McCarthy’s remarkable, at times exasperating new novel, “The Making of Incarnation,” deepens and extends these reflections even as his contempt for conventional realism stands firm. Like “Ulysses,” a text McCarthy treasures, the book combines the very new and the very old. Its protagonist (insofar as it has one) is Mark Phocan, the chief engineer at a motion-capture company called Pantarey, which means “everything flows” in Greek. The name is a nod not just to Heraclitus, who coined the phrase, but to ancient Greek sculpture, one of Western civilization’s first attempts to capture motion, as it were, and thus, McCarthy gently suggests, a distant antecedent to Pantarey’s bleeding-edge technology. This technology is used in a vast array of fields (sports, industry, medicine, video games, the military), and Phocan spends much of the book shuttling between Pantarey’s headquarters in Oxford and those of the company’s numerous clients. Among them is the high-end film-production studio Degree Zero, which is working on a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza called “Incarnation.”
The film, which basically rips the plot of “Tristan und Isolde” and mixes it with “Star Wars,” is about as interesting, artistically speaking, as it sounds, but what captivates McCarthy (as the book’s title suggests) isn’t the finished product but the labyrinthine creative process behind it. “Incarnation” is to feature, for example, a drug-fueled, zero-gravity sex scene between its two main characters. It’s Phocan’s job to figure out just how the scene might be realized. His solution is to rig motion-capture performers to the ceiling of one of Pantarey’s studios. (“Most of the actual filming in a film like this is done with stand-in bodies,” a colleague of Phocan’s explains.) These performers, covered in reflective markers (the industry term is “nipples”), carry out an erotic mime scripted by a computer program, but things don’t go quite as Phocan had envisaged: “The movement, taken as a whole, doesn’t in any way suggest that all this tumbling and twining’s really orbiting around a central and impassioned act of coitus.” When the film’s computer graphics director sees the rushes, he says they look like “the window of a butcher’s shop during an earthquake.”
“The Making of Incarnation” is about far more than just the making of “Incarnation,” though. As stuffed with characters and subplots as “War and Peace,” it’s about the making of nothing less than contemporary reality itself. In this respect, the floating-sex episode, with its unforeseen glitches, is broadly representative. Like “Remainder”’s endless re-enactments, which also never go exactly as planned, the new book’s endless motion-capture sessions produce a sort of counterfeit, denatured mimesis. But there’s an important difference, and it’s indicative of how McCarthy’s ambitions have expanded over the past two decades.
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In “Remainder,” the narrator’s looping simulacra are an essentially private obsession. (When someone suggests he film them, he flies into a rage.) In “The Making of Incarnation,” by contrast, the work of Phocan and his fellow artisan-technicians is so ubiquitous, so much a part of the fabric of society, that most people fail to recognize how mediated and synthetic their everyday reality has become. The megalomaniacal director of “Incarnation,” Lukas Dressel, wants the film’s elaborately rendered spacescapes “to be iconic; to not only serve as source, reference and gauge-stick for all future sci-fi auteurs, but to loom in the imagination of a whole civilian generation too, haunting their dreams and coloring their experience of a hundred real-world spatial interfaces.”
McCarthy clearly researched the crap out of his material; on the acknowledgments page he salutes a long list of “technical experts” and their willingness “to submit their wind tunnels, water tanks, mo-cap workshops, gait labs and postproduction studios” to his scrutiny. At times the reader might wish they’d been a little more withholding. McCarthy, a formidably gifted stylist, can tease an uncanny poetry from his findings, but he can also smother us in superfluous technical jargon. “A discrete-time Markov chain in countable state space is what we’re dealing with here,” one senior Pantarey employee overseeing a pedestrian-motion study at a London supermarket informs a subordinate. “Although I suppose that you could argue for this corridor being viewed as a continuous or general state space.” This sort of self-enamored pedantry is funny in moderation, but moderation isn’t something McCarthy has ever practiced. As I read, I found myself wondering how important it was to the book’s overall effect that we understand the science behind motion capture at the level of detail he throws at us. It often seems that all McCarthy really wants is for us to understand that he understands it.