Near the end of "Tintin and the Secret of Literature" (Counterpoint, 212 pages, $15.95), Tom McCarthy invokes the French radical theorist Guy Debord's notion of "detournement," "the taking over of a sign, image, text, or body of work and the redirecting of it to one's own ends." As Mr. McCarthy shows, the images and words created by Hergé — as the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi signed himself — have been repeatedly subjected to this kind of repurposing. Hergé created 23 volumes of Tintin's adventures during his long life, starting with "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" in 1929. The last, "Tintin and Alph-Art," was left unfinished at his death in 1983.
But the canon has been supplemented by Tintin pornography, Tintin social commentary, and Tintin conceptual art. As early as 1944, after Belgium was liberated from German occupation, a newspaper published an unauthorized strip in which the boy journalist and his crew — his clever dog Snowy, his less-clever friend Captain Haddock, and the bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson — battled the Nazis. Just a few years ago, Mr. McCarthy notes, the artist Alex Hamilton created a work called "Flame Book," which consists of an entire Tintin book with all the panels replaced with images of flames.
Mr. McCarthy, a British artist and novelist, does not come right out and say that his own book is the latest "detournement" of Tintin. "Tintin and the Secret of Literature" appears, at first sight, to be a critical treatise, a commentary designed to honor and explore Hergé's oeuvre, rather than to subvert or satirize it. Yet on a second reading, Mr. McCarthy's title also sounds suspiciously like a parody of a Tintin book — as though Tintin were now in quest of "the secret of literature," an exotic object such as "King Ottokar's Sceptre" or "The Cigars of the Pharaohs." Read this way, Mr. McCarthy is not so much clarifying Hergé's work as repurposing it, using its characters and tropes in what emerges, after many dense pages, as a tour-de-force parody of French literary theory.
A parody: For what else could you call a book that, in its first few pages, compares Hergé to Dickens, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Balzac, Austen, James, Molière, Dumas, Conrad, Faulkner, Brontë, Stendhal, George Eliot, Rabelais, and Thomas Pynchon? The sheer multiplication of great names is comic, as though the humble cartoonist were bidding not merely for inclusion in the canon, but for a Shakespearean centrality. It is true that Hergé has some things in common with Shakespeare: the richness of his world, the variety of his characters, and the way in which Tintin seems to belong, like Hamlet, to any and every nation. (I'm sure I was not the only child who grew up reading Tintin serenely unaware that the books were written in French, or that the characters I knew were baptized with foreign names: not Snowy but Milou, not Thomson and Thompson but Dupont and Dupond.)
But you do not have to be a very strict enforcer of literary hierarchies to recognize that Hergé's oeuvre is not comparable with that of Shakespeare, or Balzac, or Faulkner. For one thing, while Mr. McCarthy treats the Tintin books as a text, in keeping with the usual practice of literary critics, it is actually composed mainly of images — images that, for all their delightful mobility and individuality, are unequipped by their very nature for the kind of mimetic inwardness that constitutes literature. For another, the plots and characters of the Tintin books remain on the level of genre fiction: Tintin's life is one long series of intrigues and escapes, full of outlandish villains and secret treasures. They are, in short, wonderful books for children, not literature for adults.
By deploying upon such books the full arsenal of French theory, from Barthes to Derrida, Mr. McCarthy is playing a rather involved intellectual game. On the most basic level, the mismatch between the pop subject and the arch-theoretical approach offers the kind of high-meets-low frisson now all too familiar from academic cultural studies. (If you can "do a reading" of a Browning monologue, why not treat a Bob Dylan lyric the same way — or, for that matter, a cereal box?) But this is just the first step in Mr. McCarthy's dialectic. For as his treatment of Tintin gets more inventive and complex, the effect is not so much to make the cartoon look sophisticated as to make the theory look dubious.
That is certainly the effect of Mr. McCarthy's chapter "R/G," whose title evokes Mr. Remi's pseudonym while also playing on Roland Barthes's classic post-structuralist study, "S/Z." In "S/Z," Barthes undertakes a line-by-line analysis of a novella by Balzac, with the aim of showing how this arch-realist writer is actually a manipulator of elaborate literary codes. Just as, in Balzac's story, the opera singer la Zambinella turns out to be not a woman, as the sculptor Sarrasine believes, but a castrato, so literature, according to Barthes, guards the secret of its own emasculation — its inability to produce the real.
Mr. McCarthy maintains that "Hergé's work, like Balzac's, has what Barthes calls a 'vanishing point,' a spot in which it 'seems to be keeping in reserve some ultimate meaning, one it does not express.'" Yet in practice, what this means is that the author's alleged silence licenses the critic to become extremely loquacious — to impose his own master metaphor on the proliferating metaphors of the text (or, in this case, the cartoon).
Thus Mr. McCarthy catalogs instances of misreading in the Tintin books — from Thomson and Thompson mistaking their own tire tracks for another vehicle's in "Land of Black Gold," to Tintin and Haddock using the wrong longitude in deciphering an old treasure map in "Red Rackham's Treasure." To Mr. McCarthy, these are not innocent plot twists or comic episodes, but signs of the text's hermeneutic reflexiveness, proofs that "the activity of reading does not begin only after the writing stops."
This aphorism is delivered with a flourish, but in fact it is trivial. It amounts to saying that a common feature of mystery stories is the solution of mysteries. If Mr. McCarthy's work is a genuine example of literary theory, then literary theory itself seems as neutered as la Zambinella, even if it also imitates the singer's colorature virtuosity. So too with Mr. McCarthy's Freudian reading of Captain Haddock, whom he considers, with virtually no backing from the text, to be the illegitimate descendant of King Louis XIV, the product of a record-beating family romance. And so again with his argument that the jewel belonging to the opera singer Bianca Castafiore — which is stolen (or is it?) in "The Castafiore Emerald" — is "really" her clitoris, so that Haddock's antipathy to her is "really" castration anxiety.
The word belongs in quotation marks because these are not the kind of interpretive claims that can be judged true or false. Nor, however, are they the kind of licensed speculation that enriches our experience of a text, even while remaining undecidable — as, for instance, with Edmund Wilson's claim that the ghosts in James's "The Turn of the Screw" are just projections of the nurse's repressed sexuality. Mr. McCarthy's analyses are, rather, arabesques, sketched over the surface of Hergé's cartoon — or, if you like, graffiti meant to obscure and deface it.
I am not entirely sure that Mr. McCarthy himself does not want us to see them in the second sense. After all, as he writes, Hergé's work "betrays in its massive self-reflexiveness a desire to be taken seriously, to be seen to be considering the highly conceptual issues in contemporary art with which its author is clearly au fait, alongside a desire to mock the highness of the establishment that never accepted him as highbrow, to expose its pretentiousness, its fraudulence." If Mr. McCarthy is out to vindicate Hergé, then "Tintin and the Secret of Literature" might best be read in this double spirit, as a brilliant and audacious hoax.