The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy: A quest for perfection

The author’s most ambitious novel yet is all about bodies in space

Tom McCarthy. Photograph: Nicole Strasser

Tom McCarthy. Photograph: Nicole Strasser

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.

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