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Death in Space

Vampires and necronauts in the real fictions of Tom McCarthy

The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy. Knopf, 338 pages.

Whether you see the British novelist Tom McCarthy as the standard-bearer of today’s avant-garde in fiction, as Zadie Smith enthusiastically argued in her now famous 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel” in the New York Review of Books, or whether you’re inclined to side with McCarthy’s more reserved critics, such as Amanda Claybaugh, whose n+1 overview (“McC,” in 2011) sees McCarthy’s work as reinvigorating the tradition of realism anew, the publication of The Making of Incarnation is probably not going to alter your stance. Either way, it’s safe to say that “whereas the novels of Balzac or Dickens do not require a reader since they perform all the latter’s work themselves,” McCarthy’s own writing “calls for active readers who will piece it all together.” That’s something Alain Robbe-Grillet said about his own writing to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in an interview that McCarthy cites in his essay collection, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, but the claim holds true for the author’s own work as well. Not unlike the ubiquitous figure-eight patterns in McCarthy’s latest novel, the reader receives back from it not approximately but precisely what she’s able, by will or capacity or limitations, to put into it.

The Making of Incarnation reads like a “best of” compilation (in a good way) of McCarthy’s previous works, with all the usual elements present, from authenticity to reenactments, elliptical patterns and repetitions, to networks and outer space, the Cold War, and, of course, puns. The book is ostensibly about the making of a space opera film titled Incarnation, a pulpy sci-fi epic featuring a Han Solo-like star captain (Tszvetan) and a captured fiery princess (Tild). Omnisciently narrated and scattered throughout, this sci-fi novella embedded within the book runs parallel to a main storyline that’s concerned with the “real” characters (motion capture experts, astrophysicists, NASA consultants, hydraulic engineers, psychologists, archivists, academics, acrobats, bobsled teams), who, willingly or not, help make this mediocre Hollywood blockbuster as realistic and successful as possible. Its roving cast of alternative narrators serves the book’s structure well and will be familiar to readers of Men in Space, McCarthy’s first (although secondly published) novel, which is set in Prague during the waning days of the Soviet Union.

The main protagonist of The Making of Incarnation, insofar as there is one, is the Pynchonly named Mark Phocan (marker of photons, main focus, etc.), who’s something of a luminary in the motion capture industry. A brilliant early section depicts “Markie” as a child growing up in London in the 1970s. On a class field trip to the Tate, his attention is held in rapture by a strange painting vividly rendered through McCarthy’s ekphrastic prose, Joan Miró’s Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird. It’s a tour-de-force chapter; everything from the busy traffic jams to students lining up at the museum’s steps to vomit is depicted through a geometrical lens. Markie’s concentration on the impossible geometry of the surrealist artwork is broken only when a fellow student eggs him on to unwittily reenact the painting. Markie throws his winter glove folded into a makeshift ball over to the student, hitting him on the top of the head (the boy immediately plays dead), which then sends the glove-ball caroming off and landing against the priceless painting on the wall, sounding the alarm.

From there, Mark’s taken into a dark, crypt-like bunker of a security room and invited to rewatch himself on replay on the multi-screens showing the camera’s footage. Seeing himself on the various grid screens, in different places, from multiple angles, rewatching what’s already occurred, seals Markie’s fate in the Freudian sense. Traumatized and fascinated by all that’s occurred during this pivotal moment in his young life leads him down a path in the mo-cap industry, working for a hip firm, Pantarey, who’s tasked with consulting for the equally cool production company named, with a nod to Barthes, Degree Zero. These kind of start-ups and tech companies would easily fit with the ones U., the protagonist of Satin Island, consults for as a Corporate Anthropologist of the Present. Much like that novel, readers would do well to heed U.’s warning: “Events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now.”

I Am Vampire

In his 2015 Guardian essay, which ran with the unfortunate headline “The Death of Writing—if James Joyce were Alive Today He’d be Working for Google,” McCarthy confesses his fascination with the figure of the anthropologist, then proceeds to bemoan the difficulties of writing fiction in our technological age. According to McCarthy, anthropologists can just get on with their work as pure documentarians and not have to deal with all the writer’s “bullshit” of making stuff up. Of course, he later admits it’s not so easy for anthropologists either, who, at the mercy of underfunded universities, are increasingly joining the payrolls of corporations. Much to the dismay of a writer (or anthropologist, for that matter), everything in our lives is already being written, catalogued, and recorded, twenty-four hours a day, then sold back to us, thanks to the commodification of personal data. Forget about how to write after Ulysses, a notion that now seems twee; the better question for today, McCarthy suggests, is how does one write at all?

The Making of Incarnation offers something of an answer, with its ability to touch on so many aspects of contemporary life. The characters constantly collect and disseminate data, feeding off one another and, like the filtered lens of a kaleidoscope, intersecting in unpredictable ways. The end effect is a revealing and exhaustive portrait of life under surveillance capitalism. Examples of data being interpreted in the eye of the beholder abound, like the results drawn from mapping public spaces to curb crowd control during tourism season (the findings could just as easily help determine the best response to a terrorist attack, depending on the buyer). Or likewise, regarding the flight records from an intentionally crashed auto-piloted airplane. The experiment’s meant to increase the believability of how the spaceship Sidereal comes apart in the movie’s final scene, but might the report also fetch a pretty penny on the open market from an aeronautics firm eager to discover what happens when an empty plane goes down?

Much to the dismay of a writer everything in our lives is already being written, catalogued, and recorded, twenty-four hours a day, then sold back to us.

This kind of symmetry, mirrored in the looping structure of the revolving characters, comes together as hypnotically as the presence of the mysterious strobogrammatic number 808 (an homage to the famous Roland TR-808 drum machine). And so, woven in between the Phocan sections and the parody movie scenes, we follow the various experts, like Monica Dean, a psychologist working for a law firm that’s trying to come up with a “first citation” regarding a certain physical movement that her client wants to protect under copyright laws. Then we meet Ben Briar, a former NASA employee who has moved into the private sector, working for (with a wink to C. P. Snow) Two Cultures, a firm that specializes in legitimizing the science behind the entertainment industry. In the humorous chapter “The Ten Commandments for Depicting Space Travel in Movies,” the title of his lecture-in-progress, Briar loses focus on his preparation, when, catching an in-flight rerun of The Big Bang Theory on his way to the conference, he notices an error on a chalkboard equation that’s meant to be credible background fluff and hilariously loses it, immediately ordering another drink. Next is Mark’s assistant, Lucy Diamond (her middle name is Sky and yes, her parents were hippies) who helps investigate the use of motion in drone strikes, hostage situations, and terrorist threats. And finally, there’s the famous American psychologist and efficiency expert Lillian Gilbreth.

Gilbreth’s not a character, per se, but her presence haunts the novel all the same, just as her fingerprints, as the book convincingly suggests, are all over today’s world of Big Data. In actual history, her husband, Frank Gilbreth, cowrote the book Cheaper by the Dozen with one of their daughters, the basis for the 1950 film of the same name. The husband-wife duo founded their own efficiency company that aimed to improve workers’ speed and increase the corporate bottom line by cutting out unnecessary or redundant movements. Based on her micromotion studies using photographs and film strips, and sometimes experimenting with her own children to help reenact the labor of workers, Gilbreth eventually developed what she described as the “one best way” to accomplish any given task. Respected worldwide, she toured the globe; even the USSR invited her to lecture on her findings, seeing her, a lifelong Republican, somewhat improbably as an ally of the proletariat.

But what mattered most when it came to bettering the rhythms, consistency, and safety of a factory, say, by designing a conveyor belt to be a little higher or lower, is not so much that workers could do their jobs faster or safer—although that was certainly key—but that they could work longer hours, and many more years, and managers wouldn’t have to hire and train new help all the time. While it’s easy to see how these improvements benefited the individual worker, it’s easier still to see how such arrangements increased shareholders’ wealth. Mindful of this, a reader sees just how ghastly a presence Gilbreth’s work, or at least the field she helped found, is in the novel. It’s Monica Dean’s assignment at one point to conduct research at Purdue University (or the University of Purdue as the book, mistakenly or perhaps mischievously, names it), sifting through all of Gilbreth’s records to glean some nugget that may help satisfy her unnamed Client A’s request to produce a first citation. While digging through the archives, Dean discovers Gilbreth’s diaries, which contain jotted-down epiphanies about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a book her mother read to her as a child. Although not a wholly original move (Marx himself was fond of blood and vampire metaphors to illustrate his arguments), McCarthy’s insertion of these Dracula musings of Gilbreth’s, whether fictionalized or not, allows readers to connect the dots of vampiric capitalism that run through the novel. Juxtaposed with the Count’s underpaid gypsy workers, like undocumented immigrants, who track and ship the boxes or coffins to keep their master alive, is the “One Best Way” approach that’s on full display in, say, Amazon warehouses worldwide.

When Monica Dean reports Box 808 conspicuously missing from the Purdue archives, her visiting privileges are immediately revoked, and she’s barred entry to the library by a mysterious man she’s never seen before. There’s good reason to suspect the missing materials inside the box contain the late work Gilbreth believed would “Change . . . everything.” Here the novel becomes a metaphysical geopolitical thriller—emphasis on the physic(s) and rather reminiscent of another recent Barthes-inspired novel, Laurent Binet’s satirical The Seventh Function of Language. In that book, Binet’s comic take on Barthes’s death as a murder and not the accident that it was (he was run over by a laundry van on his way home from lunch) leads to conspiracy theories, clueless detective work, and the unearthing of ancient secret societies set on global domination through the powers of speech.

The Motion in the Notion

Similarly, McCarthy’s novel sustains an obsession with motion, and likewise takes some liberties with its subject’s biography, suggesting that unburying her late work, conducted when perhaps senile or suffering from dementia, could lead to quasi-religious discoveries, deeper layers of reality, and even the meaning of life. In any case, the race to find the box is on! It includes rival firms, government officials both local and foreign, and shady individuals. The whereabouts of the missing box and the meaning of the cryptic initials “T.T.” act as MacGuffins throughout the novel, propelling the story forward with a welcome acceleration. Which isn’t to say the novel’s digressions aren’t interesting; in fact, they’re quite fascinating. I especially enjoyed the essayistic take on the history of the Dutch tulip market bubble in mid-seventeenth century Holland. The occasion for its inclusion: an Austrian bobsledder experiences a flashback while Mark Phocan conducts his pioneering motion study research using not light but, rather unconventionally, bubbles.

It’s not farfetched to read the novel as a critique of the kinds of bourgeois literary fiction unwittingly produced today to maintain the status quo.

Following the trail of the missing box all the way to Riga, Mark finally meets the Latvian kinesthetics expert Vanins, who’s a fictional disciple of Gilbreth. Vanins resides just outside the city in a secluded dacha that’s something of an architectural wonder. McCarthy describes it in all its creepy awesomeness. “There’s a two-storey main house of light blue wood, to which a one-floor brick extension has been added; lying across a lawn from this, a kind of hybrid barn or greenhouse whose unpainted wood strips alternate with glass and corrugated plastic rises as high as the house it faces.” Also, a treehouse, “cubistic and irregularly proportioned, its undulating roof of small wood tiles inset with non-aligned, oddly shaped skylights.” In this late chapter full of melancholy atmosphere, McCarthy broadens the scope of the novel to include romantic longing, death, and Cold War history, all while cribbing from the suspense techniques employed in Henry James’s novella The Aspen Papers.

Just as the unseen letters that promised great returns get destroyed in James’s story, Vanins denies the existence of the materials Mark is looking for: “There’s nothing.” But eventually, Phocan receives a proposition. If he agrees to spirit away Vanins’s spinster granddaughter Lazda back with him to London, he’ll get a peek at the missing materials in Box 808. The scene winkingly unfolds with Phocan asking Vanins to identify the large trees in the surrounding backyard woods: “Aspens . . . They’re general around here. For paper.”

Whether Vanins exaggerated his findings to his superiors to grant him greater privileges during the frenzy of the Soviet space race (the treehouse, the aviary, his dacha—they’re pretty sweet, after all) or if he was onto something truly profound, which only Box 808 could help illuminate, we never truly know. The initials “T.T.”, it turns out, were merely a note to a eureka moment Vanins experienced when he saw his late wife playing a tennis game: the back and forth motion of her swinging at the ball, forehand, then backhand, over and over again, her image and motions doubled through the reflection of the window of his study, like an infinite loop, may have inspired the orbital motion of a satellite. “T.T.”, writes Vanins at the top of a memo he later sends Gilbreth, meaning simply “Tether Tennis.”

When Mark and Lazda return to the dacha from their afternoon skinny dipping tryst, they find Vanins dead; he has hanged himself in the aviary. What Vanins told Phocan not long before his death, “Geometry has its assassins too,” throws foul play into the mix.

The Making of The Making of

Through his previous novels, critical writings, and work in the semifictional group International Necronautical Society (INS), McCarthy became known for an anti-humanist stance against certain strains of “realism” in contemporary fiction. To insist on verisimilitude in so-called “realism” is to ask the impossible, he argues, since realism itself is every bit a construct as other literary genres. Seen in this light, the irony of The Making of Incarnation is made apparent, as the novel resolves itself to finding the best ways for rendering an imaginary spaceship as lifelike as possible in a fake movie contained in a book that also happens to be, well, fictional. The reasons behind going to such assiduous lengths in creating the reality of Incarnation are voiced through the character of former NASA consultant, Ben Briar. According to Briar, with science fiction films and TV shows, the more lifelike and realistic they are, the better. It’s another feedback system, a loop: blockbuster films like Incarnation help inspire the next generation of scientists and astronauts, drum up excitement to increase government funding for things like space exploration, and, perhaps most important for Briar, keep people like him employed. With McCarthy’s reservations about realism in mind, it’s not farfetched to read the novel as a critique of the kinds of bourgeois literary fiction unwittingly produced today to maintain the status quo.

But in the end, at the moment of incarnation, when the movie becomes “real” and the storylines of the film and the people who make it intersect, we’re left with the minor character, Soren. Once an intern at Pantarey, he’s moved up in the world (which is to say, down), and is now tasked with the monitoring of eighty-two motherboards that give birth to the movie in the womb/tomb of a bunker deep below the streets of London. Soren’s the keeper of the secrets, editing and deleting the incongruities that still persist, despite the rigorous research and endless modeling and tireless testing conducted for Incarnation. He’s the remainder, the last line of defense and ultimately the one who’ll get blamed for whatever miscues or errors the fanatics discover and complain about on social media and other platforms (like IMDB’s “Goofs” section).

As for Tszvetan and Tild, like a futuristic Tristan and Isolde from whom the story’s modeled, they realize rebelling against the arranged marriage of Tszvetan’s uncle would only endanger each other’s safety. When entering a new orbit causes a chemical reaction to a poisonous potion, turning it into an aphrodisiac-like elixir, their planned double suicide backfires. Instead of dying in each other’s arms, they make love in gravity-free rooms, over and over again. Like Icarus on steroids, they fly too close to the sun, and the wings of their spaceship are torn apart by pulsing solar winds. The moment before their death, the captain and princess see themselves seeing themselves on the other side of the senses—a place where no light can reach. The lines from Blake quoted earlier in the novel return in full force: “How do you know but ev’vy Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Algorithms, big data, mo-capping—whatever the scientific endeavor—they, too, are as susceptible to failed transcendence as the divine promises of old that Blake found lacking. With the world increasingly becoming saturated in data science, McCarthy’s novel makes the case that literature may have the last word, just as, in the beginning, it had the first.