If Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space is “about” anything, it’s about people (most male) navigating the new spaces, both geographical and philosophical, created since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. They are only loosely tied to the country in which they live or work, and their relationships to other people have been compromised since the change in borders and allegiances. Where the “space” is that these men occupy is tenuously defined, but it dominates their every move.
Plot-wise, the novel is about the forgery of a strange iconographic painting. There is an eclectic cast of characters; each depicted in narration nuanced enough to easily differentiate them. No one character is dealt with long enough or described in such a way as to make him the main character, the hero, or the one we root for, which both amplifies and diminishes the novel’s power. It creates the philosophical meanderings on this theme—men in space—more interesting, as the reader must interpret different characters in different spaces. But this also develops into a novel without a soul. The concept is never gimmicky, but as characters drop off or wander to new spaces there is emptiness because the reader never truly knew who they were.
Anton just wants to leave Prague and go to the States with his wife and children, but his children would have to be kidnapped from their kidnappers for that to happen. Nick wants to be an art writer, but not in Prague. Joost, whose story is told through letters to his lover, wants to return but also wants to escape and find more art. There is a man wiretapping into all of these characters’ lives, going insane with the noise and information. There are also thieves, gangsters, artists, women from various backgrounds; expatriates all.
Much of the book describes these men and women going to parties, drinking, and doing drugs, with Art as a concept or event in every speech and room. McCarthy is able to give such specific life to his characters, though, that these potentially trite situations always have a pulse. A character might be mentioned walking through a room in one section, and then a section 50 pages later describes all that he was doing before and after walking through that room. Finding where the storylines intersect, and how McCarthy’s recurring motifs (which are repeated in even more detail in Remainder and C) involve the characters and repeat throughout the novel is fun to read. It’s a clever book.
I still found in wanting. Although newly released in the States, Men in Space is McCarthy’s first novel, and in sections it appears to be an exercise for what he would write later. The prose is the novel’s distinguishing quality: McCarthy twists you up with his words as often he does his motifs. But once the “plot” has been mostly resolved and a few of the more-likeable characters move on to other spaces, the interest that bound them together begins to thin. It loses a spark. Seeing this as a progression of the sociological concept is interesting, but as a fictional device it strains the reader’s interest.
“He can see the lines and vectors linking all these people to one another, the trajectories along which they’ve travelled to get where they are. And he can see something else as well—two things which, although small, are somehow even brighter than the bright structure around them… The lines from every other part of the structure are converging on these two: strands as thin and silky as those spiders’ threads that float above the frosted glass of pitches on cold winter mornings, but as strong and tenacious as suspension bridges’ cables. The strands converge on these two and then lead out again, separating, splitting, each heading their own way… And Anton can see that if he can just get to that point, feel out its axis… everything will move together in a way he wouldn’t ever have thought possible, until now…”
by Danielle Bukowski