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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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