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Men in Space – Tom McCarthy

June 19, 2011

I saw this item at my local book store on the shelf reserved for sale-price items. I nabbed it, recognizing the name as that man who had written C – a nominee for last year’s Man Booker Prize. I had not yet read that book, but I have heard it is fantastic. And that the other book that people speak about when they speak about Tom McCarthy, Remainder, is also reportedly fantastic (conveniently, it was located right beside Men in Space on the sale-price shelf, and it was also collected for my book shelf). How could I go wrong in picking up this book, reading it – surely I will fall in love with it.

Right?

Men in Space is about life in Czechoslovakia as it becomes a Republic, and the reign of the Soviet States collapses in eastern Europe. Or, that is what the back of the book told me. It is, more specifically, about an attempted art heist, using the confusion of a new state to successfully transport a one-of-a-kind religious icon. Impossible to explain, completely unique. Christ-like but entirely anti-Christ-like. A unique piece of art.

Admittedly, the book lost me early on. There are many characters, many narrative styles. Some of the voices that are used are quite interesting. One of them, the personal records of a surveillance officer who feels increasingly neglected by his commanders and starts to go deaf as a result of his work (he specializes in audio surveillance), is quite interesting. Some golden moments of character are wrapped up in his narration. Others are completely forgettable, interesting in the instant that they are read, but not interesting afterwards.

Men in Space is not one of those books that you read and get slapped in the face with a theme. It feels like a movie plot written out in book form. And it likely would make more sense in that format.

Not that it is nonsensical. One of the features I noticed late in the novel was just how tightly constructed the novel was. And soon after I started reading I realized that I was in for a treat in reading – there are moments where the writing is simply sublime:

Behind these people, perched at tables, groups of American collegiate types. They’re talking politics, shouting above the music and each other. They’re discussing the splitting of Czechoslovakia that’s to take place in – what, less than one hour from now, the reconfiguration of Europe it’ll bring about. The phrase transitional geographies keeps coming up: one guy keeps saying it and another jumps up each time and shouts Fuck your transitional geographies! East Coast, probably: Yale or Princeton. Mladen’s seen the films: woollen sweaters and striped scarves, clean young boys running after girls in pleated skirts who look like Heidi, only slightly pretier, and clutch books to their chests. Frat parties. Weird rites.

A little further down the bar is some Czech kid whose face is vaguely familiar: classical, high-chekboned, blond locks swept across the forehead. Mladen knows that face, from a gig maybe, only then it belonged to a girl. Or to a girl and a – yes, that’s right, it’s David, one of those twins Roger, at that party, just before he got his eyebrow cut, said came ftraight off the one-hundred-crown note: the peasants. David’s standing at the bar alone, looking down into a beer, morose.

Quite enjoyable to read. And impressive construction of details. So what is missing?

Characters. Setting. Circumstance. Motive.

Nobody, no place, leaps from the pages and fills your imagination. I kept thinking I was missing this in the pages – perhaps there were sentences fit in between the lines of text on the pages that my eyesight was not allowing me to see. Blind to important information, I continued to read that which I could see and was only getting half the story. Half of the ideas. Incomplete characters, flattened.

And the voice, which only occasionally was given to a character that really impressed you, was transferred from one character to another too quickly – so characters never developed a personality. Or circumstance. Or place. They just seemed to be characters in a story about something that was bigger than they were – but still managed to be boring. Boring despite the considerable research that surely went into it; the amount I learned about Art History in Easter Europe in the 1800s was shocking.

And yet I did not care. Nothing clicked.

About 60 pages from the end, exhausted and hoping I could just breeze through it, I turned to the end. Just to see if maybe, just maybe, the book had magically reduced it’s size and thus my commitment to it. I started reading the acknowledgements. And this is part of what it shared with me:

The manuscript of Men in Space has had a long gestation. It started as a series of disjointed, semi-autobiographical sketches written in what seems like another era, and grew into one long, disjointed document from which a plot of sorts emerged from time to time to sniff the air before going to ground again. That it eventually found a kind of warped coherence as a novel about disjointedness and separation is to a large extent thanks to the intervention through the years of several people…

Well then, now it makes sense. I am not liking this novel because it was never meant to be a novel. And the novel is about being disjointed – no wonder it makes me feel that way as a reader. What a masterful construction technique – if only the theme had played out that well in the text. Some of these people feel disjointed. Others feel connected, in round about ways, to other characters in unexpected ways. And they are not likeable (lies, three or so of them are. Two of these die, the third, as mentioned above, loses his hearing and starts getting paranoid).

Moreover, you can feel, in the last 20 pages, how Mr. McCarthy tries to connect the novel into a coherent story, drawing on the symbolism of the entire novel. The painting. A man in space nobody wants to take credit for. And these pages are enjoyable, if lacking in power. None of these symbols were used consistently enough, or explained well enough, to justify their involvement in the conclusion.

This novel would likely have been a more enjoyable movie than book. It’s pacing and story is more akin to that media – and certainly any novel that makes frequent reference to a painting and it’s features would benefit enormously from the visual aids of a film. As a novel, it fails. But I am willing to give the author a second chance eventually – I do already own another one of his works. I just hope that Remainder is much better than Men in Space ever got to be.

Not recommended.

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