Remainder – Tom McCarthy

“Well fuck off: it’s the same book as it was two years ago”  was how Tom (“the most galling interviewee in the world”) McCarthy responded to the myriad publishers clamouring to acquire the rights to his much-rejected Remainder after it became a cult success on the museum gift-shop circuit (I know, I’d never heard of such a thing either).  This linguistically gauche up-yours to the literary establishment couldn’t be more apposite, given that frustrated return and failed re-emergence are key among Remainder’s multitude themes.  Me, I would have gone for ‘look who’s come crawling back’, and launched verbose invective about not knowing what you’ve got when you’ve got it.  But that’s the difference between me and monsieur McCarthy: he can say more with a few words than I could articulate with an entire library; and that is why I love him, and why you should read this book.

[NB: I hate this part of review writing: the bit where, by convention if not requirement, I must précis a novel’s plot succinctly enough as not to bore, but comprehensively enough as not to confuse later on.  The tedium-to-information-necessity ratio is one of the hardest balances to strike, so allow me a few lines of vegetable description before we get to the meaty portions of analysis and discuss whether or not this book is actually any good.  Which it is.]

Where to begin?  – A pertinent question, seeing how Remainder starts somewhere towards the middle and casts a man without a past as its de facto hero.  The book opens in medias res with a flash-back to our nameless narrator’s “accident”, which renders him comatose and, upon waking, amnesiac.  “Bits of technology” have fallen from the sky to strike his noggin, and that’s all we (and he) will ever know.  Speculative attempts to identify the falling matter are ultimately rendered futile as McCarthy refuses to satisfy the reader (or his cast) with any definite answers; naturalistic readings may suggest parts of a plane or building are accountable, but the real import is found in the objects’ metaphoric value.  That’s right: the technological junk that biffs our protagonist is, in fact, a great big symbol, and while McCarthy doesn’t quite write ‘he was hit on the head by a falling metaphor’, he may as well have: the book’s opening being its least subtle passage.  Whether you interpret the tumbling technology as representationally atavistic (technology is bad and look what damage it causes – let’s get rid of it) or as social commentary (it destroys our memories and shortens attention spans) is up to the caprice of the individual reader – I prefer a more optimistic understanding which lifts the onus from crisis to opportunity (“crisitunity” – ©Homer Simpson) by freeing the protagonist from the burdens of past choices and the pressures of social conformity – as well as bestowing upon him a compensation pay-out of eight million pounds.  Themes of communication and transmission are also invoked by the image of technology in free-fall (subjects echoed in McCarthy’s later novel C) so, you know… look out for them as well.

Now incredibly wealthy but with no extant memories, Mr no-name assumes the mantle of that capitalist anomaly: the millionaire without history.  He has no market loyalties or consumer tastes upon which to fritter his new-found riches.  What he most wants is a past, but his recollections never return: instead he is tormented by manifest fragments of memories which take the form of random images of places and people (a bathroom, a hallway, a neighbour who puts out rubbish, a pianist who lived below him).  So, in an attempt to capture and make-real these tid-bits of a past, he begins spending his money on incredibly elaborate re-enactments; buying entire streets and buildings to re-mould in the image of his vague memories, employing ‘permanent’ actors to play-out the roles of people he barely remembers, and hiring vast teams of professionals to ensure every minute detail is perfect. Every movement he makes is an anguish of a half-remembered past, and so he attempts to re-create a space in which his movements, thoughts and life are “real”, unforced, and un-troubled by the spectre of deja vu; his ultimate goal being to produce a re-enactment so perfect and fluid that there is “no space between” the memory and the present, so he can “merge” with the moment and know a kind of happiness.

But obviously, the performative aspect of these re-enactments soon becomes a barrier to achieving a genuine, non-mimetic experience.  His response is to create ever more elaborate sequences in an attempt to lose himself in the moment and forget the performative nature of his everyday experience.  I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that the book’s final re-enactment is something very special indeed.

Remainder got under my skin; the protagonist’s border-line obsessive personality disorder began to resonate with my own daily experiences – especially after a long reading session – and simple tasks like opening the fridge door became, for me, unnervingly histrionic, as I couldn’t divorce my everyday actions from a sense of constant repetition.  But that’s what the best novels do – get under your skin and into your thoughts, even after you’ve put them down– and for this alone I think the book is valuable.    

With such a characteristically modernist premise, I was expecting a prose much more stylistically arch than I found in Remainder. The first person narration is clear and expressive, but (unlike many other attempts at avant-garde fiction) isn’t stylized to within an inch of its life.  It’s not perfect: occasionally the tone approaches near Amis (the younger) levels of self-satisfaction on the smug-o-meter, never more so than when McCarthy is stuffing the narrative with literary references (Ulysses, T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Dickens etc. etc).  Similarly, some readers may be frustrated by the explicit focus on repetition and re-enactment, which is almost David Foster Wallace-esque in its deliberate tediousness.  But where the prose really sings is in the metaphoric landscapes McCarthy creates.  In Remainder everything is a symbol or has an analogy (in structuralist terms (this is an attempt at modernism after all), you might say there’s a disproportion between the signifiers and signifieds).  A striking example of this can be found early, when the nameless hero stares into a crack instead of a mirror on a bathroom wall.  The crack, as metaphor, probably offers a more accurate reflection of our protagonist than any mirror could.  It functions as a visualisation of his mind and analogy for his missing memories.  This becomes even more explicit later on, when all his attempts to re-create the crack are frustrated and problematic. I suppose ‘the crack that can’t be filled’ offers an external microcosm for his internal torments.

Remainder is successful at challenging both social and personal notions of harmony by asking the fundamental question: are we more than the sum of our memories?  In stripping his protagonist of history, McCarthy creates a man who feels inauthentic yet becomes self-obsessed; his desperation to identify and find a sense of himself becomes an addiction: as he keeps telling us – his re-enactments aren’t art – they’re his life.  Thus Remainder exposes a dominant cultural discourse; one which renders all our actions fundamentally performative and repetitious.  The individual’s struggle against these notions and his quest for a sense of authentic individualism is just about as perfect an expression of the modernist agenda as you’re likely to find.  It’s a strange, very funny (and equally disturbing), beautiful book.  Zadie Smith believes that it points to the future of English Literature: and while I’m not quite as optimistic, I think Remainder will be remembered as something that stirred the pot.  As for its place in modern ‘Literature’; well, it’s a tiny but bright star in an otherwise dull and mundane sky.  Read it.  Read it now.


6 responses to “Remainder – Tom McCarthy

  1. Very nice. I wrote this one up myself over at mine but you bring out a lot more about technology as symbol for a start.

    I do rather sympathise with your thoughts on tedium-to-information (most apposite that link in this context). I struggle with the same myself of course.

    Anyway, the information/analysis bit was well worth the unavoidable plotty bits.

    It did strike me that it’s a much more accessible book than one might imagine. That said at times it’s quite disorientating which means it could never be mainstream. To take one example I was never wholly persuaded the memories were actually his memories. I suspected they could be images from a film or pure imaginings elevated in the absence of other internal content to the status of memory. Who knows though, the novel doesn’t answer that question (it’s not a novel of answers).

    He’s an appalling interviewee. Every interview I’ve seen with him has comments from readers underneath saying how they’ll never buy his books now they’ve read his comments. If I were his publisher I’d be tempted to gag him. He also has a tendency to imply that it’s a bit of a disgrace not to be intimately famliar with the modernist canon but there are so very many canons and nobody can be familiar with more than a fraction of them. His burning interest may not be others.

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting in such detail: it means a lot to me.

      I too considered that, maybe, his “memories” weren’t his own, but some kind of media construct that he’d appropriated. However, I decided not to go down this route in my review, as this would have lent a strong post-modern bent to my analysis and, given the book’s obvious references, I wanted to keep firmly within a modernist critical approach.

      Also, leaning towards a post-modern reading would mean I’d have to address that incredibly boring question that’s raised by all books with a coma in them: “what if he’s STILL in the coma?” Maybe he never woke; maybe it’s all internal etc. etc. And, frankly, I didn’t have the stamina to bother with that stuff. Similarly, such a psychoanalytical reading might take the focus away from the social criticism that’s so crucial to modernism. I had to curb myself as it was – this review having the potential to become incredibly long and even more boring: which, I imagine, would scare away what few readers I have. 🙂

      Many thanks again.

      • It’s not actually the most interesting question, the one about the memories. It’s just something that struck me.

        The “is he in a coma still” question is vastly less interesting though. I don’t think I could be arsed to discuss that either in my review (or if I did I hope it wasn’t more than in passing). That’s not my reading and if that were the case it would make the whole thing rather dull. Similarly “is he in purgatory” questions. I think the it was all a dream approach is best left with Bobby Ewing and I think McCarthy’s a better writer than that.

        It’s not an easy book to write about is it? It’s made me keener to read more modernist fiction though. It didn’t start that process (Ann Berg’s Quin did) but it’s pushed me further in that direction.

      • Not sure I quite said, I agree with your modernist critical approach. I think that’s the one McCarthy would want (if that matters, but it probably does a bit).

  2. Your continued self depreciation is very charming but I do hope you know that those of us that are regular readers are not put off by depth, or anything else about your reviewing style for that matter. I will certainly be seeking this out. A nice coincidence that my Memento review touched on similar ideas. Thank you for reading it.

  3. This made me laugh and laugh and laugh… NB: I hate this part of review writing: the bit where, by convention if not requirement, I must précis a novel’s plot succinctly enough as not to bore, but comprehensively enough as not to confuse later on. The tedium-to-information-necessity ratio is one of the hardest balances to strike, so allow me a few lines of vegetable description before we get to the meaty portions of analysis and discuss whether or not this book is actually any good. Which it is.

    That is so true and one thats so hard to find the right balance of. As if of course trying to sum up a book that has so much to say and so much going on in an articulate yet concise set of book thoughts. You are a master of the latter. Really glad found your blog!

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