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Absence of Gravity
on 19 May 2009
Tom McCarthy's "Men in space" is an exciting and thought-provoking novel. Whether it is as successfully deep as its most enthusiastic critics suggest is more questionable.
"Men in Space" is set mainly in Prague in 1992, in the temporal vacuum between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia. A stolen Bulgarian icon falls into the hands of a gang of criminals. They enlist an artist, Ivan Manasek , to copy it. The secret police, themselves caught between two regimes, close in. The action takes place against a backdrop of partying by overlapping circles of expat and local Bohemians, and is punctuated by the voice of a lone police operative. This begins as a plod-like intonation of the "I was proceeding in a North Easterly direction" variety and evolves into a crazed and at times touching existential riff. The main character, to the extent there is one, is Nick Broadaman, an art journalist and life model who shares various biographical details with the author.
The central image of the book is that of a Soviet cosmonaut abandoned in space following the collapse of the USSR (presumably this is based on the story of Sergei Krikalyov whose 311 days, 20 hours and one minute on Mir straddled the end of the regime. Although he was not actually stranded- several crew rotations took place during his tour - he was dubbed the "last Soviet Citizen" and commemorated in numerous poems and an opera). There are multiple references and correspondences to orbits, ellipses, falling men, Icarus, and space: "physical, political, emotional and metaphysical." These add fun and depth, but it is hard to say that they make this a philosophical novel any more than would clues planted throughout a successful crime story. McCarthy previously wrote a book of critical interpretation entitled "Tintin and the Secret of Literature" and describes himself as the Secretary General of the International Necronautical Society. It does not seem unfair to conclude that he is too artistically self-conscious by half.
McCarthy writes well. His prose is precise, powerfully descriptive and imbued with imagination and intelligence. His pace is good. The Bohemian scenes are convincing and entertaining. His exposition of iconography and descriptions of Manasek at work manage to be highly informative without becoming overly didactic. He successfully parodies a noir novel in the relevant part of his book.
In his acknowledgements, McCarthy thanks several people for helping shape a novel from what began as a "series of disjointed, semi-autobiographical sketches." This indirect apology to the reader is warranted. There are too many characters, too many scenes of sex, drugs and rock'n roll. Some episodes such as a particularly egregious masturbatory sequence should simply have been left out. The late switch in location to Amsterdam is unnecessary.
This is not to say that this is a bad novel - it is a good one, just not fully mature. In some ways, it is McCarthy's first novel even though it was published after "Remainder" (which itself has attracted an art-house following). It is not quite a consummate arrival, but is a clear promise of excellent things to come.