TThe TR-808 Rhythm Composer was a 1980s analog drum machine made by Roland Corporation of Japan that has featured on everything from Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing to Kanye West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak. Manchester acid-house pioneers 808 State even named their band after that name. Samples of it are still a mainstay in electronic music production 35 years after the original ceased to be made.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the number 808 figures strongly as a numerological MacGuffin in Tom McCarthy’s new novel, twice shortlisted by Booker. It appears in various ways as a missing item on a menu, the designation of a lost archive box, and a zero between two infinity side signs, but it would be surprising if McCarthy, who after all lives in Berlin, for a long time home of a strong techno scene, also did not intend to pay tacit homage to the machine that made techno possible. Mainly because he’s known for his state-of-the-art experimentalism and his interest in systems – the 2010 C was about radio communication and Satin Island in 2015 was about anthropology, counseling and much more – and that’s a novel about machines and their interactions with humans, and how humans and machines could make a super-machine.
A lawyer, Monica Dean, is tasked with investigating the private archives of Lillian Gilbreth, an American psychologist who, along with her husband Frank, was influential in the field of time and movement studies, developing the theory of ” scientific management ”, otherwise known as Taylorism. She has produced “cyclegraphs”, time-lapse photos in which a trail of light reveals the pattern of repetitive movements in men operating drills, women operating cash registers, and so on. This is historically true, but in the novel Gilbreth also made sculptures of these cyclegraphs in boxes, and one of them – number 808 – is missing.
Meanwhile, Mark Phocan works for a tech company called Pantarey Motion Systems, which uses motion capture technology to provide modeling data for everything from soccer teams to the film industry. The company is hired to model the physically accurate implosion of a spaceship for a sci-fi movie called Incarnation (hence the novel’s title), which appears to be even more boring childish than George Lucas’ first prequel to Star Wars. . There is also an obscure society, known only as “Client A”, which might somehow seek copyright protection or own human gestures; and there’s a man from MI6, Pilkington, who is strangely interested in all of this, who gets annoyed when his chocolate pie comes with ice cream and a wafer.
However, don’t confuse this with a spy thriller. It does not proceed primarily through events, but through the accumulation and rhyme of concepts. “Things are connected to other things, which are connected to other things,” remarks the operator of a wave machine in the opening scene of Bravery, the first of many visions in the novel from a sublime tech-industrial. There is a theme of signage rather than being: a gallery guide speaks to a crowd of schoolchildren with “not enthusiasm itself but rather the intention to excite”; while the film’s script features “various subplots put together just for the purpose of complicating things – that is, to signal complexity.” There is a general obsession with fingerprints, negatives, traces left by human movement, both in the motion capture computer and in the mythical Gilbreth boxes.
Most importantly, there are constant visions of machines within machines, and of the entire universe as a machine. We hear a former Soviet physicist talk about the USSR’s dream that the world could be a perfectible “device”; while Phocan envisages “a general state in which things, all things, find themselves caught in the same general apparatus, so unspeakable, and the world, its stakes, its struggles, everything is at stake”.
Of course, a novel is also a contraption, which is why we have no reason to expect secondary characters to do more than just function, like this one, as a teacher. Exhibition: “Riga has always watched in both directions, since the days of the Hanseatic League, it has served Peter the Great as a gateway to an open coast, that is to say, not frozen. Observing people filmed in CCTV, one character thinks that they “move strangely: at normal speed, but with movement that is both imprecise and fluid, as if they were submerged in water” – a beautiful observation, and which also applies to the people of the novel. But it’s thematic, it’s also a novel of cybernetics, which sees its humans as part of a bigger feedback machine.
It is therefore rather as a mechanical matryoshka or ouroboros of interconnected threads past and present that the novel exerts its strong and particular effects. There are many of which, including some very dry humor, like in Don DeLillo’s echo when a crashed plane allegedly suffered a wonderfully named “integrity event”. There are nods to William Blake and CP Snow, and intense observation of day-to-day technical details (including an eerily fascinating depiction of an airport baggage cart dancing across the runway, before it dances). ‘it does stop across (but not inside) the red and white rectangle of the cargo box’). Some chapters trace a single thought spiraling into a satisfying picture of negative epiphany: “a white bird gliding in a parallel empty sky above a darkening flood.” It is only when the writing attempts to expand beyond its pleasantly ironic style of unemotional cataloging that it falters, the italics trying to point out importance, or the words stacked up to capture an idea that does not materialize.
The overall effect of The Making of Incarnation is therefore like that of an extremely dense artistic installation – or else of a machine, within which the reader, too, can only play the conceived function. It’s relentless and boring intermittently, but then isn’t the world too? At one point, which might be the real center of gravity of the book, a drone pilot who has remotely controlled predators in Afghanistan from his base in Hampshire mentions that he has been diagnosed with PTSD. But you weren’t really in a war zone, objected his naive interlocutor. ” Is not it ? He smiled, then added, “Right?” “