Both rhetorically playful and plot driven, Tom McCarthy’s first novel, Men in Space, now out in the U.S., floats in between his other novels Remainder and C.
One can never accuse Man Booker Prize-finalist Tom McCarthy of thinking small. In his debut novel Remainder, one of my favorite books in recent years, an unnamed accident victim wins a settlement of eight and a half million pounds and goes about blowing his fortune by hiring actors and buying real estate to re-create and re-enact his fragmented memories in increasingly lavish and dangerous ways. C, McCarthy’s bloated and circuitous follow-up, takes the reader on a picaresque historical journey from the advent of wireless communication to World War I and then finally, obliquely enough, to the bottom of an Egyptian tomb.
Men in Space, McCarthy’s first novel, originally published in the UK in 2007 and now available for the first time in the US, floats somewhere in between McCarthy’s previously published work, both in ambition and in execution.
Set in Prague and Sofia in the 1990s, Men in Space features an ensemble cast of characters in personal, political and metaphysical limbo after the fall of Communism. There’s Anton Markov, a Bulgarian refugee, who helps a crime syndicate steal a painting – a 19th century icon – while planning his escape to America with his wife and her children from a first marriage. There’s Ivan Manasek, an emerging artist the crime syndicate pays to copy the icon so they can fool church officials long enough to smuggle the original out of Bulgaria. There’s Nick Boardaman, Manasek’s loft mate, a young English ex-pat who, while he’s trying to land a job as an art critic, models nude to pay the rent. At least a half-dozen other characters in the now well-plowed field of Central Europe’s early nineties Bohemia take turns moving the novel forward (or not) in narrative orbit.
An unrepentant fan of deconstruction and abstraction, McCarthy is a craftsman of conundrums. Almost each sentence introduces a new swirling question. The scenes in Men in Space are often written with the author’s camera eye set uncomfortably close to minutiae. Context is intentionally out of focus. Here’s how the stolen painting is described by Manasek’s girlfriend, Klara:
The birds, if that’s what they are, seem to be keeling over backwards. She must have studied hundreds, literally hundreds of these paintings, restored twenty, thirty of the things, and she’s never seen these before. They’re oversize, misshapen, almost human. Another unusual detail is a group of ships in the sea to the mountain’s right. Fishing boats crop up frequently in these paintings, in particular in those of Simon and Andrew, the fishermen – but there are no nets here. The boats seem to be stationary: their sails are down, and groups of men in smaller boats are drawn up beside them, doing something to them. Are they repairing them?
The men are carrying planks towards, or from, the ships. How very bizarre? Building them? They’d do that on dry land, surely. The men stare straight out from the painting. So do the strange birds. The floating saint too, come to that. Axonometric: there’s no variation in their distance from the viewer. Besides which, there’s a general lack of continuity between the figures. Rather than collaborating with one another to provide visual cohesion, they’re discontiguous, each occupying a zone of his own, each willfully oblivious to the presence of the others.
The reader comes away from this passage with a clear idea of the objects in the painting but little or no idea how the painting looks as a whole. McCarthy’s descriptions elevate these themes of dislocation, fragmentation, and a general unmooring brought about by the vacuum created by Communism’s fall and the subsequent corruption of the art world. As in McCarthy’s previous work, the real is relentlessly unreal and thematic development trumps character development. While McCarthy’s craftsmanship and gifts for atmospherics will be a pleasure to read for those with a thick skin for abstraction, Men In Space’s preoccupation with a lack of cohesion make large portions of the book – especially the first half – tough chewing. The main characters aren’t given much time together, because each are indeed occupying a zone of their own. And McCarthy’s tendency to move his characters like pawns just to alienate them give them little room to develop texture or depth.
That said, when the plot around the stolen painting begins to churn, the novel builds an emotional resonance that surprises and surpasses any of McCarthy’s other work. He smartly ups the dramatic ante, and when no bad deed goes unpunished, one can’t help but feel that had the book been cast purely as a human tragedy from the outset, these men in space would have experienced a far more successful landing.