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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.
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on 6 October 2007
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.
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on 8 December 2011
I thought Remainder a little overrated - a brilliant idea let down by less-than-brilliant humdrum prose. It read to me like a second draft, badly in need of honing and polishing.

Not so Men in Space - this is the best prose I've read in years: precise, poetic and alert. Even though very little really happens in the book (I was as uninterested in the perfunctory plot as McCarthy himself), its brilliant prose makes it a pleasure to read. I didn't want it to end. Superb dialogue too.

After Remainder, I thought that McCarthy was a highly intelligent (if slightly hipsterish) ideas man - but not a particularly talented writer. Men in Space proves that my assessment was b*llshit. He IS a brilliant writer, absolutely the real thing.

Next up: C. Can't wait.
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on 21 December 2010
This book is basically a collection of aimless, self-indulgent bloated descriptions of people and places - the majority of which are entirely irrevelevent and unrelated to the rest of the 'novel' as a whole. The fact that these descriptions are loosely linked together is not enough to make it worth reading. Do yourself a favour - go get a guide book and avoid the feeling of total let-down when you work your way through this and find there is nothing there. It is the literary equivalent of a top-spec digital camera in the hands of a random tourist. What it lacks is any interpretation of what it is pointing at.
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on 29 January 2008
Tom McCarthy's second novel, Men In Space, is a masterpiece. A painting on the white wall of a gallery that opens itself layer upon layer as you inspect it.

And there lies its greatest weakness. For it is a novel that by the very nature of reading spans days, weeks, months depending on the speed of the reader.
For whilst a painting can be observed in one glance and then explored whilst remembering the image as a whole, Tom's book fragments into separate satellites that orbit around each other obscuring the overall image.
The reader becomes lost, disorientated.
And as each satellite moves majestically through space following perfectly formed trajectories, under Tom's masterly use of words, the story stays elusive.

"It could be any space. It could be a hospital room, a lecture hall, a street or a sky beside a mountain, like where the saint is in that picture. There's no essential difference: you've got a space, and then a person in it."

Therefore I recommend you get shipwrecked or something and read this book in one go. (Tom helps you here with a clue as to how to read it: There are no chapters.)
I tried reading the last third of the book in a couple of sittings and was then able to see the beauty of the silent interlocking orbits of the satellites that Tom follows.

"-watching it mute gives it a quality it never had originally - a rich, alien feel, as though the characters were living in some kind of outer space."

So what are those satellites?

A stranded astronaut who has no country anymore to bring him home.
Anton Markov: A football referee with connections with Bulgarian gangsters.
Nicholas Boardaman: Anton's flatmate and an art critic
Ivan Manasek: An artist who has to copy a stolen painting
A disorientated Police Agent

Set in central Europe, Tom spins them around a stolen icon painting. And like in Remainder, his first novel, he seems to move them forward and then stops them and walks around them looking at them from different angles as they flay in the cold space of fallen
Communism.

"So now they're halted, slowed down by this weight she drags behind her like the moon drags all the oceans."

The manner in which Tom does this is astonishing.
Almost hypnotic.

If you like your books light and frothy, whilst drinking in Starbucks then stay away.
But if you like your literature to take you past the cake counter and cappuccinos and up through the ceiling in majestic arcs until you reach a space where fictional lives encircle you as you loose yourself to their silent rhythm, then pick it up and step through.
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on 5 October 2007
A superb novel from an author who in the space of two books has shown remarkable virtuosity, confidence and dexterity. Some similar themes to Remainder emerge but in many ways this strikes me as even more confident and daring. The intensifying minatory pulse of the second half of the book in particular makes it very difficult to put down. Absolutely the real thing!
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