I don't remember what I expected when I picked up Tom McCarthy's book, but it wasn't exactly what I ended up getting. The premise of the book synopsizes really well: something falls from the sky and nearly kills our narrator at which point, armed with a large settlement, he begins to experience distinct visions which he then tries to painstakingly recreate. What I didn't see coming is that the key phrase in the synopsis is 'painstakingly recreate.'
In most books, the room around the plot is filled with side characters or subplots. You might be reading a spy novel but the spy might be in love, etc. McCarthy's book is adamant in sticking to its main plot and the stubbornness is admirable if not always thrilling. The narrator hires actors, architects, and set designers to reenact a moment that may or may not have actually happened to him, and once he becomes bored with that reenactment, he begins another. What's really fascinating is that though the premise is odd, the sheer exactness and mundane nature of the initial reenactments--finding the right smell of liver, scattering the ground with cigarette butts--can make it a bit of a chore in places though that's undoubtedly the point.
I almost loved this book, but in the end I think I admired it more. McCarthy is a great writer though his prose isn't particularly poetic or showy. His great gift is finding a way to get inside the scenes we see again and again and make it compelling each time. For a writer, it's a bit of a high wire act of a novel. With no other plot and only one other major character--the "facilitator" hired to oversee the reenactments--there isn't anywhere to hide in a novel like this. There is one character with one inexplicable purpose.
I imagine most readers will have either accepted the premise or put the book down at a certain point, and it's frustrating when late in the book a possible explanation is offered for why the character is demanding these reenactments. At that point, I'd already decided I didn't want an explanation and it comes off as a little heavy-handed, the one explanation in a book where even the narrator's accident doesn't get one. We get early on that he's not the most reliable of narrators, but the beauty of the book is that the only thing to hold on to are his responses to the scenes he plays again and again. We're at his mercy to tell us what's real yet he doesn't. Only he can tell us why he's doing what he's doing and though we are so closely in his head in every way, he never does. Each tiny bit of zen happiness he gets when the scene is done exactly right is what propels him, and the book, forward. We may not understand why he chooses the scenes he does or why he chooses at all, but we understand how it makes him feel. No explanations are necessary.
I suppose something should be said about the end. It comes quickly and the actual mechanisms of it are telegraphed pretty obviously. As the reenactments take the narrator closer and closer to danger, the mundane is no longer enough and the book's ending seems appropriately inevitable.
Ultimately, I'm not sure quite how to feel about the book. I didn't always enjoy reading it due to its exactness and straightforward prose, but those are also the things that brought about its best moments. At one point I was certain the book should have been a novella, but as it went on I realized it would have been pointless if the description had been condensed. There were times when I wanted someone to tell the narrator that what he was doing was crazy and times when I wanted him to do crazier things. It's that kind of book. Until the ending, the book seems purposefully designed not to force the reader into new meanings. Its steadfast single-mindedness makes the reader enact all of the twists him or herself. The book keeps doing what it's doing while our perceptions of it shift because, like life, it just keeps going through the same motions. Perhaps the narrator is just better than the rest of us at picking the moments that matter.