Men in Space, by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy is the best philosopher-novelist alive. He writes satisfying novels that demonstrate a credible new philosophy, something no one else has done in over half a century. So it’s partly my fault—and partly McCarthy’s—that after reading all three of his novels—Remainder, C, Men in Space—I’m still not sure if I understand what he’s saying. (McCarthy might appreciate the irony here. In his novels, messages often get repeated until they become garbled, taking on new and confused meanings. McCarthy views this as the essence of creativity and innovation.) But my guess is he’s saying the following.

i.   All life is transmission and reception—of force, ideas, information, energy, emotion, etc.

ii.   There is no such thing as transcendence. But we can approach transcendence by making ourselves open to all the transmissions that move around us and through us.

iii.   It doesn’t matter what these transmissions are. It doesn’t even matter if we understand them. All that matters is receiving them and passing them on.

iv.   Everything is a reiteration—not quite a copy, but a repeat instance. Duplications aren’t perfect. Errors are always introduced.

v.   Material objects and raw information are just as important and valid as living beings.

vi.   Given all of the above, things are most alive when they take the form of vectors, diagrams, networks, facsimiles, encryption, static, noise.

If all of this sounds awfully germane to the age we live in—digital, disembodied, networked—that’s probably why McCarthy either sets his novels in the past (the early 1900s for C, 1992-93 for Men in Space) or willfully ignores recent developments in technology (Remainder). By writing about the invention of the shortwave radio, or the breakup of the USSR, McCarthy is able to take some very current, conventional ideas about the design of networked systems and retroactively “discover” them everywhere else in history.

Men in Space is McCarthy’s first, second, and third novel: the first one he wrote, the second to be published, and the third to appear in the US. Since he’s always obsessing over the same themes, his novels can be read in any order. But Men in Space is the one that makes the most sense, and it helps make sense of the other two.

Anton, a Bulgarian, works for a crime syndicate in Prague. He’s assigned to create a forgery of an ancient Byzantine icon painting. So he asks Nick, a British expat and art critic, to recommend a forger. Nick recommends Ivan, a half-Russian art student who used to room with Nick. As the painting changes hands, various people discuss what it might be trying to depict.

Dozens of characters populate Men in Space, and the point of view shifts with each chapter. There’s Angelika, the medical student with a case of necrophilia, who steals men away from Heidi, the American teaching English in Prague, who’s desperate to hang out with cooler expats like Roger, the filmmaker from San Francisco, who’s collaborating on a project with Tyrone, the flamboyantly gay entertainer who carries a gun, and so on. All of these people are linked by the art community in Prague, and by the centripetal force of that forged painting. McCarthy has deliberately overloaded Men in Space with people, as if to prevent readers from identifying with anyone, and focus instead on a network of human connections. After building this fictional world, McCarthy methodically shuts it down, killing off the main characters as if he’s turning out the lights before leaving the room, turning the story into a self-contained system.

As with his other novels, McCarthy doesn’t so much argue his philosophy as depict it, over and over, in an endless series of analogies. Cooking meatballs, one chapter seems to say, is an example of the way McCarthy’s philosophy can bind the entire cosmos together. So is the art of forgery. So are the tramlines that crisscross Prague and Amsterdam, and the fate of a Soviet cosmonaut who’s been stuck in outer space ever since the USSR broke up, and soccer, the mob, the police, radio waves, and everything else that shows up in the novel. Even the image on the Byzantine painting—a primitive system of radio waves that brings its central figure close to transcendence—is an analogy for McCarthy’s ideas. He is not subtle. But he is persistent.

What makes McCarthy’s approach effective is its restraint. He doesn’t overreach by turning our networked existence into a symbol for anything, or a means to an end. He doesn’t say whether it’s good or bad. He just makes his observation and passes it along. To do anything more would violate his philosophy, which calls us to become open vessels for the messages that move through us.

And if McCarthy seems, at times, to be forcing his message, it’s worth noting that his flaws as a novelist actually reinforce his philosophy. If he repeats himself, it’s because he’s exploring the idea of repetition. If his writing is flat, it’s because he believes all life is essentially flat—in the sense of all things being equivalent. If the plot is disconnected, well, disconnection is the essential experience of our lives. McCarthy is a very flawed novelist, but he’s a cunning philosopher-novelist. Even his decision to write a novel is consistent with one of his themes: the imperative to revive dead forms of communication.

Ironically, Men in Space is McCarthy’s best book precisely because it’s his most realist, conventional one. In between the cosmic meatballs and the diagrammatic soccer games that bring his narrators to fits of rapture, McCarthy gives us real characters and some effective bursts of drama. There’s a police surveillance plot that reads, for a few pages, like a brilliant thriller. McCarthy is said to be re-engineering the novel. But he should learn from his own philosophy—and from his first-written book—that realist fiction is a type of transmission worth reviving over and over.

– Brian Hurley

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