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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Men in Space

by
Tom McCarthy


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Men in Space



Title: Men in Space
Author: Tom McCarthy
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 278 pages
Availability: Men in Space - UK
Men in Space - Canada
Les cosmonautes au paradis - France

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing, but too unfocussed

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 15/9/2007 Alfred Hickling
The Observer . 9/9/2007 Lee Rourke
The Telegraph . 13/9/2007 Alastair Sooke
The Times . 6/10/2007 Philip Oltermann
TLS A- 12/10/2007 Toby Lichtig


  Review Consensus:

  Favourable.

  From the Reviews:
  • "McCarthy's multi-levelled story-telling method seems to signify his own aspiration to narrate transcendence. (…) McCarthy writes with devastating charm and lucidity -- there's scarcely a loose sentence in the book. Yet the skittish, fractured nature of the composition leaves much that feels inadequately explained. There are too many characters whose significance remains unclear, a series of deaths left teasingly ambiguous, and a plethora of extremely similar party scenes which blur into a single hangover. What is it that actually lies at the heart of this bewildering universe of signs ?" - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "It is a novel that practically rattles with noise. Just like his debut, though, it is a studied novel of ideas that is unlike many others we might read this year. (…) Although set in Prague following the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe this is not a historical novel. These events merely serve as a backdrop against which to play out a more classical pattern of disintegration and failed transcendence, a failure repeated through all time: a kind of Beckettian 'present' of being in the world and heading out of it. (…) Like any great painting, Men in Space is a novel that invites the reader in, closer and closer, until each delicate stroke of McCarthy's coded brush is revealed. (…) In unravelling the defining minutiae of an event in history, he manages to reveal to us the widening disintegration of our own present." - Lee Rourke, The Observer

  • "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. (...) In places, Men in Space feels misshapen and overlong (...) But it is also quietly off-the-wall, reflective and fairly fun." - Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph

  • "Men in Space is not just like art, it’s about the art world. Caught up with its own construction, drawing parallels and matching up situations, it sometimes feels more like a Miró mobile than a Rauschenberg happening -- finely balanced and lovely to look at, but a bit inconsequential. It works largely because McCarthy draws on sources less esoteric than he might care to admit." - Philip Oltermann, The Times

  • "All this floating and splintering is not as forbidingly explicit as it sounds; and McCarthy does give us space to tease out the meanings of his metaphysical geometry -- the angles of relation between beings and events, the dimensions of reality and verisimilitude. Sometimes, however, especially before the novel picks up pace, the cleverness gets in the way. This is a work that benefits from a second reading. (...) Tom McCarthy has drawn intelligently on his literary antecedent; but Men in Space is an original work in its own right, a confident and intelligent meditation on failed flights of transcendence." - Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his Acknowledgements Tom McCarthy describes the "long gestation" of Men in Space:

It 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. That it eventually found a kind of warped coherence as a novel about disjointedness and separation is to a large extent thanks to the intervention of several people.
       Set for the most part in Prague in the early 1990s, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the middle of their split, it is, indeed, a tale of a different time. Unfortunately, McCarthy is far, far from the first to do the Mitteleuropean revel-in-the-immediate-post-Communist-era story -- though at least readers are spared yet another American-in-Prague variation, with the main Western character an Englishman named Nick Boardaman (presumably the semi-autobiographical reflection of author McCarthy). But at least otherwise the novel is mainly populated with Eastern Europeans, and some of these are fairly interesting, in particular the Bulgarian Anton, a former football (soccer) referee and now a fairly lowly underling in a well-connected international criminal gang, and the Czech artist Ivan Patrik Manásek (in whose atelier Nick is living).
       Dislocation is one of the themes of the novel, with many characters floating around Prague more or less aimlessly, not quite sure of their futures (in a country which itself continues to undergo wrenching changes). A running joke, which isn't a joke, is about the Soviet cosmonaut who was shot into space before the Soviet Union collapsed, and whom no one will now take responsibility for -- and so, yes, many of the characters in the novel are 'men in space' just like him .....
       A good deal -- too much -- of the novel recounts encounters, parties, New Years' celebrations. McCarthy has a solid touch but not enough of this is compelling, the characters' uncertain, loose ends too loose. If the dramatic arcs aren't taut enough, at least they're there: from Nick eventually heading to Amsterdam (a very different kind of city, so regulated that as a foreigner "you need three ratified, stamped forms to fart") for a job to a police agent listening in on some of the characters to Dutchman Joost travelling around Eastern Europe looking for art for an exhibition he's putting together there are some interesting perspectives here. But the dominant storyline is about the gang Anton works for trying to smuggle a Bulgarian icon to America. In order to do that they need a perfect copy -- and it's Manásek they hire to make it.
       The plan is a fairly clever one, even as it doesn't work out quite as the principals had planned, and McCarthy utilises the idea very well. For one, there's the whole idea of reproduction -- with copying not quite what we'd normally consider it for an artwork of this sort, since:
for zographs, copies aren't secondary pieces. They're iterations of the same sacred event. Each time you iterate you partake of the event: belong to it, as much as the last iterator did.
       And Manásek certainly partakes with a particular intensity (McCarthy nicely capturing the artistic fervour he gets caught up in) -- which also turns out to have consequences for all involved.
       The artwork itself is also a remarkable piece:
     "It's strange, huh ?"
     "It's not right.
       McCarthy handles this strangeness well -- without overdoing it, either, not losing himself (or his whole novel) in its mystery of codes, signs, and symbols but still using it very effectively.
       More problematically, a lot of people wonder why anyone needs a copy of this icon -- but don't wonder hard enough:
     "Why does he want it copied ?"
     "He didn't say."
     "That's really weird."
       And, unfortunately, that's also that, for these and most of the other characters, even when the most likely answer is staring them in the face.
       The suspense of whether the smuggling-ploy will work out helps hold the reader's attention. Men in Space isn't primarily an international art-caper, but the thriller-basis is solid enough (and executed well enough, with a couple of very good twists) that it's a winning effort in this regard. Other aspects, however, bog down the narrative: it's over-populated, and McCarthy tries to weave a few too many threads together, some of which are markedly less compelling than others. That many of the characters are adrift is also readily apparent, and there's no need for him to demonstrate it so explicitly (and at such length).
       There's good detail throughout but so much of it that it makes for a density that makes for heavy reading. McCarthy is good, but he's not that good -- not here -- that he can get away with that. Still, as a first effort -- and despite being published after the remarkable Remainder, it is surely, in essence and presumably also in fact, an earlier work -- it's impressive enough, and worth a look.

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Links:

Men in Space: Reviews: International Necronautical Society: Tom McCarthy: Other books by Tom McCarthy under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Tom McCarthy was born in 1969.

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© 2007-2008 the complete review

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