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Men in Space

by Tom McCarthy

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Men in Space by Tom McCarthy
© Vintage
It is always slightly vertiginous to experience an author's early work after being dazzled by their recent output. This is an especially likely fate for fans of Tom McCarthy, whose recently released first novel Men in Space hardly reaches the awesome and inspiring heights of his following two books, Remainder and C. Remainder (a story of fallen space debris and the subsequent legal settlement) and C (an amalgamation of European history and the history of radio and sound transmissions) are not just great novels but exciting novels; they lavishly display McCarthy's unquestionable talent as an author but also showcase his deft ability to bend genres and language at his whim.

While still a fine novel, Men in Space lacks the controlled craftiness of McCarthy's later work and clings to a single (but quite complicated) central metaphor of outer space and orbiting systems. Set in Prague in the early nineties, the lasting pressures of the cold war and the space race linger on a network of star-gazing bohemian artists; mysteries of both scientific and political unknown creep into their lives as they're left unsuspectingly on the brink of world-altering advancements.

McCarthy's story doesn't function sequentially like a normal plot. In keeping with the novels central theme, the fractured threads in Men in Space work together more as a system then as a series of developments. Characters swirl around the story, orbiting ideas and events that are either too personal or too grandiose to appropriately connect to with multiple personalities. Instead, McCarthy drifts his readers past; major developments in the novel happen off the page, and are only mentioned when McCarthy's focus happens to land again on a relevant character. The dissolving of Czechoslovakia, for instance, plays a central role in the novel's development, but we're only aware of these political changes through a lens floating between attendees at a New Year's Eve celebration. By continuously maintaining this narrative drift even through the most dramatic turns, McCarthy is able to reinforce the idea that Men in Space is not just one character's tale, but a system of many.
Men in Space opens with Anton, who frequently assists his uncle with relatively small-scale criminal jobs. Their team has learned of a priceless icon painting that is to be transferred between collections and they make plans to intercept and copy the work with the help of a local artist, Ivan. Through Ivan, the novel's cast expands like a tree fractal; we meet roommates, gallerists, acquaintances and party-goers, and even nameless surveillance officers, all whirling around the fate of this stolen painting.

McCarthy even allows his characters to delve into some of the more complicated mathematics that lay under the surface of Men in Space. In one scene, Joost, the gallerist hoping to include some of Ivan's original works in an upcoming show, discusses some of the mathematical theories behind icon paintings in a letter to his partner:

I'd not realized the degree of coding that goes on in these religious paintings. There's the visual coding, of course - but also a whole system of pre-visual formulae that regulate the spatial layout of the whole thing. Pythagoeran and Platonic notions about geometric form get trawled through a medieval mesh to throw up the numbers three, four and one - corresponding to the shapes of the triangle (three sides), the square (four) and the circle (you guessed it: one)... anyway, it gets really complicated: modulations within these shapes require the artist to develop root rectangles from a given square, along the lines of √2 √3 √4 √5 etc, spirals within rectangles, pentagons within circles, Heaven knows what else...
Through moments like this and other heavily theoretical digressions scattered throughout the book, McCarthy shows his readers hints of the novel's potential depths: perhaps if one could visually map Men in Space's fragmentary progression, it too could be rendered into a perfect, golden spiral.

Yet, some characters in Men in Space step a little to close towards the foreground and could almost be considered principal protagonists of the novel. McCarthy allows Anton and Ivan's roommate Nick a lopsided amount of time in the novel's spotlight. This results in an enjoyable, developed read, but one that comes at the cost of a tightly worked central thesis.

Fans of McCarthy will certainly see where Men in Space fits into the author's canon, but it's likely most readers won't pick it up before being hooked by his later work. Still, Men in Space does prove that McCarthy's always been an ambitious writer, and one consistently capable of engaging even the most erudite readers.

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