The Making of Incarnation

Here is my review of The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy. The Irish Times, 2 October 2021, p. 15:

Tom McCarthy’s fifth and arguably most ambitious novel brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth”. The Making of Incarnation is about bodies in space — outer space in the case of the sci-fi blockbuster (Incarnation) that serves as both armature and mise en abyme. Here, the lie of being truth (which another character describes as “[n]aturalist bullshit”) must be perpetuated at all costs.

Ben Briar is flown in from the United States as part of a shadowy project called Degree Zero (a nod to Roland Barthes and his reality effect) to ensure that the film’s script, however fanciful, complies with the basic laws of physics. Herzberg, the art director, expends a great deal of energy convincing this “Realism Tsar” that the inclusion of mundane objects in the unlikeliest of set-ups can effectively “counteract the defamiliarisation”. Much is subsequently made of the CGI rendering of a fork (“your basic IKEA Livnära”) that recurs — comically as well as cosmically — throughout the climactic disintegration of the spacecraft.

Given that Briar works for a consultancy called Two Cultures (vide C. P. Snow), it is hardly surprising that he should view physics as a creative endeavour — “a plunge into the farthest-flung reaches of the imagination”. The unfolding of the plot, as the shoot progresses, is interspersed with complex descriptions of the wind tunnels and motion-capture techniques deployed behind the scenes. These are so meticulously detailed that they take on a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory, quality.

Kinesis moves in mysterious ways: at every corner, the scientific turns out to be underpinned by the poetic — or even the messianic. Pantaray Motion Systems is not only the slightly sinister corporate behemoth providing the cutting-edge technology without which there would be no movie; it also has “a heroic status tinged with traces of the mystical”.

Anthony Garnett, its founder, recalls once considering Norbert Wiener (the originator of cybernetics) as “prophet, messiah and apostle”. There was something in his vision that he thought “he’d left behind with Aeschylus, Catullus, Sappho: a condition best denoted by the old, unscientific label poetry”.

Garnett’s colleague Pilkington — referred to, behind his back, as the “Ancient Mariner” — senses that all machines are “stand-ins for some ultimate machine we’ll never build but nonetheless can’t stop ourselves from trying to”. Tasked with orchestrating an experimental plane crash, he goes looking for the “ur-disaster” — the “totality that hovers above every partial iteration”.

Monica Dean, who is conducting research into Lillian Gilbreth, discovers that the pioneer of factory-floor ergonomics had come to entertain “the possibility of some ‘higher’ or ‘absolute’ movement . . . derived from no source other than itself”. The novel is teeming with such intimations of preordained patterns or underlying algorithms.

In this quest for perfection, the human body is ultimately an obstacle. We are reminded that the French scientist Marey sought to infuse his compatriots with the “energy and dynamism of the locomotive” and that Taylorism was seen by some in the Soviet Union as an opportunity to liberate the worker from “the shackles of his very body”. This rejection of incarnation is (paradoxically) embodied by the film’s high romantic denouement: the two lovers, whose union is impossible, bow out in a blaze of glory, expecting to coincide with themselves — and everything — at the instant of their deaths.

The novel, however, does not end with the blinding light of revelation, but a “blackness neither rays nor traces penetrate”. Besides, there is an error in the code behind the film’s final frame — an invisible blemish only the technician is aware of. It recalls Pilkington’s secret that he alone was responsible for the failure of Project Albatross, a minute miscalculation having led the plane to vanish instead of crashing. He imagines the lost aircraft occupying “an aporia, blind alley, cubby-hole or nook”.

This instant of its disappearance, “cut out from the flow of time” — for ever suspended, deferred — is akin to the sense of dislocation that several characters experience: the feeling of being in two locations at once “without really being in either”; of experiencing the present and the past simultaneously while being at one remove from both.

Is not this liminality the very space of fiction, squatted by the two addicts, who reappear right at the end, lost in their pipe dreams and inevitably conjuring up Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon?

The answer, no doubt, is to be found in Lillian Gilbreth’s Box 808 — the one that allegedly “changes everything”, that may “chisel a Northwest Passage through a stretch of the hitherto theoretical-physically impossible”. The one that is missing, of course, and that everyone — from the protagonist, Pantaray’s Dr Mark Phocan, to the secret services — is looking for.

The truth is out there: Tom McCarthy has worked his magic once again.

The Netanyahus

Here is my review of The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen. The Irish Times, 5 June 2021, p. 17.

In a postface to his sixth novel, The Netanyahus, Joshua Cohen relates how he befriended Harold Bloom (to whom this book is dedicated) towards the close of his life. The venerable critic regaled Cohen with countless anecdotes — playing chess with Nabokov, skinny-dipping with Derrida — but the one that made the greatest impression was the time he supervised the campus visit of an “obscure Israeli historian” called Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who rocked up with his feral family, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Netanyahu’s second-born child went on to become the longest-serving, and most controversial, prime minister in Israeli history, thus endowing this farcical fait divers with a retrospective patina of world-historical importance: “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family”.

The antique cast of this comically prolix, self-deprecating subtitle is redolent of early novels, which frequently masqueraded as authentic documents. The Netanyahus purports to be composed by a retired academic who, sensing the nighness of the end, is prompted to put pen to paper, as established in the opening sentences: “My name is Ruben Blum and I’m, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical”. This transmutation of subject into subject matter is posited as a “more natural, rational incarnation” than the Christian version: “Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word”. It could also be construed as the mission statement of an author at the top of his game who, like Flaubert, has alchemised a rather insignificant real-life incident into fictive gold. Cohen exploits his character’s professional rigour to sport with the conventions of memoir. Quotation marks are “holy to historians”, Ruben explains, vowing “to express only what was expressed to [him], as verbatim as [his] memory is able” — which is ironic given that both he and the dialogue are made up. Beyond his aversion to today’s “culture of grievance”, the character bears no resemblance to Harold Bloom. There is his surname, of course, but Ruben’s year of birth — 1922 — connects him to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, and hence the world of fiction, rather than the waking nightmare of his discipline.

The struggle between history and myth provides the novel with its dialectical armature. History is associated with the onward march of progress, which would go on unimpeded “so long as every country kept trying to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself”. Even the revisionist zealot Ben-Zion is depicted, “lotused” on the floor in front of his hosts’ new colour television set, watching Bonanza with rapt attention. Significantly, when events spiral out of control, the tohubohu unleashed by the “Yahus” (as Ruben and his wife, Edith, call them) is likened to technological failure: “the snow was hissing down like static from a world signed-off, ash from the end of broadcast days”.

Ruben opted for “pagan” academia in a bid to flee his “Jewish past” (which returns in the shape of the Yahus), but remains torn between “the American condition of being able to choose and the Jewish condition of being chosen”. His teenage daughter Judy — whose agonistic relation to her elders provides a great deal of mirth — chooses rhinoplasty, which may be her own way of leaving behind the stereotypes affixed to her origins. Corbindale, where the Blums relocated from New York City, is so nondescript that their relatives keep calling it “Corbinton” or “Corbinville”. It is also a hotbed of petty anti-Semitism. The mechanic at the local garage pats Ruben’s head to feel his horns and, as the first Jew to be hired by Corbin College, he is expected to don a Santa Claus outfit at Christmas. It is for this very reason too that he is tasked, in 1960, with vetting Mr Netanyahu’s application and preparing his visit. Ben-Zion, whose idiosyncratic interpretation of the Iberian Inquisition I shall not disclose, argues that the Jewish people have been able to endure by abiding in myth, from whence he himself seems to have sprung. When he howls, it is “in the wind’s language, Hebrew” that he does so.

The Netanyahus demonstrates what can still be done within the relatively conventional yet capacious parameters of literary fiction. It veers from mid-century comedy of manners to campus caper by way of social, political and religious satire. Bravura displays — such as the hilarious scene where Edith’s mother harangues Ruben while her husband unburdens himself, most indiscreetly, in the adjoining toilet — are legion. Dialogue is deftly handled throughout: the banter between Ruben and Edith, in particular, is pitch perfect. Cohen’s style — inventive but elegantly understated — is a class act that few of his contemporaries can follow.

All in all, this is a veritable triumph.