Men In Space by Tom McCarthy
In Tom McCarthy's first novel Remainder everything stems from 'something falling from the sky'. What it is that falls we are not told beyond the fact that it was 'Technology. Parts, bits'. This is because one of the conditions of the compensation package which leaves our protagonist £8.5 million richer is that he doesn't discuss 'the incident' which has left his memory impaired. Bold and atmospheric, packed full of images and ideas Remainder was my favourite book of last year, of many years in fact, it was a book which really excited me. It was also great to see a book initially published by a very small outfit (Metronome Press, Paris) go on to achieve critical success and further publishing deals here and abroad.
McCarthy's next novel thrusts in the other direction with things ascending into the sky. Above a fragmenting Europe a Soviet cosmonaut is stranded in orbit. With the Soviet Union breaking up 'like pool balls separating on the break' there is no state prepared to pay for his journey home. Set in Europe during the fall of Communism and the splitting up of Czechoslovakia the novel is populated by artists, criminals, the police and an Englishman abroad; Nick, who is based loosely around McCarthy himself. All of these rootless characters are floating around Europe like the other man in space. Remainder was narrated with a clear, almost clinical tone but this novel is filled with a myriad of competing voices and the start of the novel is a little like tuning in a radio.
Part of the plot involves a stolen icon painting which is to be copied by an artist, Ivan Manásek. There is something 'wrong' with this particular picture, the signs and symbols so rigidly adhered to by the icon painters of history seem to have been played with and the saint that is ascending into an ellipse serves as another strong visual metaphor. The scene where Manásek actually makes his copies is a fantastic piece of writing, vividly creating the fervour and attention to detail of the artist at work. In fact the novel is filled with good writing. The party scenes are well written by McCarthy who was living in Prague at the time of the creation of the Czech Republic. And elsewhere the prose is again heavy with visual imagery and metaphors, which like the signs and symbols of the icon painting feel loaded with import and meaning.
Deciphering that meaning is the tricky part and the problem with this book is that there are too many strands, too many unfulfilled characters to make a satisfying whole. McCarthy admits that Men In Space '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'. The book confirms that McCarthy is a writer to watch and to take seriously but it will probably be the next novel proper which gives us an idea of what he is capable of.