More about Tom McCarthy’s forthcoming Men in Space, which I promise will not be all I write about until (and after) I get my hands on a copy:
So what’s the book like? Pretentious and unreadable? Too ludic for its own good? Far from it. It is set in central Europe in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Much of the action takes place in Prague, where McCarthy lived for a couple of years in the early 1990s. The narrative progresses in fragmented chunks, each one written from loosely the point of view of one of the book’s motley characters.
The unifying element is a thriller-like plot concerning small-time Bulgarian mobsters who want to smuggle a stolen religious icon to the West. Working for this bunch of knuckleheads is a former referee called Anton Markov, who compulsively tells appalling jokes. His job is to find an artist who can make a copy of the painting accurate enough to fool the authorities, and he tracks down a talented bohemian called Ivan Manasek who says he’s up to it.
Manasek lives in a gloriously dilapidated Prague apartment with a young Englishman called Nicholas Boardaman, who is bumming around before starting a job at an art journal based in Amsterdam. Interspersed with these strands is the first-person narrative of an anonymous secret service operative monitoring Markov’s associates.
There are some priceless descriptions of counter-culture Prague, including a set-piece that details a Factory-style party in a French artist’s studio populated with beatniks, transvestites and an array of “artistic” types desperate to get wasted. There are also some tense moments when Markov is brutally interrogated by the police and then handed over to his gangster friends, who suspect him of double-crossing them.
But, really, the novel works best when viewed as a study of displacement and isolation, suggesting that we are all trapped within our own skulls like prisoners left to moulder in oubliettes. Few of the characters ever connect with one another. There are repeated images of planets hurtling through space, their orbits rarely intersecting with those of other celestial bodies.