Men in Space Hardcover – Nov 1 2007
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"McCarthy writes with devastating charm and lucidity." The Guardian
"McCarthy is fast revealing himself as a master craftsman who is steering the contemporary novel towards exciting territories." The Observer
"I, for one, am glad that the independent publishing house Alma Books is brave enough to back such idiosyncratic work." The Daily Telegraph
"A compelling and imaginative philosophical novel." Frieze Magazine
"A confident and intelligent meditation on failed flights of transcendence." Times Literary Supplement
About the Author
Tom McCarthy is known for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. He is the author of Remainder and Tintin and the Secret of Literature.
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This is the third McCarthy book I've read. As a more overt puzzle novel, C exhausted me, and although its opaqueness kept me at a distance, its overall shape and weft was obviously the work of genius. Even more accessible, Remainder did get repetitive and tiresome, but the writing flowed so quickly and with such sumptuous detail that every other page seemed to give me a second and third (and so on) wind. This novel -- about failed transcendence, about isolation and human detritus, and about the existential inevitability of ignorance (or just misunderstanding) -- seemed, however, to belabor its message to the point of abstraction. I could not wait to be done with it long before I was halfway through.
The novel follows a large cast of characters who enter and leave each other's lives obliquely. If it can be said to be about anything, it centers around the reproduction of a stolen piece of artwork -- the novel's biggest symbol and MacGuffin Deluxe. Depicting a saint (?) falling or descending from an ellipsis of nothing, the painting represents different things to different people, but the end result for all is essentially the same. Everyone is hovering between knowing and not, between learning and forgetting, and between being and dying. It is, as I've said, a truly dizzying allegory about the shifts that take place when people try to understand or simply move forward.
As a theme, this is pretty much par for the course for McCarthy, I'm learning. All of his novels, it appears, are about essentially the same thing. The problem with this book, though -- and maybe this is a flaw only because it is actually his first book -- is that it has no interest in being accessible, interesting, or enlightening. Not really. In fact, anti-enlightenment is the underpinning theme, and as such, the book is almost like an intellectual billy club. While I admire (hell, envy and respect) the technical prowess and the erudite attention to detail, it is disappointing that McCarthy doesn't try harder to make his point in a way that can capture the imagination as well as the intelligence. After all, Literature may be a serious affair, but you must tantalize audiences if you also want to engage them, and this book treats its readers with as much solipsistic disdain as most of its characters treat each other.
All in all, like the dew-dappled and intricate web of some horrifically poisonous spider, this book is just as beautifully complex as it is off-putting and alien, and although I feel richer for having read it, I didn't really enjoy the process. For highly cerebral readers only.
On the other hand, I think at least Remainder is a more successful book, and both are more coherent novels than this book, which is a series of closest observed scenes with a connected set of characters, but not much of a plot. There is a randomness to the end of the book, as though the author had hundreds of stories to tell and stopped abruptly because someone blew a whistle rather than because the story had come to an end.
And what exactly is the story? In Prague, at the end of 1992, there are thugs, intellectuals, artists, visitors and refugees. And all of their worlds intersect at various points. So when a thug wants a copy made of a stolen icon, it is easy to traverse that world to find the perfect person for the assignment. But everything goes wrong, lots of people die, and plop, the book ends.
A reoccurring theme in the author's novels is to destroy the allusion that books mirror life and that both are these well-rounded emotionally satisfying worlds. Instead he creates flat, limited worlds and makes the reader determine what meaning exists, since the very act of flattening the world, particularly emotionally, is that the reader has difficulty making easy assumptions like Anton is a good person, or I like Heidi or I sure hope Roger doesn't die.
The books are filled with detailed and obsessively observed facts, and this is particularly true of Men in Space. There are lectures on how icon painting were painted (long, long ingredient lists and formulas for making pigments and veneers). We are given equally detailed instructions on such arcane subjects as the pulley system used to move objects in and out of Amsterdam buildings and how to thread a movie projector. Emotional vacuums, random scenes and thousands of random facts.
The result is a novel mirroring an icon painting. Obsessively detailed, yet driven by a purely stylized view of the world. A typical icon feature is its axonometric treatment of figures. There is no variation in distances between the viewer and the various figures in the painting. And thus it is for the various characters and scenes in the novel,. We are with Heidi at a party while she adds up the cool things she has seen since arriving and then we are reading the report of an unnamed cop who is monitoring the tapped phones of Anton. One scene following another with a cast of related person and related scenes. But none of the characters takes a lead, and the book fails to move forward. It simply revolves from one scene to another.
There are numerous references to space and space men in the book, from the transvestite dressed in a spacesuit for a New Year's Eve party, to an old movie of one character as a toddler in front of the TV showing the first moon landing, to jokes about the cosmonaut who went in space while the Soviet Union existed, and now he has no country to which he can return. Like the figures in an icon, these spacemen are all two dimensional abstracts. They are representations of something, they are not individuals with names and distinct identities.
The book is filled with arcane facts well described, closely observed details well chosen. Anton listens to the tram announcement that the door is about to close, and he notes the Czech sentence structure of the announcement "it's a participle adjective. You get them a lot in Julius Caesar's Wars." The author defeats the reader's desire for some overreaching meaning in the book. There is only one character who searches for meaning, the operative who spends his life listening to other people's conversations, obsessively writing them down, while asking himself why he does this. By the end of the book he is without employment, deaf and homeless. He certainly failed in the search for meaning. The other characters (still alive at the end) are just living, carrying on in a way typical of modern Western society. So what's the point of these lives? So what makes you think there should be a point?
Men in Space