There’s an unmistakably desperate edge to the social frenzy among the Prague expats chronicled in Tom McCarthy’s second novel, Men In Space. Their involvement in an art heist gone wrong on the eve of the Czech Republic’s creation ultimately provides these foreigners with a sense of reckoning that suffuses all their good times.
The artwork, a 19th-century icon from Bulgaria, will be smuggled out of the country as soon as a local crime syndicate has time to find a talented artist who can create a realistic-enough copy to fool church officials. They find him in Ivan Maňásek, an up-and-coming sculptor whose natural gregariousness places him at the epicenter of Prague’s Warholian art scene, whose inhabitants are constantly, painfully aware of their own ambitions and their conflicts over the search for the night’s best party or a more obscure bar. The longer Ivan works on the icon, the more committed he becomes to the purity of the copy. This consternates his sometime girlfriend, an American teacher desperate to fit into the art-school scene. The hinge to the syndicate’s plan is Anton Markov, a Bulgarian refugee who does their errands but feels at home among the art crowd; his planned flight to America is on hold while his wife attempts to wrest custody of her children from her first marriage, and someone is already filing detailed police reports about him with the nascent Czech state.
First published in the UK in 2007, Men In Space represents the territory lying between McCarthy’s formal, experimental debut, Remainder, and the overly ornate historical novel, C, with its depiction of creators’ obsessions. Ivan’s icon stands in for the soon-to-disappear Czechoslovakia and the fear, expressed most clearly by Anton’s wife, that the new country will continue in the corrupt pathways of the old, but the recent dissolution of the Soviet Union also figures into the local nightmares.
While Ivan and his friends aren’t directly affected by the national climate, they pass among themselves the story of a Soviet cosmonaut who, after the division of the USSR, can’t find a nation to take responsibility for getting him to earth safely; this and other nervous jokes about the incompetence of the old regime reflect their inability to ground themselves long enough to do the kind of artistic work they profess to admire. McCarthy reports their struggles with irony but also kindness, even when their efforts reveal how untethered they are from the real dangers some of the people around them face. The way their debauched nights in the name of art figure into the syndicate’s perfect crime highlights how far above their normal trade Anton and his contacts have gone with their purchase of the icon. The destruction of their scheme from the inside, symbolically spanning New Year’s Eve 1992, is minor compared to the irresistible urge to even the score against those who got in their way.