In 2005, London-based artist and writer Tom McCarthy published his debut novel, Remainder, the tale of a man who wakes from a coma following an undisclosed accident to find himself the recipient of a windfall of millions of pounds in compensation. Remainder became a cult success; breathless reviews, book deals and film companies vying for the rights followed with such remarkable rapidity that one was left wondering at just which dark, foggy crossroads in east London McCarthy had been offered a Faustian bargain he couldn’t refuse.
With their shared themes of repetition, authenticity and forgery, it is fitting that McCarthy began work on his new novel, Men in Space, before Remainder. Set between Amsterdam and Prague following the collapse of communism, Men in Space weaves together what was originally a set of semi-autobiographical pieces based on McCarthy’s own time spent living in those cities. Through a dizzyingly multi-perspectival narrative, McCarthy leads the reader into a heady world of Czech artists, Anglo-American expats, small-time Bulgarian crooks and secret police, thrown into each other’s lives by the pursuit of a rare, stolen icon painting, the arcane symbolism of which – an oval-shaped halo, a ship being dismantled at sea, a flock of humanoid birds – is deftly mirrored elsewhere in the plot, most clearly in the rumours of an astronaut sent into space before the fall of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 but now stranded in orbit as the former Soviet states argue over who is responsible for him. McCarthy’s characters trace elliptical orbits around each other, as if locked into flight patterns beyond their control – for instance, the dissolute routines of the artistic subculture enjoying the liberating oxygen of Vaclav Havel’s new government, or the unnamed radio surveillance operative doggedly carrying out his job long after his paymasters have been smothered by the Velvet Revolution – giving age-old themes of predestination and self-determination a crisply contemporary twist.
McCarthy’s extensive knowledge of Prague and Amsterdam lends Men in Space a keen edge of authenticity that underpins its strange conjunctions of events. His evocation of the carefree lifestyle of expat writers and artists in mid-1990s Prague is often hilarious; brattish college kids desperate to convince those around them that they’d ‘gone native’ in eastern Europe, playing out fantasies of being Ernest Hemingway in postwar Paris. McCarthy’s prose is forensic, subjecting everything from Czech snacks to ancient landmarks to his taxonomic gaze. The increasingly unhinged surveillance reports, which punctuate the principle narrative, are written with a relish for bureaucratic terminology, and function like steel blades cutting through the easy warmth of the dialogue. In Remainder, McCarthy’s assiduous detailing of routes through London serves to emphasize the central character’s pathological desire to replicate the minutiae of his life; in Men in Space his unusual approach, if only very occasionally stalling otherwise fluid prose, effectively expresses McCarthy’s fascination with the ways in which we subject ourselves to systems and patterns: ‘Anton had jokingly complimented her on her national achievements as they left and wandered up Boulevard Tsar Osvoboditel towards the Largo – she thinking that she’d catch the trolley bus on Narodno Sabranie, and then, when they’d wandered past there, that she’d walk on to Knaginya Marie-Luiza and catch one there …’. Men in Space is a compelling and imaginative philosophical novel; McCarthy describes a world in which we are only occasionally party to brief, frightening intimations of greater forces at work, like the mysterious half-tuned transmissions at the ends of a radio dial.