Tom McCarthy symposium

This post was contributed by Dennis Duncan, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities.

Last summer I organised the first international conference on contemporary British novelist Tom McCarthy. McCarthy’s novels explore themes of repetition and duplication, failed transcendence, the notion of matter, and transmission, and his third novel C was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize.

As well as a number of prestigious academic speakers, we were lucky enough to get McCarthy himself to come and give a reading from his upcoming novel, before taking part in a long question and answer session. The idea came after some colleagues of mine in the Department of English and Humanities organised a similar conference for the American writer Jonathan Lethem last year – it made for a really interesting event to have Lethem present while academics discussed his work. I had already been in touch with McCarthy, trying to get him to come along for the launch of Dandelion – the journal run out of Birkbeck’s School of Arts. He wasn’t able to attend that time, but his response had been friendly, so I thought it would be worth trying again to get him along!

Organising the conference was surprisingly plain sailing. There seemed to be a tremendous amount of good will around McCarthy – his publishers supplied us with wine for the reception; Soba Pictures, the film distribution company, waived their fee for screening the McCarthy-scripted film, Double Take, in the Birkbeck Cinema as a warm-up event; Gylphi Press agreed to publish a book of the conference proceedings and also chipped in with more wine. And all of the invited speakers were keen to give up their time to attend, coming from as far afield as Amsterdam and New York.

I was really pleased with how the event went on the day. Not only were there some absolutely captivating papers, but I think the conference itself did exactly what you’d hope a first conference on any subject would do: it defined the field. While the papers addressed all sorts of different aspects of McCarthy’s work – mathematics, trauma, his obsession with Tintin – a small number of common themes emerged linking them together. So the event brought together disparate researchers, but still felt very coherent. It left us with a sense that people who are working on McCarthy are thinking along the same lines. That doesn’t sound like much, and it’s a bit of a generalisation, but I think it’s important when any research community is trying to understand something new.


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