Make no mistake: this is a serious book. True, the sceptical lay-reader will already have made up her mind about the overwrought niaiseries of the Cultural Studies racket – a project whose ingenuity is broadly on a par with its brazenness; whose earnestness is often outstripped only by its silliness – and Tintin and the Secret of Literature was clearly always going to be a hard sell to anyone who can't quite muster the enthusiasm for another game of 'Spot the Aporia'. The dustjacket of this Granta hardback reproduces a work by Jochen Gerner, one of a number of postwar artists who, as McCarthy tells us, made a 'détournement' of Hergé's work – an illicit annexation, a 'meme hack' of the kind flourishing now on the Internet (fan fiction and, more edgily, slash fiction). This procedure isn't so far removed from the critical enterprise itself – while Gerner's inspired vandalism seeks to isolate the emblems of Late Capitalism in the frames of 'Tintin in America', McCarthy performs a similar intervention, writing a high-toned kind of slash fiction of his own: Hergé/Bataille, Hergé/Barthes, Hergé/Derrida, all of them copulating merrily between the Acknowledgements page and the Index.
Lively, shrewd and utterly, gloriously pointless, Tintin and the Secret of Literature stands at once as a bibliographic acte gratuite – a critical study as elaborate toy – and as the record of an enchantment. McCarthy lavishes on the Tintin albums a full-bore fixity of attention that you might expect from a specialist in, say, algebraic topology. Our sceptic may well suspect that this is as frivolously self-defeating as extracting sunlight from cucumbers. Plausibility was never of prime concern to the originators of Theory in the first place; but those who have chiselled out careers from it depend more on its opacity to the average punter than ever before. Leaf through Tintin and the Secret of Literature, and your eye will be delighted by the usual stylistic plague-spots: “Gravity, like repetition, opens up the dimension of time, by testifying to the 'temporal reality of death'.” Uh-huh. McCarthy's prose can be as sluggishly bathetic as it is overladen with detail. His commitment to divining symbolic matrices in the cartoons – and issuing affidavits to the likes of Derrida and Mauss - draws him perilously close to losing the reader's good will altogether. But McCarthy possesses in spades what for many a pastor of High Theory is unimaginable, unattainable: a brilliance and zesty charm, the underrated capacity for self-irony.
Seven chapters, thematically organized: certain interpretative gambits are raised, submerge and reappear later. Fascism and friendship, forgery, ownership and inheritance and dispossession, the thwarting illegibility of the signs and symbols that invest our world with meaning – McCarthy tosses all of these into a bubbling macedoine of conjecture and analysis. Indeed so much is packed into this slender book, and much of it suggestive, that it's hard not to marvel at McCarthy's powers of compression. After we stop marvelling at his chutzpah.
Crucial to the working-through of his thesis, is that he takes Herge seriously (unusual in the world of Anglophone letters, but there have been a number of weighty tomes published in French). If there were no fully realized aesthetic system at work in the Tintin oeuvre, all the evidence on the page would certainly suggest otherwise. If Herge hadn't in fact brought into play allusions to Balzac and Baudelaire, even the most cheese-paringly scrupulous critic would be forgiven for believing that he had – again, on textual evidence alone. What's so cheering about McCarthy's midrashic labours, is that Herge's draughtsmanship and plotting – wholly à la page – actually encourage the wilder critical assertions.
So, McCarthy points out the omnipresence of tobacco in the books – we double-check ourselves – and, yes, he appears to be right. He notices how often counterfeiters and copyists - stand-ins for the function of the artist – figure in these stories, how regularly Tintin is entombed and released, and how fatally the characters misread the clues strewn around them. Any doubts we might have about whether these ripping yarns can really sustain such close reading do tend to evaporate the further along we get into McCarthy's book. He sets forth his argument without undue violence to the source text. Cryptanalysis pays dividends – but it's fair to wonder to what extent Herge teases his reader into it.
In any case McCarthy knows his subject matter. His favourite among the twenty-five 'The Castafiore Emerald'. Your average Tintinophile will raise an eyebrow – it's a choice – unintelligible to the casual fan, maybe - that suggests McCarthy is hardcore, a Pharisee among readers, a fanatical purist. In this story nothing happens, repeatedly. But McCarthy's approach needs to uncover the genome, the deep creative incubator, traces of which are seeded throughout the Tintin stories. Herge offered up a unitary creative system, after all, something comprehensive and internally coherent; and his critic is a code-breaker if he is nothing else. Truffling for the 'themes and anxieties active in the Tintin books', McCarthy tosses up one stirring insight after another – rather niftily tying up his thesis with biographical details – yet, for all that, he is a notably coy about the nature of the 'secret' around which Herge's colourful world is constellated. McCarthy nudges us toward, but steers us away, from it, in what amounts to a rhetorical bait-and-switch. “Tintin both offers and withholds,” he says – and so too does McCarthy, and when he turns his attention to the quiffed boy-journalist himself, the book is at its most riddling. Tintin is 'the enabler of all economies', he's also, loftily, absurdly, the 'Guardian of silence at the heart of noise'; but, to his credit, McCarthy shies from suggesting that there's any hint of the Christ-like about him...
Interestingly, among the cenacle of theorists McCarthy calls on, one of the usual suspects appears to be missing. Jacques Lacan is – mysteriously, perhaps – absent, even as Snowy the dog (Milou), Tintin's faithful companion, generally goes unmentioned (Snowy, l'objet petit a?). We might idly wonder – why so? The exigencies of book-making, lack of space, or some other, complex reason? A critic so fond of paradox as McCarthy would surely have seized on the totalizing psychoanalytic interpretation. Impossible to fault him for the thoroughness of his readings, either – it's the evasiveness, however, that frustrates more than the welter of data and the obsessive reliance on the notion that the cartoons set up an infinite regress of lisibilité. Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Theory at its high watermark knows the drill immediately. Something to do with death, something to do with the Subject, something to do with the limitlessly recursive nature of écriture itself: a nod to de Manian blindness and insight, and, hey presto!, a critical stance, an attitude. The problem remains, for the reader at least. How are we to take such cadenzas as these of McCarthy's, how can we rid ourselves of the suspicion that he's hoaxing us with such inflated as these?:
Beautiful, seductive, he is, like Balzac's castrato, the vanishing point of all
desire. The black dots of his eyes are the opposite of every sun, his skin the
antitype of any colour. Tintin is pure negative, the whiteness of the whale, the
sexlessness of the unconsummated marriage, the radical erasure of the
McCarthy risks taking his argument ad absurdum with flights like these – but one senses that he does on some level recognize how daft it is, that the critic is permitted his follies and hobbyhorses, and capering antically like a Shakespearean fool, may indeed light upon truths inaccessible to the more sober-sided of us. He must be entitled to hypothesize freely, to construct interpretative models, to make gambits that seem on the face of it unpromising. When McCarthy cites Barthes's S/Z all our readerly instincts are in revolt – yet it illustrates something of significance in the Tintin books, and can therefore be allowed to stand. It seems that Herge does in fact allude directly to Sarrasine, and it isn't improper of McCarthy to point it out. Quite why Herge does so, is another matter – whether unconsciously prompted, in the heat of creation rummaging in the lumber-room of memory, or whether he wanted to give his art that lustrous sheen of aesthetic legitimacy, is perhaps something to which there can be no answer.