Tom McCarthy's 6 favorite books about nothing
The novelist and conceptual artist names six novels that he considers riveting even though, in each one, "nothing happens"
Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet (Grove, $14.50). We move, repeatedly, through a house on a tropical plantation, watching a table being laid, a centipede being crushed, a woman combing her hair. These actions never run their course: They loop, incessantly — and as they do, the tension mounts. Will there be a murder? Has there been one already? Yes. And no. And yes again.
Ulysses by James Joyce (Simon & Brown, $15). A man buys offal for his breakfast, visits a newspaper office, a restaurant, a brothel; another man paces a beach; a woman gets her period; a scrap of paper floats downriver. And at the same time, Odysseus is reunited with Penelope, all of history is compressed into a single day, and Western literature surges toward its apotheosis.
The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett (Grove, $16). The counterpoint and, perhaps, only possible response to Ulysses: Identity, time, and words themselves all slip away into a void of silence.
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau (New Directions, $13). The minor, fleeting altercation on a bus is retold in 99 different ways, each one deploying a different mode of rhetoric, a different way of seeing and understanding: forensic, poetic, auditory, even olfactory. Playful, witty, and ingenious, Exercises in Style acknowledges, and ultimately celebrates, the impossibility of absolute objective testimony, in the novel as in life.
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (Holmes & Meier, $16). A Viennese woman cooks dinner for her lover, waits by the telephone, delays embarking on a trip or writing the book she's meant to write. And in that null-time, the abyss of 20th-century trauma yawns wide open and engulfs her.
The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé (Little, Brown, $11). Is it, strictly speaking, a novel? Who cares? It's a total masterpiece. Set in a manor house in which a broken step keeps tripping people up, a pianist practices scales on a loop, a jewel is "stolen" (then found, then lost again), and everyone misunderstands everyone else, this book takes narrative right to its degree zero. Nothing happens in it; it says nothing. Which, of course, creates the perfect blind spot in which a hundred events can take place, and everything can be said.