I Want to be on the Side of the Messy Orange : Interview with Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s fifth novel, The Making of Incarnation, delves into the field of time-and-motion studies, and it begins by focusing on one of its chief proponents, Lillian Gilbreth. McCarthy fictionalizes the American psychologist’s life and work by arranging a global chase around an artefact from Gilbreth’s personal archive: “Box 808”, a doll-house-sized motion model that would, according to Gilbreth’s notes, “change everything” in her field and beyond.

A fascinating cast of characters goes on the hunt for Box 808, which several interested parties, from industry to shady secret services, are eager to get their hands on. Quickly cutting between several characters and settings, McCarthy’s novel follows professionals in the contemporary motion capture industry, as they pursue the potentials and pitfalls of their trade. One of them, Mark Phocan, is busy performing all sorts of motion capture tasks for Pantarey, the company that employs him. In one of the most meaningful – and most sublime – scenes of the novel, he visits a wind tunnel in the Netherlands and witnesses a simulation of an Austrian bob sleigh run. Phocan will ultimately do most of the detective work to uncover the mysteries of Box 808.

While the novel surveys and deconstructs the captivating technological, social, emotional, and political dimensions of motion capture and how it seemingly reaches into every aspect of contemporary life, the book also explores the dealings of a fictional film studio that enlists motion capture engineers to aid with the special effects for their blockbuster space opera Incarnation.

In our conversation in April 2023, we delved into the history of time-and-motion studies, the theoretical underpinnings of McCarthy’s work, as well as the capabilities and prospects of the contemporary novel.

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