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.

Tomcat

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Tomcat’s Bookerthon: a conclusion.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.  Several weeks ago I threw the gauntlet of literary fiction at my own feet, and set myself a challenge; of reading, and of writing.  Attempting to report on the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist was a noble undertaking, but one which, regrettably, fell beyond my powers of endurance.  However, my failure wasn’t total. I did manage to read all thirteen nominated novels; it’s merely in the writing of reviews that I’ve been unsuccessful.

Circumstance hasn’t allowed me the time I need to sit down and write about all of the books I’ve read, and for that I apologise.  But these blog posts don’t write themselves.  Unbelievably, it takes many hours of blood, sweat, tears and toil to churn out such poor-quality pieces of clunk and cliché.  Soaring to the giddy heights of reviewerly mediocrity doesn’t come easy to me; yet I press on, and I will review all of the out-standing Booker nominees in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, I’d like to use this article to make some final comments on the Booker prize, as well as to commit some sickening and vainglorious acts of self-praise, as I congratulate myself on having read twelve pieces of serious literary fiction, and The Slap, in just eight weeks.  Haven’t I done well?

My Bookerthon journey has transported me literarily (not literally) to: Canada, Australia, Eighteenth-Century Japan, Russia, Greece, India, Holland, France, Ireland, Egypt, Africa, Nineteenth-Century Jamaica, and that favourite staple of the English metropolitan literati: South London.  I’ve never felt more well-travelled, or well-read.  A book-by-book tour of the longlist’s settings would show you half the world; I may even suggest a Booker Prize Cruise to P&O.  Next year, if I find myself richer and more eccentric, I could read every nominated novel while journeying through the country of its setting.  Though now I’ve stated this as my pre-facto modus operandi, the Booker judges will inevitably put-paid to the idea by nominating twelve books set in North Korea, Tibet, Iran and Atlantis.

But does breadth of time and place equate to breadth of style and theme?  The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is: no.  The Booker prize enjoys a prestigious reputation as the pantheon of modern English literary writing.  When Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer dominate the bestsellers, we can always rely on the Booker judges to point us in the direction of quality, depth of emotion and profundity of thought.  At least, that’s what they’d like us to believe.  Ostensibly the prize represents the best literary fiction of the past twelve months; but if reading the entire longlist has taught me anything, it’s that the Booker committee’s definition of ‘literary’ is shockingly narrow.

Admittedly, I don’t pander to any stringent classification of ‘literariness’ whatsoever.  I like Simon Schama more for the lyricism of his prose than the content of his history.  Conversely, I find much of Dickens to be border-line unreadable.  ‘Literary’, to me, has always been an elastic and ambivalent critical term, a bit messy and hard to define.  However, the Booker judges are untroubled by such mitigating quandaries, and seem to have pinned down this ever elusive moniker with alarming precision.  If this year’s longlist is representative of the ouvre, then “literary fiction” is much narrower in scope than I ever imagined.

For the judges of the Booker prize seem to consider “literary fiction” to be a very specific brand of uber-realistic, psychologically sober, historically-informed utilitarianism: social fiction; Big Fiction.  Nothing about the longlist is non-linear, speculative, genre-defying or experimental.  What do the Booker nominated novels all have in common?  They all carry with them the cumbersome weight of plausibility.

Maybe I over-egged that a bit, so don’t get me wrong – narrative realism isn’t a bad thing, far from it; but it’s not the only stylistic idiosyncrasy that’s conducive to good writing. The judges don’t so much play it fast and loose with their choices as they do slow and tight.  None of this year’s nominees would be out-of-place as adaptations on the BBC’s autumn line-up.  With the possible exception of C, all are staid and familiar.  Accomplished, but unthreatening.  The 2010 Booker prize longlist felt like a place I’ve visited many times before.

In a previous post, I bemoaned the exclusion of such writers as Alastair Reynolds, Philip Pullman, China Mieville and Ian Banks from nomination; I even began to question the value of my own taste.  But having read the entire longlist for myself, the truth is now clear to me.  These books were excluded not because they’re bad fiction, but because they’re the wrong type of fiction.  The title of “Man Booker Prize for Fiction” is really a daring deceit; a misnomer of nomenclature.  The Booker Prize espouses such a narrow definition of ‘literary fiction’ that it has, in a way, spawned its own genre of writing.  It’s somewhat worrying that the adjective ‘Bookeresque’ could be used to define the narrative style of the entire longlist; so homogenised are the nominees.  China Mieville may compose the most sublime and insightful piece of writing ever produced, but if it’s a work of his transgressive experimentalism, then he’ll never be nominated.

 So maybe it’s time that the Booker Prize FOR FICTION either re-defines its terms, or re-titles its…err…title.  Let’s be frank: the Booker is a genre prize, in much the same capacity as the Arthur C. Clarke or the CWA awards.  My laboured point, condensed, is this: the Booker Prize doesn’t represent the best of English language fiction, but the best of a certain type of English language fiction.  And this, I think, is a shame.  Alastair Reynolds’ books contain all the colours of human emotion; he just has space ships too.  If only the judges would give a nod-of-the-head to a work of crime, or horror, or sci-fi (or any of the portmanteau works of transgressive fiction currently doing the rounds), then I’m sure people’s eyes would be opened to the real breadth of brilliant, brilliant writing that’s out there.  The Booker judges could be responsible for banishing this new myth that literary fiction is a specific kind of realistic, safe writing.  Many of the Booker nominees are brilliant, but they’re all of a type.  I’m taking issue with the spread of the longlist, rather than any of its individual titles  And thus the Booker, despite how it’s marketed, isn’t a prize for all of fiction, but for a comfortable brand of predictable MOR narrative.

It wouldn’t take an implausible paradigm shift for the Booker to incorporate the weirder and more speculative aspects of literary writing; and in doing so it would  truly earn the right to bear the title ‘prize for fiction’.  All fiction.  As things stand, the Booker institution is perpetuating a false notion that weird, unrealistic or experimental writing isn’t literary or valuable.  The Booker Prize is a bully by neglect.

Sorry about that rant, something more melodramatic than British took hold of me.  But I hope that my point stands.  Of course, none of this means that the books which have been shortlisted are inadequate or poor; they’re just not the complete picture of current English literary writing.

Anyway; enough of what could have been, and on to what is.

Of the thirteen novels originally nominated, six were chosen to form this year’s shortlist:

C – Tom McCarthy

The Long Song – Andrea Levy

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

Room – Emma Donoghue

Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

I’ve already taken issue with the quality of several of these books, and I’m wary of repeating myself, so please peruse my previous posts if you’re at all interested in mythoughts.   Suffice and sufficient to say; I think that C by Tom McCarthy should win this year’s gong.  It’s a masterwork; its themes of transmission and loss are explored with a fearless devotion to intricacy, and a refusal to simplify or condense.  Parts of the novel manage to conduct a wonderfully violent attack upon the precepts of organised language.  In it the lexicon of technology is converged with that of grief in an unusual yet moving way.  It’s never contrived, and through constant yet subtle literary references, C manages to make extraordinary points about the interconnectedness of language, literature, life and loss.  It kicks-ass and you should read it.

 And so I am glad that I decided to embark upon this ill-fated but interesting reading project.  It’s been a learning experience.  Without it, I probably wouldn’t have come across such brilliant books as C, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, or Room.

Yet despite discovering these novels, I won’t ever be undertaking such a reading project again.  Unless it’s for money.  The more I read, the less I enjoyed myself; and as the weeks progressed, this challenge began to feel more like a test of my readerly stamina than a quest to discover new, great literature.  I did enjoy several of the books on the longlist; but many others I disliked, even hated.  I forced myself to spend many long hours ploughing through books that would otherwise never have interested me.  And I regret having to fritter away my time on such literary abortions as The Slap or Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal.  Yet being the conscientious tyke that I am, I was determined to finish every book, no matter how tedious the reading experience.  See? I suffer for my art.  Or, rather, for certain writers’ lack thereof.

 Another point that stuck me, like a crowbar to the back of the head, was the utter futility of comparing so many books.  Examining such contrasting novels as Howard Jacobson’s Jewish comedy of manners and Emma Donoghue’s thriller of childhood incarceration, then attempting to resolve which one is ‘best’, seems a somewhat facile undertaking.  I’m aware that it’s the only way that one can judge a prize such as the Booker; but I don’t envy the judges their task.

So here’s another of the lessons this experience has taught me: many books are incomparable, and arguing ( for example) that Trespass is a better murder story than The Long Song is a slave narrative just strikes me as…stupid.  In the free country of the Redroom, at least, it’s not how things are done.

 —

Ultimately, the deeper I dug, the more frustrated I became.  Firstly, with the limited scope of the books that were selected for the longlist (the usual spread of historical fiction, family dramas and books by Peter Carey); secondly, and by association, with the amount of my favourite fiction of the year that wasn’t nominated; and thirdly, with the complete banality of comparing so many different books, in order to discern an individual winner.  I know the Booker prize is a force for good; if nothing else, it draws attention to niche writing that would otherwise never find its way into the bestsellers chart.  And I am glad that I didn’t detect any vein of misguided political correctness running through the judges’ choices; as is so often rumoured to be the case.

But mostly, I just couldn’t wait for the process to be over, so I could once again walk in the free gardens of literary choice, where my taste isn’t dictated to me, and where I can read whatever I choose, whenever I choose it.   If the judges ever decide to shake things up by nominating fewer works of historical fiction and family saga in favour more left-field and experimental novels, then give me a call.  But as things stand, my final realisation is this: I couldn’t give a crap about the Booker prize.

Tomcat

C – Tom McCarthy

Commencement:

Carrefax; first name Serge (pronounced as the Latinate ‘Surge’, rather than the Russian equivalent ‘Ser-gei’, apparently), is born at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Conceived by a sound-obsessed father and a deaf mother, Serge is born in unison with the first amateur radio broadcast: these two strange siblings subsist together as Siamese twins joined in utero; inseparable and inter-dependent, for life.  C is the story of Serge and of signals, a quasi-character study that not only examines the early decades of the nineteen-hundreds, but the psychological nature of the individual and his relationship with technology.

Concordant with the theme of technology is that of grief; the death of Serge’s sister (unexplained but not unexplored) permeates the narrative as an aggressive, ever-present spectre that corrupts every experience of Serge’s life; from sex to séance and combat to cryptology.

Critics have variously defined C as ‘post-structuralist’, ‘French Nouveau Roman’ and ‘Lacanian’; but don’t be put-off by such lazy genre labelling – the novel isn’t nearly as pretentious as the critics would have you believe.  Confusion, rather than comprehension, is probably what’s fuelling the genre ticker-taping of such review writers; because ‘it’s Tom McCarthy’ they want to couch their reviews in the language of literary theory rather than criticism.  Creative and theoretical readings are possible (even encouraged), but aren’t necessary to enjoy the book; my very meagre understanding of post-structuralism was no impediment to a full appreciation of C’s aesthetic identity.

Convergence:

Compositionally, C is heavily influenced by modernism; it lacks traditional plot structure and celebrates the individual’s struggle to preserve autonomy in the face of overwhelming social upheaval – you could even describe the prose as ‘stream of consciousness-lite’, if you were so inclined. 

Converse to this modernist approach, however, is a celebration of literary tradition, expressed through constant and clever literary references.  Conventional sources of poetic expression (such as Renaissance lyric poetry, or revisionist drama) are re-shaped by McCarthy to symbolise the age of communication and broadcast.  Clogging the air of the novel are cryptic transmissions and poetic signals: the iambic rhythm of Shakespeare’s sonnets becomes the dots and dashes of Morse code, Rainer’s poetic trochees are re-imagined as German cannon fire, and Goethe’s theory of colour is bastardised into the camouflage of early aircraft.

Confession: while I recognised several of the coy and wry literary references, I’m sure that many more went beyond my immediate frame of reference and understanding; it would take a much more well-read and literate reader than I to fully appreciate the depth and multiplicity of McCarthy’s references. 

Compound-complex sentences define McCarthy’s prose style; but it’s a testament to his ability as a writer that C is never difficult to read, despite its penchant for long, twisting, winding sentences.  Complementing this is the novel’s imagery; Serge always describes the physical world using the esoteric terms of radio transmissions and broadcast paraphernalia.  C.f this description of soldiers dying in the First World War:

Coming there is a loud sound, the men’s deformed mouths seem to be either transmitting it or, if not, then at least shaping it, their twisted surfaces and turned-out membranes forming receptacles in which its frequencies and timbres are unravelled, recombined, then sent back into the air both transformed and augmented, relayed onwards.

Compare this with the more visceral description of, say, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, and it’s clear quite how original McCarthy’s writing is; he’s contrived a character who sees the world through a striking dualism; technology doesn’t dislocate Serge from everyday experience; it helps him to define it.

Contrition:

Comedy merges with cruelty to give birth to a deformed yet beautiful offspring; C’s sense of humour is the dark love-child of propriety and perversion.  Coquettish serving-girls are revealed to be sexual deviants; theatre performances are corrupted by Serge’s hilarious technological tampering; even the we-all-know-it’s-funny-really concept of friendly-fire is satirised by McCarthy’s narrator:

chewing on his omelette, [he] wonders if it’s really necessary to fight the Germans after all: they could just lounge around, each on their own side, dying in random accidents until nobody’s left and the war’s over by default.

Concomitant to all these positives are, inevitably, some negatives.  Copulation plays an important role in the story, but is somewhat over-played by the author.  Cringe-worthy sex scenes are commonplace – Serge manages to sleep with every female character he encounters (except, thankfully, his mother), and even when he’s not seducing ‘the help’, he’s working out some ‘surges’ of his own creation: on the battlefield, in an escape tunnel, flying a plane, while dreaming of his sister…

Complicated and specific terminology is also a problem: the prose is dense with archaic nomenclature used to depict the exact mechanisms of early signal transmission.  Carrying a dictionary with me wherever I settled to read soon became an inconvenience, so I was forced to let all the strange and unfamiliar words wash through me; like so many un-received radio waves.  Combine this with a protagonist who describes the world in terms of carrier signals and Morse code, and it’s easy to form the impression that C is a novel afraid to commit itself emotionally.  Crafting an emotional response to C is a task lying steadily in the hands of the individual reader, as you will get no help or hints to feeling from either the characters or the narrator.  Comfort reading, this book is not.

Conclusion:

C is chimeric.  Constantly denying the reader what he wants and expects from a novel, McCarthy will not satisfy you with notions of plot, character, conflict or resolution.  Coming to the end of this review, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this novel has to offer; themes I haven’t even touched on include: entomology, drug addiction, theology, paternal lineage, cinema and tradition.  C challenged my pre-conceptions of what a novel should be; it made me question my own understanding of the world, and how everything is alarmingly inter-connected – and for that alone, I’m glad to have read it.   Calling for all writing to be so Avant-garde would be facile, but I do wish more writers were as daring, probing and creative as Tom McCarthy.  C contorts the common-place and alienates the mundane through its daring language and chaotic array of themes.  C is for complexity, C is for Cocaine, C is for Carrefax, C is for carbon, C is for cinema, C is for climax, C is for cryptology.  C is a different way of seeing the world.

Tomcat