Crowd Control to Major Tom
By Tom McCarthy
Originally published in the UK in 2007, Tom McCarthy’s second novel, Men In Space, is technically his first, as it was written nearly 15 years ago by a then unknown author in his late twenties. Although first published by a small European art press, McCarthy’s debut Remainder became something of a literary sensation when Vintage reissued it in the United States. Afterwards, McCarthy’s follow-up, C, was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize—a surprising choice, considering the author’s known for publicly complaining about the state of contemporary literature for what he calls its “sentimental humanism,”— abundantly found in, you know, recent Man Booker Prize-winning novels. “Kafka didn’t win any prizes,” was McCarthy’s characteristic response to the award. He wasn’t comparing himself to Kafka, to be fair, only pointing out the insignificance of prizes.
Set in Prague shortly after the fall of Communism, Men In Space introduces us to a group of mafia-like Bulgarians who deal hot cars and fake passports on the black market. The story is set in motion (albeit an orbiting motion) when the group plans to steal something different, a religious painting. Suddenly an ex-soccer referee gets mixed up with several young artists and ex-pats, including painters, filmmakers, curators, and even the occasional English teacher, all of whom take turns narrating the book in a rotational manner. Clues for how to decode the perplexing novel can be found in its epigraph, taken from a graduate student’s unpublished dissertation on Bachkovo ossuary mural painters: “Using inverted perspective and multiple points of view which they place within the painting itself, the Bachkovo masters set up a continuous style that enables them to represent several moments of a story on a single panel.”
If that sounds a lot like a collage, then good, because Men In Space is a very collage-like novel. Yet if it reads or feels like an early work, the reasons have nothing to do with its prose or scope, or anything else that might indicate the writer has not yet found his voice. Rather, it’s simply because so many popular debut novels of the last decade or so share certain commonalities. Think of, say, David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of The System or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: These books all have fragmented structures and a rotating cast of narrators. And indeed, you do not so much turn the pages of Men In Space as you adjust its dial tone. The thirty-five segments or transmissions (‘chapter’ is not quite the right word here. Remember the epigraph: “represent several moments of a story on a single panel”) that make up the book’s structure, narrated by ten different recurring characters, reflect the fragmentation of the novel’s setting: Czechoslovakia after the revolution, of a nation about to split in half.
Living out the twilight of their youth abroad in Prague, just before it was such a cliché to do so (think Kicking and Screaming), the young and mostly artist-bohemians of Men In Space search the streets (and not unnamed streets either, by the way: Vyšehradská, Sokolovna, Bubenečská, Apolinářská, Dejvická, V.P. Čkalova, Korunní, Lidická) for love, drugs, and art, but also work: any sort will do, even posing naked, just as long as it’s not teaching English, which for these young people is synonymous with tourism. As with the street names, everything from cafés to bridges, parks and metro stops receives its proper appellation, as if McCarthy, like the unnamed bloke from Remainder, was deeply concerned with being accused of the worst of charges: inauthenticity. The result, then, is a Slavic-language immersion experience for the reader. But beyond that, McCarthy depicts cosmopolitan street life with astonishing detail and humor. The passages are worth quoting at length, like this early one, from Anton’s perspective:
It’s the usual crowd: journeymen artists hawking sketches of the Staré Město skyline, or drawing people perched on the stools in front of them. Portréty (poetry), Karikatury (cartoons). Solitary violinist playing Mozart, red fingers poking through the ends of cut-off gloves, frosted breath drifting off the strings. Quartets of musicians playing more Mozart. Minstrels dressed in pseudo-eighteenth-century frills and stockings singing Mozart arias a cappella. Always fucking Mozart. There’s a quick-change artist doing the three-cups-one-ball trick, a troupe of red-nosed Slovakians in national costume twanging thick pieces of string attached to rough-cut wooden blocks. There are organ grinders; dreadlocked jugglers; hair-wrappers, cross-legged on woven mats; masseurs; tarot readers; puppeteers; men with parrots and boa constrictors; women selling tacky jewelry. And tourists, endless tourists, wearing brightly colored scarves and jackets, oozing and coagulating around maps and cameras like some dense, radioactive mass…”
The nameless police agent narrates most of the novel (ten sections) with a Beckettian “I” that grounds the entire storyline. Seven sections belong to a young man named Nicholas Boardaman—McCarthy’s most autobiographical character. It is Nick’s ambition to land a job at an art criticism magazine, somewhat like McCarthy did in real life as TimeOut Amersterdam’s literary editor. (Also, like Nick, McCarthy had a brief stint as a nude model.) Nick’s new friends, his eventual enemies, and the witty epistles from an eccentric art curator pining over his absent lover, split evenly the remaining sections of the novel. As much as the reader would like to think of Nick as being the novel’s protagonist, it is probably incorrect to do so. Indeed there are no “main characters” in Men In Space—only, well, men in space.
Anton, the former soccer referee and so-called “cultured” member of the Bulgarian group, enlists the help of a young artist named Ivan Maňásek, who turns out to be Nick’s friend and roommate, to copy “a religious painting, some kind of saint. You know the type…” While the original painting is smuggled overseas to America, the decoy or replica will replace the one at the gallery, fooling Interpol long enough to remove it from its international art-loss register. Or that’s the plan, anyway. Art mixing with fake art: it has become very familiar territory for McCarthy and, he would argue—as he has in many essays and interviews, pointing everywhere from Shakespeare to J.G. Ballard to Hergé (who intended to turn Tintin into a statue in his last unfinished adventure)—literature in general. Yet despite being described on three different occasions by page one hundred and twenty, no consensus about its appearance fully emerges among the characters; therefore, the reader doesn’t ever know what this mysterious soon-to-be smuggled painting actually looks like. It’s Rorschach test: each reader sees only his or her own projections in the painting. All we known for certain is that the painting features a Christ-like figure who nevertheless is definitely not Christ; but whether the figure is floating up to the stratosphere or down to the shore, we don’t know. Likewise, the square objects in the paintings are either cargo boxes, or some type of building blocks, or, as the surveillance agent believes, “fine-tuning listening devices.” In other words, transmitters.
Here’s the agent’s first attempt at describing the painting:
It depicted a male figure floating above a landscape. Below him were mountains, below these houses and, to the right of these, a large blue area across which square objects were being shunted or shuffled into position by small men.
Is the large blue area water? Klárá, an artist with a masters degree in icon painting, thinks so. Here’s her account:
To the ocean’s left is land, on which the standard topographic motifs can be found: a squat building with blackened windows at the bottom, then a mountain rising up from this, studded with bending trees—only the mountain also has some kind of very oddly formed birds flapping around on it, on ledges at its sides. The birds, if that’s what they are, seem to be keeling over backwards.
And this one from Joost in a letter to his boyfriend:
The subject itself showed a human figure floating above a sea, beside a mountain. There was a building at the bottom of the image, with blackened windows which reminded me of your studio on Windtunnelkade. They also looked like Maňásek’s own skylights, which are filthy. It was more than just a building: more a set of buildings joined together to form a kind of city, with staircases and levels running into one another like the Escher where the water runs round and round stone passages.
And so on. This discord between the characters concerning the contents of the painting pales in comparison to the kind of repetition used to brilliant effect in Remainder, where the same descriptions are repeated over and over again: Black cats on a red rooftop, the smell, spit and sizzle of fried liver, the old woman who throws away rubbish at the end of the stairwell, a piano repeating the same song, etc. These descriptions alter slightly, with additional details piling on top of one another, building in both clarity and momentum until finally a perfectly vivid picture appears inside the reader’s mind of the narrator’s absurd project: reconstructing the everyday-life details of the only day he can really remember, due to a never-disclosed traumatic accident. In juxtaposition, the above repeated and at times tedious descriptions of the painting in Men In Space seem purposely obscure. It’s a MacGuffin! But it seems impossible that a painting could provoke so many different interpretations, and besides, McCarthy’s many renderings of it leaves little but murky images in the mind. The beauty of Remainder was that it was art that could be, as Chekhov once put it, “grasped at once—instantaneously.”
A strange tic in the way McCarthy writes dialogue shows up in Men In Space, as it does in Remainder and C. Things are never clearly heard or properly understood the first go round. People are constantly asking to have repeated back to them what was just said: “What?” “Sorry?” “Hello?” These questions at times get more specific, but their function never fully changes, which is, to propel or withhold narrative action (“Seven?” “A pedal?” “Loyalty Card?”). In Remainder, it’s almost as if when writing the novel McCarthy not only anticipated his reader’s reactions, but included them as well:
“Re-enactors?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him. “Re-enactors.”
You can imagine readers, too, asking themselves “Re-enactors?” just when the protagonist’s friend and “facilitator,” Naz, asks it. Such examples of misunderstanding and mishearing abound in the books. These are from C: “Catatomb.” “A cat a-what? Ah, yes,” ‘Catatomb’? says Carrefax, “a catatomb: that’s good.” “Most of these top ones are mastabas…”“Masturwhat?” asks Serge.’
McCarthy fills nearly every conversation with such interjecting questions, resulting in puns and gags. Not only does Men In Space begin with men telling jokes, but thirty pages in the reader is presented with a hopeless telephone conversation between Nick and a non-native English speaker. These puns and miscues may be a sort of Joycean tribute, or even an homage to Jacques Derrida, one of McCarthy’s major influences. But that only tells the half of it.
McCarthy’s own literary criticism gives us more of an explanation on his aesthetic intentions. “The narrative (as in, narrative in general) sets up obstacles: delays, snares, partial or suspended answers and straightforward ‘jamming,’” writes McCarthy, essentially applying the work already done by Roland Barthes in S/Z, which was about another book, Balzac’s Sarrasine, in his own study Tintin and The Secret of Literature.
There are sections in the novel where the reader may feel lost in space, particularly in the beginning, because of all this “jamming,” and yet, as Joost writes in a letter, “An innate aesthetic sense prevents the experiment from becoming a mere hotchpotch of marks and interventions.” Joost is writing to express his delight and dismay at the collage-art methods of Ivan Maňásek, but his analysis could easily fit as a blurb for Men In Space.
Asked how he was feeling the morning after he learned about C’s short-list nomination for the Booker Prize, McCarthy claimed, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about feelings.” McCarthy has written so often about his debt to Derrida that the above interview put me in mind of something the philosopher wrote in The Post Card, one of McCarthy’s favorite books: “There is someone in me who kills with a burst of laughter whoever appears to find it necessary, opportune, important to say what he thinks, feels, lives, or anything you like.”
McCarthy’s fourth novel is already in the works. It’s titled: Satin Island. What’s that you say, Staten Island? No, I said Satin Island!
Christopher Urban is a writer living in New York City. This is his first piece for Open Letters Monthly.