The film at the centre of Tom McCarthy’s The Making of Incarnation is a big-budget Star Wars rip-off: a swashbuckling space saga complete with laser swords, space pirates and a gutsy princess. Dr Mark Phocan, the novel’s protagonist, is a motion-capture specialist working for Pantarey PLC, makers of the high-end proprietary imaging technology that is crucial to the film’s elaborate CGI. His name, as the novel makes a point of noting, ‘refers to Phocis, a region in Greece’ (‘Pantarey’, as it sneakily doesn’t, is Heraclitus’s ‘everything flows’). Phocan, Phocis, Focus: McCarthy likes a bit of nominative determinism, no doubt on the basis that it sticks two fingers up at the facade of plausibility demanded by the popular forms of literary realism he despises. The protagonist of his electricity-themed C (2010) was Serge (‘an electrical “Surge” rounded by an abrupt j’). There too, what rankled wasn’t so much the joke as the explanation, as if McCarthy couldn’t quite bring himself to trust that readers were keeping up.
McCarthy is a born exegete. You can imagine him, in more enlightened times, contentedly occupying the chair of some well-funded Institut für Kulturforschung. As a novelist, perhaps his greatest asset is his ability to turn abstruse points of cultural theory into provocative narrative games, as in his debut, Remainder