Novelist Tom McCarthy on writers’ relationship to the haunting sounds of technology:
The telephone, it turns out, owes its invention to more than simply hearing-aid experiments. Alexander Bell, who grew up playing with mechanical speech devices (his father ran a school for deaf children), lost a brother in adolescence. As a result of this, he made a pact with his remaining brother: if a second one of them should die, the survivor would try to invent a device capable of receiving transmissions from beyond the grave – if such transmissions turned out to exist. Then the second brother did die; and Alexander, of course, invented the telephone. He probably would have invented it anyway, and in fact remained a sceptic and a rationalist throughout his life – but only because his brothers never called: the desire was there, wired right into the handset, which makes the phone itself a haunted apparatus. [...]
The pinnacle of literary modernism, its most sophisticated and extreme achievement, is Joyce’s final novel, Finnegans Wake, published 17 years after Ulysses as the world stood on the brink of a new orgy of technology and death. Impossible to summarise in a sentence, the Wake has been variously interpreted as the babble running through a dreamer’s head, a disquisition on the history of the world, ditto that of literature, a prophetic set of runes for our age, and a scatological tract so obscene that it had to be written in code to escape the censorship that had befallen Joyce’s previous novel. But whichever way you read it, two things are certain: first, that (as the word “Wake” would suggest) it’s a Book of the Dead, dotted with tombs and rites of mourning; and second, that the technological media people it at every level – telephones and gramophones, films and television and, above all, radio. We have “loftly marconimasts from Clifden” beaming “open tireless secrets . . . to Nova Scotia’s listing sisterwands”; we have a “contact bridge of . . . sixty radiolumin lines . . . where GPO is zentrum” (the post office was the site of Radio Eireann); we have “that lionroar in the air again, the zoohoohoom of Felin make Call”; we even have disembodied voices shouting to each other to “get off my air!” According to the Joyce scholar and poet Jane Lewty, co-editor of Broadcasting Modernism, “the Wake can best be understood as a long radio-séance, with the hero tuning into voices of the dead via a radio set at his bedside, or, perhaps, inside his head.” Perhaps, she concedes when I push the point with her, the “hero” might even be the radio set itself.