Early in Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space, a Bulgarian football referee–turned-refugee named Anton Markov wonders “how it fits together, how it’s all connected.” In this case, the question is leveled at the twisty network of organ thefts, art forgeries, and black-market lemonade sales that make up the criminal syndicate to which Anton has been indentured. But the same could be asked of this book’s intricate story lines: the circuitous trajectory that Anton’s former neighbor Nick Boardman charts through the Prague art world on the eve of Czechoslovakia’s split into two republics, or of the Byzantine painting that Nick’s flatmate, Ivan, is forging on behalf of the mob. It could also be asked of the Soviet cosmonaut who, deprived of a country to return to, drifts through the ether. But Men in Space isn’t about how these characters intersect—it’s about how even in the aftermath of the iron curtain, the literal and occupational bohemians of McCarthy’s Prague remain divided by invisible walls.
Though it’s his third novel to be published in the US, Men in Space is McCarthy’s first book—conceived while he was himself an itinerant artist in 1990s Prague. Perhaps as a result, the prevailing sense is of an author stumbling upon his signature themes. Both of McCarthy’s subsequent novels benefited from strong central characters up to the task of sifting through their conceptually loaded environments: Remainder’s demented narrator transformed a single building into a reconstruction of his psyche, and C’s turn-of-the-century neurotic found his repressed desires encoded everywhere from WWI radio lines to ancient Egyptian tombs. In Men in Space, McCarthy has the run of a whole city, but the rotation through an enormous cast means that ideas are touched upon only to fragment before they can be fully developed.
A dizzying number of stories are begun: A crowd of art writers and poseurs fall in and out of bed with one another, Nick searches for a fabled phone booth that connects you to anywhere in the world for a crown, and Ivan gets in over his head with the Bulgarian mob. But for all its noir trappings, the gangster story line is never more than a tease. Instead, McCarthy spends almost as much time detailing Prague’s decrepit apartments, desolate parks, and dive bars as he does the characters who occupy them. Nick wakes in his atelier to pigeons clustered “above the grid of black wires that criss-cross the smog-stained skylight,” and Anton meets his handler in a ruined Soviet sculpture garden depicting “workers bending over lathes or blowing glass through long, trumpet-like tubes.” Even more puzzling are Men in Space’s recurring still-life tableaux, which are treated with far more care than the human relationships they’re meant to miniaturize. These include meatballs that take on the movements of heavenly bodies as they simmer in a pan, a mathematically bisected honeycomb, a playing card of all-purpose suit, and, my favorite, a black and yellow café—with a bee in it—where traffic wardens congregate in black and yellow uniforms.
The most exciting moments in Men in Space aren’t in the action—for instance, when a character suddenly plummets to his death—but in the connections you’re encouraged to make between that character’s fall and a saint in a stolen painting. And then again between that saint and the cosmonaut. This is heady stuff, and eventually our sympathy for the novel’s desperate expatriates is undermined by their interchangeability: We’re not here to witness their fate, but to appreciate the composition of their orbits.
With its reflexivity, pop parlance, and relentless ambition to deconstruct, Men in Space is clearly a first novel. But it’s also more than just a dry run for McCarthy’s more fully realized work. While C concealed its ideas behind carefully mimeographed action, in the more transparent Men in Space, the ideas are the action, and they gush out in waves. Eventually, even Anton gives up trying to figure out how the pieces fit together: Once his fortunes have shrunk to the size of a jail cell, he laments that “there’s no essential difference: you’ve got space, and then a person in it. The rest is contingent.”