Tom McCarthy’s first novel ‘Remainder’ was an unlikely bestseller. The chilly, highly formalised anatomy of an obsession (that of an unnamed narrator who has suffered an unspecified trauma), ‘Remainder’ was passed over by several mainstream publishers before being rescued from McCarthy’s bottom drawer two years ago by a small Parisian art press. It was subsequently acquired by the new independent imprint Alma Books and became a runaway word-of-mouth success.
It wasn’t only the publishers who didn’t know what to make of ‘Remainder’; it baffled the critics too. Even those favourably disposed towards it, like the novelist Joyce Carol Oates for instance, assumed that the narrator’s maniacal re-enactment of tiny fragments of his past (an undertaking which also involves the reconstruction of an entire apartment block) must have some sort of wider significance. ‘Remainder’, Oates wrote, is ‘not a psychologically intimate novel about a person, but an allegory of a contemporary Everyman’. McCarthy cheerfully acknowledges that ‘Remainder’ is not an ‘intimate’ book, but he’s not sure about its allegorical import. ‘It was also read as an allegory of US foreign policy post-9/11,’ he tells me. ‘And here the Times read it as a parable of consumer culture. The novel certainly opens up allegorical possibilities, but hopefully it should exceed them. Ultimately, it’s just a set of repetitions.’
The same might be said about his new novel ‘Men in Space’. Though it has a larger cast than ‘Remainder’, and is told mostly in the third person rather than the first, it too is ‘just a set of repetitions’. Indeed, the readerly pleasure to be had from McCarthy’s fiction derives not so much from its exploration of character (Oates was right about that) as from the way in which it is so elaborately patterned. ‘I’m not really interested in the kind of realism which is all about the feelings and emotions of a person. My characters or personages are negotiating and being shunted around a set of grids that are bigger than them and their feelings.’
McCarthy bristles, however, at the suggestion that he takes a purely formal delight in manipulating his figures in space. ‘I’ve heard people say that about Alain Robbe-Grillet – that his writing is so formal and so geometrical, just a set of exercises. But if you read him carefully, there’s a deep psychosis behind the formal play. And that’s absolutely the case in “Remainder”. But in “Men in Space” too there’s actually a lot of pathos, immense human dramas. It’s quite catastrophic.’
These ‘immense human dramas’, which include at least two deaths, unfold in Prague in the early 1990s, as Czechoslovakia is about to break in two. McCarthy moved to the Czech capital shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘It was a very fascinating time. For the first time ever in history, there was a poet, an absurdist playwright, running the country, and he filled parliament with his friends. So there was this bunch of artists, druggies and ne’er-do-wells running the place. I had the sense that I’d been lucky enough to live through something important and wanted to write about it.’
But ‘Men in Space’ is not, for all that, a historical novel. ‘It’s like when Scott Fitzgerald writes about the jazz age. He’s not writing a journalistic account of the characters who were around then: he’s using it as a backdrop for something else. What’s interesting beyond the specific historical event, the collapse of communism, is that it’s the collapse of totality. Once totality’s gone, what happens next?’
All the characters in ‘Men in Space’ – the small-time Bulgarian crooks, the former football referee, the secret police agent, the art students and artists, the Dutch gallery owner and the teachers of English – are waiting, waiting for some intimation or revelation of a new Europe that they’re not sure will ever come. In a sense, therefore, ‘Men in Space’ is a novel about waiting – just as ‘The Castle’ by Franz Kafka, a son of Prague himself of course, is a novel about waiting (K., remember, expires from the all the hours he spends in offices and ante-rooms waiting for appointments).
Plotting an elaborate scam, the Bulgarians pay a local artist to produce an exact facsimile of a medieval icon painting, which shows the ascension of an unidentified saint. But where Byzantine iconography usually depicts God in a circle around the saint’s head, here the head of the saint is enclosed in an ellipse, as if he is floating in a kind of cosmic void. It’s a motif that obsesses McCarthy. ‘Both my books are about failed transcendence and the ways in which we inhabit the world; the way the world disappoints us by making promises which it then doesn’t fulfill.’ In Tom McCarthy, English fiction has a new laureate of disappointment.
‘Men in Space’ is published by Alma Books at £12.99