Men in Space is getting a curiously high profile release for what is the sporadic, decidedly first novel by British author Tom McCarthy. It was belatedly released in the UK in 2007, after the underground hit Remainder, and is only recently released in the United States. It was first written in the late ‘90s, inspired by McCarthy’s expatriate days in Prague, and it’s imbued with the youthful enthusiasm, both endearing and annoying, that one uses when describing their first international adventures. The book has the patchwork quality of a work from a still gestating writer, but McCarthy’s voice and chief obsessions, mainly the intersections and missed connections between people and technologies are very much in evidence.
In the acknowledgements at its closing McCarthy writes that, “The manuscript of Men in Space has had a long gestation. It started as a series of disjointed, semiautobiographical 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.” This serves as an appropriately velvet-gloved apology for what McCarthy must recognize is not his best work, and the reasons for which it was not published until he had gained further renown.
The opening pages comprise brief vignettes from the point of view of different characters living in Prague in the early ‘90s, just prior to Czechoslovakia’s split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The characters are primarily artists, immigrants, and expats from Eastern Europe, the United States and Britain, including Nick, a British aspiring writer seemingly standing in for McCarthy. These sketches have the undoubted air of a young writer inspired by his surroundings but not sure what to make of it.
The city and its time are lovingly rendered from the geography of the old city to the expat bars and clubs and the petty politics of a shiftless transitory community. He describes Nick riding Prague’s signature yellow-and-red trams, “He loves riding the wake, leaning on the rail against the window watching the tracks appear from underneath as though the tram itself were ploughing them, churning them up while the box on its roof trailed cable like a spider spinning thread above: making the world by moving through it.”
A more confident and developed writer might have used the strengths of these vignettes and their experimental possibilities to make-up the entire novel, as Gilbert Sorrentino did in Steelwork. There’s a satisfying open-endedness to their initially frayed and tangentially connected ends. But McCarthy gradually develops a story involving a Bulgarian art forgery ring, a Czech painter, and the secret service squad attempting to take them down. While there are elements of the forgery, particularly involving the descriptions and discussions of medieval icon painting, that are quite striking, this plotline frequently delves into clichéd writing, as in an obligatory Kafkian interlude at a prison that reads like a television procedural.
The descriptions of the Bulgarian criminals are particularly regrettable, too often aiming for the film noir hipness redolent of the post-Tarantino ‘90s and betraying the author’s prematurity. “Mila’s still talking, but he hasn’t turned his head even half round and there’s a loud rattling coming from the car’s boot, muffling his words.”
Other than trusting and going with the strength of his material, the novel’s other great, youthful weakness is McCarthy’s insistence on hammering home the novel’s themes of postmodern alienation (a theme now so thoroughly tired and of its time as to again render the book a time capsule). Lest one not grasp from the title that this book is about how the characters are set within and apart defined spaces, he makes endless references to a Ukrainian cosmonaut being stranded in space, contains a set piece at a space-themed birthday party, has a character who has studied astronomy, and frequently has his characters muse on various elements of space. (Another common fault of a young writer – the characters frequently stop to discuss matters of thematic exposition in a stilted manner.) This from the regrettable character of Tyrone, a flaming black American performance artist, “The poor sister can’t come down because there ain’t no Soviet Union to come back down to!”
There are some understated strengths in McCarthy’s use of technology as a marker of alienation, as in the frustrations of making international phone calls in the pre-wireless age and the eavesdropping equipment used by a detective tracking the art forgers. McCarthy would later expand on these ideas in his novel, C, and write about it in the nonfiction book Tintin and the Secret of Literature: “The casting and consuming of voices are sometimes done by mouths and ears alone, but they are mostly done by technology….Herge’s transmission zones are also hermeneutic zones. full of enigmas which need solving.” The novel’s structural strength in this thematic regard is how the action becomes increasingly untethered, geographically and in the communication methods and language used by the characters, as the action progresses.
To my mind the only novel that McCarthy has released so far that has managed to encapsulate his promise, ideas, and experimental leanings propagated by his essays is Remainder, about a young man who uses a financial windfall to repeatedly recreate a car accident and then his life in painstaking detail (the book benefited from being released prior to Charlie Kaufman’s similarly conceived film Synecdoche New York). So much about that book is original and successfully accomplished – the main character’s voice, the structure, the conveyance of themes – that it manages to be experimental without reading like an experiment.
Men in Space, however, is the work of a talented young writer who has not yet developed the difficult ability to thoroughly conceive at the scale of a novel.