Stillpoint Staff Series: A Review of Men in Space by Alexander Sheldon

Set in a Central Europe disintegrating after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Men in Space, a 2007 novel by British author Tom McCarthy, provides the stage for an eclectic cast of misplaced characters to intersect briefly in Sofia, Bulgaria before scattering across the globe. The trajectory the characters take resembles the literary style that McCarthy has mastered- one of circling, equivocal semantic links, and ambiguous images, words, and syntax that gives unprecedented life, chaos, and innovation to the medium itself. In Men in Space, McCarthy challenges assumptions of realism, and of basic principles of the novel, through imbuing everything his cast touches with an uncertain subjectivity. Coherence in the novel is denied by the introduction of images and conversations whose contexts are not discernible without information provided countless pages later. Images, and words themselves, are never constant- a central motif of the novel, a painting of a saint, is, for example, represented and perceived differently by all characters who encounter it. Words, like Space in the novel’s title, are similarly used by McCarthy in a manner that is indefinite and reliant always upon context and perspective- McCarthy’s words frequently touch all possible definitions without ever settling on one; space seems to refer one moment to the novel’s prevailing motif of spaceships, while at the next it seems to recall the characters’ being little more than blots of matter taking up physical space.

The novel in its early stages builds up connections between bohemian young adults all linked by the recreation and subsequent disappearance of a mysterious painting; with the ushering in of a new year and a new nation, as a chunk of Czechoslovakia is rechristened the Czech Republic, the idea of rebirth is annihilated as the narrative immediately starts to fracture, harshly- a practice it commits to until its end, falling apart, crumbling in its latter stages, as the ambiguity of words and symbols is heightened until all objects and speech are distorted beyond recognition. The novel itself can be liked to its description of “a disintegrated fuselage of something that was once beautiful, fallen back to Earth after an aborted flight.”

A critic of McCarthy’s likens his works to the “paradoxical remainder of the novel form after everything novel has been subtracted from it.” A reading of Men in Space is, undoubtedly, nothing less than a transport away from earth; however, from McCarthy’s destruction of coherence and distancing from all conventions, a truly novel experience is bequeathed. Men in Space manages to oppose postmodern uncertainty and ambiguity of an unparalleled degree against masterful prose, beautiful, if confusing, description, and a breakneck pace that immerses the reader into changing, confusing, and yet shimmering European settings, themselves prisms glinting a different color to each character that encounters them. A reading of Men in Space is a disorienting experience, though if its vertigo is endured, a network of intricately woven images, themes, and ideas will be gleamed and shine brightly across its pages.

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