McCarthy’s Perpetual Motion Scam

Tom McCarthy hasn’t evaded the literary brand: if you continually say nothing, “saying nothing” becomes what you, the novelist, say.

How should we understand Tom McCarthy’s novels? According to the British Council, McCarthy is a writer of “innovative and experimental” fiction.1 However, if you’ve been keeping up with his work (C, Men in Space, and Satin Island) since Remainder—the debut that Zadie Smith endorsed as a generative template for the future of The Novel—you may have noticed that McCarthy’s literary output has become all too familiar, predictable, generic, even.2

With each new work, McCarthy has reworked an essential narrative structure: characters fixate on the pursuit of some idealized state, object, or relation, which initially seems meaningful, perhaps even a portal to transcendence, but this fata morgana is ultimately illusory, incomprehensible, irresolvable. A once-singular form has become a conventional plot; McCarthy’s novels have become McCarthyian.

Since McCarthy believes that literature itself is unoriginal, iterative, derivative, this pattern of narrative repetition could be seen as a microcosmic expression of his literary theory. In Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, McCarthy—whose sensibility is shaped as much by popular electronic music (Kraftwerk) as by continental modernism (Blanchot, Kafka, Beckett) and poststructuralist theory (Barthes, Derrida, De Man)—argues that the novelist has “nothing to say” and instead channels “a set of signals” that have pulsed in the “airspace of the novel” since the form’s untraceable inception.3 By replicating a basic narrative formula, McCarthy has become a kind of auto-DJ, spinning the same well-worn track.

Yet to sample from your own discography is less to tune into the sound of unoriginality and more to replay the tune of the self, to pound the monotonous beat of “the McCarthyian.” Even if the genericness of his fiction results from his dedication to avant-garde literary principles rather than any deradicalization by normative literary institutions (British Council) and mainstream critical acclaim (Smith), McCarthy’s “alternate road” has nevertheless led to the blandness of the personal literary brand: if you continually say nothing, eventually “saying nothing” becomes what you, the novelist, say.4

McCarthy’s latest, The Making of Incarnation, is a McCarthyian novel that seems uneasy about its McCarthyian-ness. The conventions are recognizably there, but they appear jittery in their frequency, gauche in their obviousness. Scaled-up to caricaturish proportions, it is hard to tell whether the marks of genericness in The Making of Incarnation are self-parodic or resolute. Either way, they appear symptomatic of an anxiety about the durability of the formula: Does McCarthy’s sputtering narrative engine have the power to carry another novel from page 1 to page 309? Your response will depend on your relationship to “the McCarthyian”: whether you’re an interested newbie, a tired veteran, or a diehard fan. No matter how you feel about it, though, the crankily machinic quality of the McCarthyian plot does, it turns out, bear relevance to the story that is told in The Making of Incarnation.

if you’ve been keeping up with his work since “Remainder,” you may have noticed that McCarthy’s literary output has become all too familiar, predictable, generic, even.

The McCarthyian plot might best be conceptualized as elliptical. Resembling the geometrical form of an ellipse, McCarthy’s narratives are structured not by development and conclusion but by recursion and deferral. Moreover, the grammatical ellipsis is both a favored form of punctuation for McCarthy and a symbol for the fetishized absences at the core of his novels: driven by the desire to be, feel, or know something that they can never be, feel, or know, McCarthy’s characters are forever chasing dot-dot-dots that promise much but deliver little.

In Remainder (2005), an undisclosable accident causes the narrator-protagonist to regard his movements as “second-hand”; he tries to feel “real” again by reenacting past events, but this fantasized state of realness proves elusive, as uncontrollable “matter” interrupts his synchronized flow. Men in Space (2007) tracks a diffuse network of artists, thieves, and spies in post-Soviet central Europe whose shadowy social underworld precludes omniscience about “how it fits together,” while a stranded Soviet cosmonaut, bereft of a country to return to, orbits the Earth in an endless ellipse. C (2010), a Bildungsroman that’s short on Bildung, follows a Freudian-Faulknerian protagonist who, after the death of his too-beloved sister, is cryptically haunted by his repressed, incestuous desires. In Satin Island (2015), a corporate anthropologist is tasked with writing a “Great Report” that will illuminate “the contemporary”; yet this Key to Big Data is ultimately “un-writable.”

Almost vulgarly McCarthyian, The Making of Incarnation similarly centers on a search for an object that is thought to “change everything.” The name of the object: “Box 808.” It is missing from the archive of Lillian Gilbreth, an early 20th-century American industrial psychologist famed for increasing labor productivity by conducting time-and-motion studies of workers’ movements, which entailed the reconstruction, in thousands of numbered shoeboxes, of repeated actions in the form of 3D wireframe models. When intel leaks of Box 808’s absence, scientists, corporations, and governments try to track it down. Some speculate, based on Gilbreth’s suggestive scribbles about the “force that holds all things in motion,” that Box 808 might hold the secret to “perpetual motion”—a “scam,” says one of the novel’s physicists, that has conned the likes of “Wolff, Bernoulli, even Leibniz.”

Box 808 slap-slap-slaps you across the face with its ellipticalness. Not only is it introduced in the novel as a dot-dot-dot: “805, 806, 807 … ‘Oh!’”; better yet, 808 is the numeric symbolization of an oh-so-meaningful ellipse—an oval bookended by lemniscates, it’s a double everything, at the heart of which is a hollow nothing. A reader of Miguel de Cervantes or Thomas Pynchon might see this not-so-coded code and guess that Box 808 is a MacGuffin. A reader of McCarthy’s novels will know that it is a MacGuffin. And they wouldn’t be wrong: Box 808 is never found and—unsurprisingly, typically, elliptically—nothing changes.

Even the novel’s sole moment of quasi-revelation is a dot-dot-dot. It turns out the “force” that preoccupies Gilbreth is “the love that moves the sun and other stars”: a reference to the final line of Dante’s Divina Commedia (1308–1320), which Gilbreth, an English BA and hobbyist poet, adored so much that she planted copies of it in workplaces she rationalized. In Paradiso, this line comes when Dante gets his wish to contemplate God’s image (to gain insight into the enigma of incarnation, McCarthy’s own titular puzzle) but struggles to comprehend or translate this divine vision into postlapsarian language. It’s a revelation that reroutes us to a nonrevelation, an anticlimax that traps the reader in the prison-house of language, a world in which symbols lead only to more symbols: same shtick, different smell.

This isn’t an insult; it’s a punch line to a joke that McCarthy sets up in The Making of Incarnation.

The main character is Mark Phocan. He is a kinetics specialist at a company called Pantarey, a modern-day Gilbreth that translates motion into data. Pantarey has been hired by the makers of a Stars Wars–esque film called Incarnation to help produce CGI for blockbuster scenes that represent, for instance, the disintegration of a spaceship. Phocan spends much of the novel engaged in Incarnation-based research in settings such as a hydraulics institute in Germany and a wind tunnel in Holland. But when his boss, Anthony Garnett, is persuaded by a British multinational defense contractor to investigate Box 808, Phocan is dispatched to Riga to visit Raivis Vanins, a Latvian physicist who corresponded with Gilbreth. Inevitably, Vanins proves to be no oracle. Bathetically, he dies within a few pages. Standing in Vanins’s aviary after his death, Phocan sees white lines on the floor in an 808-like shape. Phocan initially thinks their “medium” is “paint,” only to realize that it is probably just “bird shit.” McCarthy knows, we know: the shtick is up.

McCarthy’s novels have always been in-joke novels: the author winks at the reader as characters find shit where they thought there was paint, matter where they hoped there was meaning. For Mark McGurl, the problem with McCarthy’s novels post-Remainder is that his characters have been let in on the joke. A random bloke unschooled in McCarthy’s variety of “poststructuralist-postmodernist” theory, Remainder’s narrator-protagonist believes he can feel real. A corporate researcher with a PhD in McCarthyian theory, Satin Island’s narrator-protagonist is skeptical about the writability of his “Great Report.” A novel of ideas, Remainder’s narrative accumulates momentum, culminating with a botched bank heist and a chaotic airplane getaway. A novel of ideas, Satin Island’s narrative ambles laterally, drifting from essayistic disquisition to essayistic disquisition. Remainder ends in the mode of a Derridean thriller, while Satin Island has the vibe of an 8:30 a.m. conference paper. Or, as McGurl concludes: despite “some inspired moments,” Satin Island is “not nearly as fun.”5

Like Satin Island, The Making of Incarnation is populated almost exclusively by researchers. Hopping from lab to lab, The Making of Incarnation also replaces the heated narration of events (“events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now,” exclaimed the narrator of Satin Island) with the cool description of research tableaux: “Today’s action is taking place,” announces the narrator in the novel’s opening scene at the hydraulics institute, amid a wave generator’s “dramas of rarefaction and compression, cyclic stress and supercavitation.”

This is not not fun. You may find aesthetic value, rather than mere tedium, in McCarthy’s meticulously realist, occasionally mystical, descriptions of physical processes and technical analysis, which can be beautiful, sublime even, insofar as they are the result of his own reverential commitment to researching the content and discourse of science. Just as the screens of aerodynamics analysts are arranged “like prayer books,” McCarthy’s prose demonstrates authorial devotion to understanding, at least definitionally, the significance of “Reynolds” measurement, an “inertia-to-viscosity ratio,” a “dimensionless quantity” that can be used “to scale up or down a given situation, or to establish dynamic similitude between different positions.”

The cleverness of its characters, then, is not the problem in The Making of Incarnation. Equally, the credulousness of its characters—the researchers who, as the prayer book simile more critically suggests, believe that there is a Box 808, that the world can be totally mastered through science—does not bring back the “fun” of Remainder. The genericness of The Making of Incarnation raises another, related problem—one that implies that the fun is over because, as Remainder tells us, the past can never be entirely recovered: the attrition of readerly innocence.

The first time readers encounter the McCarthyian plot of failed transcendence, they may (if they don’t know McCarthyian theory) be intrigued by the possibility of transcendence or (if they do know McCarthyian theory) take pleasure in their knowingness of its impossibility. Yet, just as the delight of novelty cannot be reexperienced, the gratification of knowingness has an expiration date.

A once-singular form has become a conventional plot; McCarthy’s novels have become McCarthyian.

Of course, a novel doesn’t have to be fun (the McCarthyian plot could instead be judged on its truth value). However, concern about whether The Making of Incarnation is fun, anxiety about readerly affect, is palpable in its staggering preponderance of ellipses: the novel is 309 pages long and includes 849 dot-dot-dots. I counted manually, so this tally might be slightly off. Even so, The Making of Incarnation probably sets a literary-historical Guinness World Record, overtaking Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s quasi-sci-fi saga The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901), which is 218 pages and has 417 ellipses, as the English-language novel with the highest frequency of ellipsis.

While McCarthy’s previous novels have their fair share of ellipses, The Making of Incarnation is zanily sprayed with dot-dot-dots. An illustrative instance comes when Monica Dean—a junior associate at a law firm who has been hired by an anonymous “Client A” (Apple?) to assess whether the motion of a hand across a “smartphone or a tablet” can be copyrighted—discovers that Box 808 is missing from the Gilbreth archive. As Dean digs through Gilbreth’s papers, the third-person narrator implies that Box 808’s absence is not coincidental but intentional: “something’s taking shape here: something solid, perhaps almost sayable—but, if so, only silently, in this scrawled idiom of pictorial and alphabetic cipher, doodle-hieroglyphics … nonetheless, by virtue of these same, somehow recoverable … .”

We know that Gilbreth’s “doodle-hieroglyphics,” if decoded, will not reveal anything truly revelatory. The ellipses—not to mention the “somethings” and “somehows”—suggest that there is depth beneath the surface, meaning to be uncovered. Desperate to turn back time, the ellipses attempt to undo overexposure, to renew a sense of mystery for the reader. They are McCarthy’s own perpetual motion scam: the trick he employs to jump-start the old narrative motor, to rev up another novel and take the reader on a suspenseful joyride.

This is doubly ironic: not only does McCarthy, an avowedly antisentimental novelist, seem compelled to appeal to readerly affect, but the mechanism he turns to for this appeal is redolent of the “commercial middlebrow” fiction that he publicly derides.6 McCarthy may hope to invoke Derrida’s essay on “Ellipsis” (1967) with his dot-dot-dots, but, as Theodor Adorno observes, the punctuation mark is a signal feature of “commercialized” genres.7 In narrative fiction, it is especially common in late 18th-century Gothic fiction and 20th-century comic books, where melodramatic cliffhangers keep readers dangling and encourage page-turning consumption.8

A cultural object like Incarnation, the high-budget space flick McCarthy concocts, with its popular aspirations, may seem light-years away from The Making of Incarnation, with its neomodernist author’s literary pedigree. But McCarthy’s reliance on a melodramatic device is a wormhole that reduces the distance between them. Escaping genericness, McCarthy veers toward genre fiction, which is not an escape but an elliptical return.


What Is a Book?

By Lisa Gitelman

That said, McCarthy’s scam is instructive, as it points toward a much larger con.

The novel’s title references not only the making of the film Incarnation but also the idea that Big-Data motion-capture companies like Pantarey are the makers of our incarnation: that our models and algorithms direct, if not determine, our physical acts, mold our intimate embodiment. When an arthroplasty company wants to make sex-friendly hip replacements, they hire Pantarey to collect data on heterosexual intercourse and devise a solution that will “underwrite a thousand marriages.” For there to be data, though, Pantarey needs to analyze some sex, so they hire two actors to put on motion sensors and simulate the real thing. Unnamed, undeveloped characters, this “man” and “woman” are interchangeable, exploitable human bodies.

Against the hype of spiral-eyed futurists, then, McCarthy’s novel demonstrates that technological innovations, even if they automate actions and virtualize “reality,” still depend on human labor. Indeed, the history of motion capture that The Making of Incarnation tracks, from Gilbreth to Pantarey, is a history of labor intensification and productivity speed-up, rather than of easing or lessening of work. This is reflected in the world of the novel, which is one without weekends: we only ever see the characters at work. There is a sketch of Phocan’s childhood, but even this scene, which serves to indicate his lifelong interest in motion, seems only to prefigure his future employment. As the narrator says of Incarnation: “Empires will crumble, Death Stars will explode, but scurriers”—workers—“will always be there.”

The referent of “scurrier” in the novel is Soren, a “render wrangler” whose job is to ensure that the film Incarnation is free of glitches. Since his labor is visible only if he fails, the clean aesthetic of a glitch-free Incarnation will display no trace of Soren’s labor. In the end, this is where The Making of Incarnation distinguishes itself from the made-up film. Stuffed with technical argot (the result of authorial homework) and frayed with ellipses (an index of writerly overwork), the aesthetic of McCarthy’s novel, agitated by the algorithmic tendency of the McCarthyian plot, is strained rather than seamless.9 Consequently, the hand, the body, the labor of McCarthy, the maker of the novel’s incarnation, are everywhere apparent. As McCarthy grapples with his own genericness, then, The Making of Incarnation shows that “the force that holds all things in motion” is not Box 808, nor Dante’s divine love, but alienated labor. Capitalism: the biggest perpetual motion scam of all.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

  1. British Council, “Tom McCarthy,”
  2. Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 2008.
  3. Tom McCarthy, Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works (Penguin, 2012), p. 2.
  4. Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel.”
  5. Mark McGurl, “The Novel’s Forking Path,” Public Books, April 1, 2015.
  6. McCarthy, “Interview with Tom McCarthy,” White Review, February 2011.
  7. Theodor Adorno, “Punctuation Marks,” in Notes to Literature: Volume I, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and translated from the German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (1958; Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 96.
  8. For a comprehensive history of ellipsis in English narrative fiction, see Anne Toner, Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  9. For a thorough analysis of the relationship between labor and gimmicks like McCarthy’s ellipsis, see Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Harvard University Press, 2020).
Featured-image photograph by Jr Korpa / Unsplash