inhuman facets onto the page. His relationship with this data and other characters makes his relationship to the world analogous to that of a user who is situated in a data network which flattens out the distinction between individual bits of information. Images, character, events: everything exists on the same plane and is potentially insignificant because subject to constant juxtaposition:

One screen showed highlights of a football game. Another showed the aftermath of a marketplace truck bombing somewhere in the Middle East . . . One of these people, a man who looked straight at the camera as he ran towards it, wore a T-shirt that showed Snoopy lounging on his kennel’s roof . . .  (McCarthy 2015, 6)

  • 1 ‘The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; (...)

7Everything is totally mobile and accessible, ideas float and connect, obeying the whims of the user as he operates his screen, with multiple windows open. He exists as a centre of consciousness which is positioned in the world of facts and events, which itself incorporates his own observance and selection of data. Self’s characters in Phone are more explicitly and less self-consciously immersed in this huge flow of data and thought which encompasses them and their devices: consciousness and technology are inextricably linked, as is clear in the language which circulates between them, through time and onto the page. Constant use of prolepsis and analepsis, shifting focalisation and unannounced changes in physical setting reinforce the impression of the kind of flux that McCarthy’s narrator merely describes. Character is built up layer by layer and by a constant reinforcing of the linguistic and conceptual connections between the characters. The narrative voice moves seamlessly between each centre of consciousness, and this fluidity of movement evokes today’s increasingly jointless information flow and instantaneous sharing of commentary, dissociated from prior experiences of time and space. This jointlessness can at times suggest a non-hierarchical vision of phenomena, in which language evokes actants indiscriminately, be they minds, body parts, thoughts or cultural memes.1

8This lack of separation between consciousnesses is largely absent from Break.up, in which the narrator feels alone and abandoned, despite the omnipresence of her devices. Walsh’s first-person narrative recounts the narrator’s attempts to deal with a romantic disappointment involving a man who has been physically and emotionally distant. It immediately establishes itself in the line of British ‘experimental’ fiction by simultaneously referencing a British experimentalist and demonstrating a willingness to play with form: ‘All love stories begin with the letter I’ (Walsh 1). The question of the text’s potentially autobiographical nature is problematic and can usefully be compared to the work of B.S. Johnson, the work she is referencing. He argued that his Trawl was both a novel and the truth: ‘I choose to write the truth in the form of a novel’ (Johnson 1973, 21). The first lines of Trawl begin: ‘I . . always with I . . one starts from . . one and I share the same character . . are one . . . . . one always starts with I’ (Johnson 1966, 2, his suspension points). This ambiguous genre issue allows Walsh’s narrator/persona/stand-in to interrogate her feelings and her surroundings as well as the question of narrative truthfulness. Because her act of revisiting involves reviewing the past on her phone and laptop, a superimposition of times, places, language and technology inform each other and provide fuel for the narrator’s observations as it becomes clear that she is involved in a reconstitution of the past and, importantly herself, her ‘I’. This attempt to reconstitute herself occurs through the juxtaposition of multiple visions of her past. Her individuality might be guaranteed by escaping the effects of the codifying forces of data in the experience of love, which is compared to a surrealistic escape from pre-defined emotional responses (André Breton is referenced in this respect). Where she recognises that the human is now potentially falsified, fragmented, mis-represented or duplicated by computing technologies, she nonetheless utilises them to recall previous experience with and of the beloved other, while projecting a potential for renewed connection with him. In Break.up technology has not yet totally encroached on the individual and its autonomy, and it might still allow a space for personal and inter-personal authenticity if it can be handled skilfully.

The technological Interface

9The four novels all address the issue of the mediation of thought through language and technology. This mediation can be considered problematic inasmuch as language is understood as an only partially accurate means of communication. The ‘stream of consciousness’ technique of narration used most remarkably by the High Modernists suggests that verbal language is a viable compromise between thought processes, formulated words and (more or less) grammatically-coherent phrasing. Self and Barker engage with the problematic relationship existing between a stream of thought and its representation on the page in differing but connected ways. Both authors establish an implicit link between thought, language and technology. Throughout his trilogy, Self’s partly unpredictable or non-systematic use of italics has variously bemused and irritated reviewers. His own repeated explanation of their use is that they ‘represent the point at which imagistic thought surfaces into the linguistic, and we “hear” a voice in our head’ (Self 2017b). While this explanation only goes so far in clarifying the choice of certain italicised segments, it does generally reflect the fluid yet rhythmic structures Self uses to represent thought as it becomes verbal. But these structures also exist in a web-like network of referentiality which is analogous to the internet and networked communication: italics act as links to a system of internal and external references: to other occurrences of themes, to popular culture, to clichés, to snatches of language which inform a character’s experience and partial grasp of the highly synthetic data that informs day-to-day experience. In one scene the senescent former psychiatrist Zack Busner navigates a landscape, in the throes of an identity crisis: ‘Zack had jingle-jangled towards the Heath, passing beneath the curtained eyes of other. . . . highly desirable detached properties’ (Self 2017, 59; Self’s italics). Busner’s bodily movements and consciousness are here tightly linked to a series of linguistic tropes which he can be assumed to be partly aware of. As an old man bereft of property seeking a form of redemption as he roams the country (the Heath), he is an echo of King Lear, but paradoxically keeps a very quotidian, pragmatic, almost Bloomish eye on the real estate he is passing through, and here Busner’s ‘verbalisation’ of the clichéd real estate agent’s ad-speak reinforces the notion that mentally Zack exists in a jumbled net of high- and low-brow linguistic and cultural references. A further, more precise but fairly abstruse Joycean echo is to be found in the italicised verb ‘jingle-jangle’: in Ulysses Bloom’s nemesis ‘Blazes’ Boylan often appears accompanied by a musical/bawdy motif of (sometimes jaunty) jingling: ‘Jingle jingle jaunted jingling’ (Joyce 244). It seems unlikely that Zack has this literary reference at the front of his mind. Nonetheless, it is to be understood that he is partially conscious of the links between the phenomena he observes and the words which occur to him. The reader’s efforts to connect and interpret these references and motifs (some of which reach back to the very first pages of the first book of the trilogy), involve her/him in a creation of meaning through the connection of linguistic items and analogies. Making the novel a rich network of decipherable meanings which can only be partially acknowledged or understood by the character thus evokes a parallel to the real-world world-wide web: some links refer inwards to the world of the trilogy, while others refer outwards to the world at large, including other works of literature. This analogous relationship between book and web appears even more clearly when the reader decides to stop reading and check a literary, cultural or historical reference gleaned from the text. The author provided a list of music references for Umbrella,2 and has spoken about the influence Joyce had on his writing of the trilogy. One comment is particularly revealing about Self’s attitude towards internal and external referencing works in his novels:

Joyce’s inclusion of unknowable allusions is, I think, one of his great signposts, as a Modernist, towards the then-emergent realm of full-mediatization: Joyce intuited that in the future the text would jump the bounds of the codex—as has proved to be the case. (Self 2018)

10Placing the text in a hyper-saturated realm of meaningful correspondences does the same thing for the consciousnesses whose expression is a large part of the narrative content. Italics are not consistently internal or external references to any encyclopaedia, but signpost the surface of thought, where a character’s consciousness becomes inevitably dual: inward- and outward-facing, and informed by connections which exist in the mind and/or the external web of data, be it textual or phenomenal.

11Where Self’s narrative travels fairly smoothly between at least partly-individuated minds, the relationship of a thinking consciousness and an antagonistic, observing hive-mind constitutes the primary source of tension in H(A)PPY. The means by which an individual’s thoughts are shared is initially entirely fluid and virtually flawless: the words on the page are a character’s thought-stream, which is apparently also a public thought-screen: by some unexplained procedure, other characters can observe the protagonist’s thoughts that the reader is reading. The smoothness of linguistic representation is only threatened by bothersome irregularities in mental states, and they are what drives the narrative through the early stages of the novel. They are represented typographically: key words are printed in various colours the significance of which is initially mysterious though immediately understood to be important. What is initially less obvious is why certain words are highlighted, and what system, if there is one, governs their variations. They stand out from the page as if they were actually hyperlinks–a playful gesture towards the twenty-first-century reader of the codex. The words exist in the information flow that other characters have access to as the manifestations of troublesome and threatening mind-states. As such, they exist on the page in a non-standard form in order to indicate, concretely, the threatening nature of the friction they are creating. The page is the interface which provides the reader access to the thoughts of the character as they float into her mind, but at the same time as they become viewable and judgable by the community in a way that is highly suggestive of a social media ‘wall’.

12Underlying Walsh’s narrator’s investigations into her past as she travels around Europe in Break.up is an ambivalence towards the very technologies she relies on to navigate space and time. Similarly to Barker, her character experiences a desire to break free from an imposed technological order, though here there is no judgement stemming from the hive mind; it is the hope that love can still be idealised and non-contingent which motivates her: ‘And I’d thought love was noumenal’ (Walsh 259). Freedom from her technologically-circumscribed circumstances proves to be unattainable. Putting experience into words is an action performed through multi-media interaction. The emotional trauma she has undergone is at once material for her book and the way to think it into being: ‘it’s barely a story yet. And I am not a story teller. But if I put it into words, it might begin to become one’ (Walsh 3). While her novel is recognisably not a multi-media online e-fiction (despite the punctuation of its Internet address-like title),3 its paratextual elements work simultaneously backwards and outwards: her oblique use of photography evokes the melancholic works of Sebald, but also of Breton, one of the many authors cited by Walsh in the novel. Interspersing the text with relevant quotations from authors whose books her narrator has been reading while on the road creates further genre ambiguity: the work is a novel but looks like a philosophical meditation or perhaps a travelogue too. Significantly, it shares this bricolage aspect with online publications such as blogs, which enable a mixed-media format. The combination of elements of these genres creates a hybrid work that also plays with tone and register, linking the everyday and the philosophical and exploiting both as means to shore up a sense of coherence. Above all, the existential questions Walsh’s narrator asks herself frequently engage the technological medium of communication and its influence on the self: ‘I hyperlink, displace myself’ (Walsh 191). The combination of travel performed both literally and via the internet can either empower or reveal weakness: ‘Shifting from one online identity to another, there became several angles from which I must not be the first to write back.’ (Walsh 190). The ambiguity of physical location undermines a concrete sense of presence: if the self can be displaced by technology, where is it? This ontological instability is accompanied by linguistic and technological instabilities. Mixing melancholy and wit, Walsh’s narrator is aware of the ironies inherent in communicating emotion through the technological interface:

But when we Skype-called it was difficult to hear: my words echoed back to me, interfered with yours, mangled the start of your response. Did that happen at your end too? . . . .
I asked it then, that old suicidal question:
Why do you love me?
But all I heard was the echo:
(Do you love me?) (Walsh 115)

13Communications technologies provide access to emotion despite seemingly being barriers to it. The computer screen has been the means of imperfect communication between the lovers, but, in retrospect, the memory of a malfunction provides clues to a previously unnoticed fault line in the relationship. An ironic distance from the faulty interface therefore allows a self-regulating sense of perspective. It appears that a lack of total integration of language, self and technology is beneficial to the creation of narrative and reassuring for minds that might otherwise be tempted to see its promises of perfect recollection and re-presentation as an ideal goal.

The Role of the Glitch

14The danger of alienation inherent in the logic of ‘technological rationality’ whereby ‘[t]hinking reifies itself into a self-running, automatic process’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 121) lies adjacent to the observations made above about the ever-decreasing gap between language, mind and technology. While the means of encouraging the existence of smooth, harmless creatures in H(A)PPY are not solely or even explicitly described as technological, they operate according to this principle, as they gently push the member of the community towards an automatic acceptance of the system’s validity. The question of the desirability of this kind of logic underpins the novels we are studying.

15Initially it seems as if the fictional world in H(A)PPY is non-physical, an abstracted, brain-in-a-bottle type of science fiction domain. This turns out not to be the case, but where physicality exists (characters do have actual bodies), its enjoyment is collectively discouraged. Smoothness and frictionlessness are encouraged in body and mind. There are echoes here of Forster’s story ‘The Machine Stops’, where all connection to the physical world is seen with disgust and horror by almost all the characters. Barker’s novel stages an Orwellian (i.e. individualistic and newly-aware) resistance to this dystopian smoothness and group-feeling. There are satirical jabs at the practice of group therapy, and ultimately an explosive opposition between the individual and the surveillance performed by this well-meaning but oppressive community of sinisterly non-oppositional characters. The discovery of the beautiful melancholy of imperfection in a musical instrument by the protagonist, Mira A, ultimately enables her to exist in an uncontrolled sphere outside the totalitarian group. She resists a smoothness which is almost computational in its inhuman equanimity. Her emotional breakout is represented on the page through graphic means which bring to mind technological representations of language and its fragmentation. Where Self’s text is one unbroken paragraph in which modulation of tone, rhythm and narrative voice are indicated by the alternation of italics, suspension points and capitalisation, Barker initially divides her novel into standard chapters before exploding this schema as Mira A grows independent of the oppressive milieu. This escape from subservience to systematic thought structures is accompanied by the introduction of increasing amounts of space, unpredictable colouring of the type, the interjection of different fonts, and a saturation of the page with obscure symbols, text resembling a printing-press malfunction and a 3-D relief effect which all encourage the reader to view the page as a picture, depriving the narrative of one of its chief novelistic characteristics: readability. Barker has stated she ‘like[s] to think of the design and colour of the text in H(A)PPY as being comparable to an ancient, hand copied medieval manuscript’ (Bourke). The character previously defined by her place in a typographically stable environment finds liberation in an explosion of form which subverts reader expectations of the book format. Such disruption of textual norms creates a ‘glitchy’ text which is analogous to a computer breakdown or short circuit and rebelliously rejects the perfect cohesion of thought, language and community.

16A different kind of textual instability can be seen in Satin Island. The novel’s relatively limited formal inventiveness consists of just a few details: chapters are divided into subheadings to resemble a report, bringing content into play with form as U., the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is writing an ethnographic report for a company called ‘Koob-Sassen’, and repeatedly describes the process of thought he is engaged in as he writes. A postmodern, metafictional frame is thus established, and it also informs the content. The report is supremely ambitious in scope, while vague in definition:

instructions, whose serial execution, even if fully comprehended was beyond the scope of any single point in the command-chain, had the effect of moving the whole intricate scheme towards its glorious realization, at which point all would become clear, to everyone, and ants would see as gods. (McCarthy 2015, 64)

17It is both an analogy for the internet because of its ambition to create totalised knowledge and the signal that traditional written text is compromised by the existence of mass data. A similarly outlandish universalising project is revealed at the climax of Phone: ‘its beam will connect to all human consciousness simultaneously, drawing every single individual on the planet into a vast neural net’ (Self 2017, 597–598). Thus, a sublime surpassing of individuality is promised, and in Satin Island, U. is the channel for it. In formal terms, the first-person narrative is itself formatted like a corporate report and uses a font which also evokes the world of business communication. The novel is packaged in a way which recalls themes from McCarthy’s previous work: the ink-spot and ink seepage (the end of C is echoed here), and the inner covers which resemble a series of post-it notes which overlap, creating another playful reference to the world of business and office work. So a porous connection between fiction and fact is created, as in real life McCarthy was lent ‘a spacious office in which to sit and think about the general impossibility of etc.’ (McCarthy 2015; ‘Acknowledgements’ pages). The blurring of McCarthy’s person, persona, and the character U. enables a seepage into and out of the novel which denotes the existence of a space of meaning outside the events narrated in the novel. This seepage is the sign that the totalising project is impossible: there will always be an invasive glitch in U.’s best-laid plans: ‘I accidentally tapped on the docked news page, which slipped from its box, . . . taking the screen over—and in an instant, all the extraneous clutter, all the world-debris, that I’d so painstakingly eliminated flooded back into the clearing, ruining it’ (McCarthy 2015, 90).

18U. attempts to find meaning in the observed environment in a more volitional way than Self’s characters, and in a less emotionally fraught one than Barker’s narrator. While eschewing narrative devices of fragmentation, McCarthy’s text engages with the quixotic attempt made by this researcher to locate a sublime meaning in sense data and/or the mediation provided by language:

The letters [of a sign to the Staten Island Ferry] were like Scrabble pieces re-arranging themselves in an attempt to form a legitimate word; or like the numbers on a combination lock, revolving singularly and in series through their permutations, each click bringing with it the chance that the correct sequence, the true number, will eventually reveal itself, crack open whatever safe it’s protecting, spill its contents. (McCarthy 2015, 164)

19This sublime revelation does not occur in Satin Island or in Phone. Perfect representation of a state of being through technology is impossible, and this impossibility is repeatedly communicated via the metaphor of time-lag, or buffering. It is found in various forms throughout the four novels we are investigating and is analogous to the observation that a natural language cannot map the world of phenomena with complete precision. The more Walsh’s persona reads her old e-mails, the less certain she becomes about her previous certainties. The more U. attempts to formulate the report, the more glitches he encounters. In Phone, despite the afore-mentioned fluidity of movement between centres of consciousness, the glitch is inherent in the act of communication and indeed in the formulation of thought as words. Misheard phonemes are transcribed as such, and create novel meanings:

When, a year or so ago, his grandfather had
one of the brand-new eyeBooks for both of them, it’d been Ben who
set up their internet connection— . . .
her first experience of the
chirrup: You’ve got male—which was how she’d heard it ever since. (Self 2017, 203–204)

  • 4 Cf. Remainder, McCarthy’s 2005 novel, in which the unassimilable physicality of existence is what p (...)

20Apart from the intended comical aspect of these mis-hearings, the linguistic and technological glitch connect up with concerns about the impact of communications technologies on human wellbeing in Phone, and in the preceding novels in the trilogy. Zack Busner’s ageing and concomitant loss of mental acuity are a counterpoint to his nephew Ben’s hubristic dreams of a technological ekstasis. Walsh’s own breakout is ambiguous: she seems to find a temporary compromise with a system which she has engaged in exploring as the mirror to her own mind. The last sentence of the novel has a certain flippant irony to it: ‘Now, where were we?’ (Walsh 260) suggests that the depression that has resulted from her attempts to resist the disintegration of her person caused by the end of her relationship and seemingly aggravated by a remixing of her personhood, emotions, memories and thoughts has now been surpassed. There is a return to normal life. She rejects the technological filter to engage directly with physical and emotional realities, but cannot resist the web of connections encoded into the language she uses: ‘w . . . w . . . w . . . ?’—the net is too tempting to resist, and its signature code slips into her text; but the playfulness of this ending suggests a resolution has been achieved which has decomplexified this relationship to technology and the other. McCarthy’s objective is certainly not to find a similar healthy balance between technological systems and the traditional human self. His repeated expressions of admiration for the stylistic device of repetition might suggest that novelistic fiction should operate according to an industrialised or even computational principle, via a code which generates an anti-humanistic, repetitive series of sentences with no narrative progression. He does not, however, utilise this form in his own novels. He continues to use qualities which resist this mechanisation of narrative, and which remain for the most part essential aids to readability: narrative progression, generally identifiable characters, genre references, little grammatical disruption, and so on. Buffering might be the defining metaphor for the space remaining for the human in a technologically-saturated space of communication, and for the by turns frustrating, oppressive or merely factual gap between thought and act. McCarthy explicitly reads buffering as the moment ‘when you can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of experience’ (McCarthy 2016, 36): the remainder.4 Buffering is metaphor for the incapacity of art to represent the world, and for language specifically to achieve total correspondence between signifier and signified. Now that technology seems to promise to map all experience, buffering and malfunctions can be seen as the space which escapes the ‘automatic process’.


21Creating a wholly new form is certainly a tall order, but the current interest in more formal experiment seems justified and made necessary for some authors by the technological question. However, the potentially radical challenges of form and the theoretical content they refer to are to a certain extent being tailored to a reading public in a reassuring extension of a recognisable tradition. Indeed, the Goldsmiths remit reassures readers by its very reference to Sterne: his whimsical playfulness is part of an English-language tradition of irony which can be found in each of the four novels we have studied. McCarthy’s own playfulness in referring back to Sterne is representative of these considerations, as he extolls the more ‘difficult’ High Modernist authors while not engaging in the creation of technically complex narrative structures. The inclusion of a swirl of ink on the inside back page of Satin Island is a nod towards former inscription technologies and also towards Sterne’s inventiveness in deploying them. In terms of thematic content, it is certain that modern communications technologies are a topic which can have a broad appeal for the novel-buying public. Changing reading practices may be contributing to a more widespread habit of fragmented reading which one might consider a Modernist-inspired practice, but whether or not fragmented readers are reading fragmented or otherwise textually complex literature is a moot point. This paper has not sought to investigate on-line narrative forms or the impact that telephone or e-reader use may have had on reading practice, but there is clearly room for further investigation into these questions, as well as the way that authors are adapting their practice to the changing conditions under which literature is produced and consumed. The ongoing confluence of consciousness and the technological data stream promises to provide further expand this field of study. As Jessica Pressman writes:

Modernist and digital modernist writers share the goal of making visible and aesthetic the idea that we have no access to consciousness except through mediating techniques and technologies. Stream of consciousness is one such tool. Following William James’s explanation, consciousness appears as a stream because it cannot appear to itself as it actually is; it needs a mediating force. (Pressman 117)

22The complexities of this mediating force are of interest precisely because of the complex and changing relationship between thought, data and the communication of them both.

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Alfandary, Isabelle, and Axel Nesme, eds., Modernism and Unreadability, Introduction, Montpellier: PULM, 2011.

Armstrong, Tim, Modernism, Technology and the Body: A Cultural Study, Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

Barker, Nicola, H(A)PPY, Heinemann, London 2017.

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1 ‘The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events’ (Bennet viii).


3 She has written one, however:

4 Cf. Remainder, McCarthy’s 2005 novel, in which the unassimilable physicality of existence is what provokes the central Derridean event of the narrative.

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Mark Davies, « Technology and Formal Innovation in the Contemporary Novel: the Goldsmiths Prize »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 08 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Mark Davies

Mark Davies obtained the Agrégation in English in 2006 and has been teaching in Classes Préparatoires in Paris and Marseille since 2009. His Master 2 was obtained from the Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris III under the supervision of Marc Porée in 2013; it was entitled ‘Screening and the Self in C by Tom McCarthy’. In 2017 he published the article ‘Contingency and Avatarization in the Narrative Worlds of Wyndham Lewis and Will Self’ in Études britanniques contemporaines.

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