Publisher: Vintage Digital (12 Mar. 2015)
Print Length: 210 pages
This book got shortlisted for the 2015 Mann Booker prize and it's a typical example of the type of book the judges of this award tend to favour; it deals with themes and ideas rather than concentrating on an action plot. I like books that provoke thought and engender the reader to explore uncomfortable or novel areas within the structure of a storyline. Unfortunately, in this work, the author appears to concentrate on a single theme and spares the reader any worthwhile plot whatsoever.
U, the main character, is a Corporate Anthropologist supposedly engaged on the vanguard Koob-Sassen Project, but actually doing nothing much at all except for sitting in his basement office wasting his time away pondering over various nefarious events: an unsolved parachutist's murder; ocean oil spills; traffic clogging the streets of Lagos; his girlfriend's reticence over her trip to Turin. For a long time, I had hoped that the detailed descriptions of these seemingly pointless events was going to morph into an engaging storyline. I was mistaken. It was a futile expectation, as he himself, the main character, concludes. Is this Tom McCarthy being exceedingly clever in demonstrating the sheer pointlessness of it all? If so, with this book, the author succeeded.
Tom McCarthy has a way with words; I want to enjoy his prose and I think I could if he didn't constantly reiterate the same point. Comparisons are usually like this, or this, or this. For example: "On almost any given day he'd be off in Oslo, or Sao Paulo, or Mumbai" This would be fine if Oslo, Sao Paulo or Mumbai were significant destinations in respect to the story, but they're not, they're just another list in a whole list of lists. Descriptions suffer the same laboured repetition. For example: "I had to weave and thread my way through queues, lines, gaggles, general throngs of people speaking Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Mandarin and who knows what else, before, behind a broken veil of pretzel stands and gyros trucks, the terminal loomed into view." This is nice imagery, but I expect a novel to contain more than an endless series of nice imagery which is, ultimately, fruitless.
In the last chapter, all the themes in the book are pulled together and, as I approached the denouement, I was anxious to discover what it was all about, uncover the underlying meaning, disrobe the plot and cast aside its veil of mystery (see what I did there) so that shows that this book did finally manage to grip my attention. Unfortunately, the conclusion wasn't so much a damp squib, it was more akin to the cancellation of an entire fireworks display; it never really got going.
If I ever happen to stumble across a Tom McCarthy book that has received numerous positive reviews, I'll definitely want to read it as I'm sure that there is an entertaining writer somewhere within his talents straining to get out. Until then, I think I'll just give him a wide berth.