Reality According to Tom McCarthy

His new novel, “The Making of Incarnation,” examines the arcane technologies that help shape the modern world.

Credit…Matthieu Bourel

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By Giles Harvey


The English writer Tom McCarthy has been waging a one-man war against literary realism, or as he sometimes calls it, “the middlebrow commercial novel,” for coming on 20 years now. “Remainder” (2005), his debut effort, which was completed in 2001 but took years to find a publisher, marked the opening of hostilities. The book’s narrator, who receives 8.5 million British pounds in damages after losing his memory in an accident, is a thumb in the eye of psychological coherence. He has no inwardness, only an obsession: the costly and elaborate re-enactment of half-remembered scenes from his past. These re-enactments, which resemble Situationist pranks, don’t chart a path back to wholeness and authenticity, as the damaged narrator seems to hope (and as the reader weaned on the realist tradition of Austen, Balzac and Henry James might expect). They lead in the opposite direction, to mania, carnage and senseless repetition.

Repetition, senseless or otherwise, has become McCarthy’s narrative M.O. His next two books, “Men in Space” (2007) and “C” (2010), were shaggy-dog stories dressed up as grail quests (or possibly the reverse), which seemed to avow that high modernist pastiche — the creative refashioning of other texts — was what literature was all about, rather than anything as naïve or straightforward as the careful observation of real life. “It’s like,” McCarthy, an avid clubber, has said of writing. “If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of ‘Macbeth’ or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it.” Not all experimentalists are so keen to advertise their debt to the past, but McCarthy, who reveres French theory and the French nouveau roman but also has a lot of time for Dickens and Plato and Cervantes, is unanxiously frank about the roots of his imagination.

In his fourth novel, “Satin Island” (2015), narrated by another man without qualities, McCarthy cast a critical eye on the avant-garde principles he’d largely taken for granted in his earlier work. U. is a fluent and sophisticated “corporate anthropologist” steeped in postmodern thought, but at the deluxe consultancy firm that employs him he spends most of his time “feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine.” The Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou’s notion of the rip (“a sudden temporal rupture”), for instance, is applied to torn jeans, “which I presented as the birth-scars of their wearer’s singularity.” The book is wry and smart and often very funny, but it also carries an undertow of despair at the failure of radical ideas, or at least at their co-option by a capitalist order they once sought to challenge and resist.

McCarthy’s remarkable, at times exasperating new novel, “The Making of Incarnation,” deepens and extends these reflections even as his contempt for conventional realism stands firm. Like “Ulysses,” a text McCarthy treasures, the book combines the very new and the very old. Its protagonist (insofar as it has one) is Mark Phocan, the chief engineer at a motion-capture company called Pantarey, which means “everything flows” in Greek. The name is a nod not just to Heraclitus, who coined the phrase, but to ancient Greek sculpture, one of Western civilization’s first attempts to capture motion, as it were, and thus, McCarthy gently suggests, a distant antecedent to Pantarey’s bleeding-edge technology. This technology is used in a vast array of fields (sports, industry, medicine, video games, the military), and Phocan spends much of the book shuttling between Pantarey’s headquarters in Oxford and those of the company’s numerous clients. Among them is the high-end film-production studio Degree Zero, which is working on a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza called “Incarnation.”

The film, which basically rips the plot of “Tristan und Isolde” and mixes it with “Star Wars,” is about as interesting, artistically speaking, as it sounds, but what captivates McCarthy (as the book’s title suggests) isn’t the finished product but the labyrinthine creative process behind it. “Incarnation” is to feature, for example, a drug-fueled, zero-gravity sex scene between its two main characters. It’s Phocan’s job to figure out just how the scene might be realized. His solution is to rig motion-capture performers to the ceiling of one of Pantarey’s studios. (“Most of the actual filming in a film like this is done with stand-in bodies,” a colleague of Phocan’s explains.) These performers, covered in reflective markers (the industry term is “nipples”), carry out an erotic mime scripted by a computer program, but things don’t go quite as Phocan had envisaged: “The movement, taken as a whole, doesn’t in any way suggest that all this tumbling and twining’s really orbiting around a central and impassioned act of coitus.” When the film’s computer graphics director sees the rushes, he says they look like “the window of a butcher’s shop during an earthquake.”

“The Making of Incarnation” is about far more than just the making of “Incarnation,” though. As stuffed with characters and subplots as “War and Peace,” it’s about the making of nothing less than contemporary reality itself. In this respect, the floating-sex episode, with its unforeseen glitches, is broadly representative. Like “Remainder”’s endless re-enactments, which also never go exactly as planned, the new book’s endless motion-capture sessions produce a sort of counterfeit, denatured mimesis. But there’s an important difference, and it’s indicative of how McCarthy’s ambitions have expanded over the past two decades.

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    In “Remainder,” the narrator’s looping simulacra are an essentially private obsession. (When someone suggests he film them, he flies into a rage.) In “The Making of Incarnation,” by contrast, the work of Phocan and his fellow artisan-technicians is so ubiquitous, so much a part of the fabric of society, that most people fail to recognize how mediated and synthetic their everyday reality has become. The megalomaniacal director of “Incarnation,” Lukas Dressel, wants the film’s elaborately rendered spacescapes “to be iconic; to not only serve as source, reference and gauge-stick for all future sci-fi auteurs, but to loom in the imagination of a whole civilian generation too, haunting their dreams and coloring their experience of a hundred real-world spatial interfaces.”

    McCarthy clearly researched the crap out of his material; on the acknowledgments page he salutes a long list of “technical experts” and their willingness “to submit their wind tunnels, water tanks, mo-cap workshops, gait labs and postproduction studios” to his scrutiny. At times the reader might wish they’d been a little more withholding. McCarthy, a formidably gifted stylist, can tease an uncanny poetry from his findings, but he can also smother us in superfluous technical jargon. “A discrete-time Markov chain in countable state space is what we’re dealing with here,” one senior Pantarey employee overseeing a pedestrian-motion study at a London supermarket informs a subordinate. “Although I suppose that you could argue for this corridor being viewed as a continuous or general state space.” This sort of self-enamored pedantry is funny in moderation, but moderation isn’t something McCarthy has ever practiced. As I read, I found myself wondering how important it was to the book’s overall effect that we understand the science behind motion capture at the level of detail he throws at us. It often seems that all McCarthy really wants is for us to understand that he understands it.

    Given that it’s scientific detail, the more arcane the better, that seems to most excite him, the real question might be why McCarthy decided to write a novel at all, and not, say, a magazine article. The answer starts to grow clear only around Page 100. It’s at this point that a secondary character, Monica Dean, a junior associate at a boutique law firm, makes a startling discovery. Dean has been doing archival research on the 20th-century American psychologist and engineer Lillian Gilbreth, whose pioneering time-and-motion studies tracked factory workers’ repetitive movements by photographing the paths of tiny lights attached to their hands. Those studies, which were used to increase efficiency, might just be of interest, Dean suspects, to one of her firm’s clients, an anonymous entity seeking legal advice on whether it’s possible to copyright physical gestures, such as swiping a smartphone.

    Digging through Gilbreth’s archive at Purdue University, Dean stumbles across her late-in-life correspondence with a (fictional) Soviet physicist named Raivis Vanins, who, using Gilbreth’s light-track method, may have made a breakthrough that could transform our understanding of the physical universe. Gilbreth meticulously preserved the wireframe models she made of her studies in numbered boxes, but the one containing Vanins’s breakthrough, Box 808, is missing from the archive. Thus begins another grail-quest-turned-shaggy-dog story, which gradually sucks in almost every character in the book.

    Phocan and his clique, like Gilbreth in her own day, think of themselves as part of a sort of transdisciplinary avant-garde. One of the motion-capture performers hired by Pantarey, we’re told, studied German Expressionism in grad school (“The stuff you see in the old silent movies — how the villains scowl and cackle, and the heroines expand their mouths and eyes into huge gaping circles”) and believes the work he’s doing now draws on this radical artistic heritage. When a junior Pantarey employee, skeptical of his self-assessment, asks if he ever acts in dramatic productions, he makes no effort to conceal his disdain. “Naturalist” garbage, he calls the contemporary theater, “like the 20th century never happened, let alone all … this.” He gestures toward Pantarey’s tricked-out studio, which is, he believes, “where the action’s at. It’s the real deal.”

    McCarthy may have a gloomier outlook on the future being engineered by the real-world Pantareys, but he’s evidently sympathetic to the actor’s point of view. His own disdain for the naturalist garbage of conventional realism, which goes about its business as though the literary innovations of the 20th century never happened, has driven him to pursue a different kind of fiction, one better suited (in his judgment) to interpreting the source code of modern existence.

    But five books deep into a distinguished career, McCarthy’s work has begun to harden into a conventionality of its own. He’s repeating himself, in a way that’s often unproductive. Box 808 is another version of the Great Report, the all-encompassing anthropological study of our age that U. is tasked with writing in “Satin Island,” which was itself another version of the ur-message or transcendental signal that the amateur radio buff Serge Carrefax is chasing in “C.” Humanly, we learn as little about Phocan & Co. as we do about McCarthy’s other characters: They are manic ciphers, fixated on their intellectual quarry but devoid of inner life. This may be a part of his design, but in a book that addresses the creeping usurpation of the individual by technology it feels like an imaginative deficit. At this point, the most radical and surprising path forward for McCarthy would be to write a novel in which human beings are treated with the same dazzling complexity as ideas.

    Giles Harvey is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.

    By Tom McCarthy
    309 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.

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