A dizzying take on possible conspiracies, corporate philosophies and one man’s idle thoughts.
The basic ingredients of McCarthy’s new novel suggest a Don DeLillo–like look at academic theories and the rigors of contemporary life or perhaps a globe-trotting thriller in the vein of William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy. McCarthy, whose earlier novels Remainder and C eluded easy descriptions, certainly seems to be laying the groundwork for this in the novel’s early pages. Its narrator, known only as U., is an anthropologist who made his name a decade ago after writing a highly regarded academic study of dance music. “Once, for a brief time, I was famous,” U. writes, but he then goes on to clarify that it was a very specific, very niche variety of fame. This doubling back happens again and again: At one point, U. gives a short lecture, then dedicates much more time to an imagined version of how the same event could have gone. And while there are events here that could form the core of a more traditional narrative, including the illness of a colleague of U.’s and a series of mysterious deaths that occur while parachuting, U. continues on his way, sometimes oblivious and sometimes obsessed. As the crossed-out subtitles on the cover—including “An Essay” and “A Treatise”—suggest, this is a malleable work, one where dreams of unreal cities carry as much weight as impressions of real ones and where a long discussion of the way Starbucks operates in Seattle may be a key image or a complete digression. There are moments of devastation here, and the way McCarthy reveals them are among the novel’s highlights.
McCarthy’s novel is thought-provoking and sometimes frustrating; adjusting to its unexpected rhythms takes time, but the effort to follow its surprising routes pays off.