Saturday, October 21, 2006

Remainder, Tom McCarthy

Sometimes I find myself in a strange intersection of events, and a clutch of books, read more or less in random sequence, will touch on the same theme or mention the same detail. I bought Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder in France and read it in its entirety on the flight home. It was the second of three recent novels I've read in which the main narrator and principle character opens the book telling us about a mysterious accident or physical trauma and its aftermath, including the character's recuperation, re-entry into life, etc. The other two were Jennifer Egan's Look at Me and Rupert Thomson's The Insult, both of which I enjoyed. But the comparisons end there. And they are dwarfed in my memory by Remainder. Praise from certain people had my expectations high; too high, I feared. In the event, the novel far exceeded these expectations, and I feel that my experience of reading it will stay with me for a long time.

Here is first page of this remarkable novel:
About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That's it really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.

It's not that I'm being shy. It's just that - well, for one, I don't even remember the event. it's a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been - or, more precisely, being about to be - hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed. But who's to say these are genuine memories? Who's to say my traumatized mind didn't just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap - the crater - that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.

And then there's the Requirement. The Clause. The terms of the Settlement drawn up between my lawyer and the parties, institutions, organizations - let's call them the bodies - responsible for what happened to me prohibit me from discussing, in any public or recordable format (I know this bit by heart), the nature and/or details of the incident, on pain of forfeiting all financial reparations made to me, plus any surplus these might have accrued (a good word that, "accrued") while in my custody - and forfeiting quite possibly, my lawyer told me in a solemn voice, a whole lot more besides, Closing the loop, so to speak.
Immediately the narrator (who is never named), is interested in the meanings of words and in the vagaries of memory. Very soon he learns that his Settlement was for "eight and a half million pounds" and he gets snagged on the "half", the amount leftover. And because of brain damage he has to re-learn how to perform basic functions. He gets fixated on the minute elements of actions and words. He becomes obsessed with forensic science. He keeps noticing the smell of cordite.

He interrogates the commonplace and finds that his actions seem unreal to him. He is taken by the perfection of Robert De Niro in Mean Streets: "De Niro was just being; I can never do that now." After moving more or less aimlessly for a while, hanging out with friends, investing his settlement money, he has a strange vision, an elaborate déjà vu in which he "remembers" a certain moment in a certain room in a certain building with certain neighbors. He has no actual memory corresponding to it, but in the moment of his vision, he feels alive. He knows what he must do, with the perfect logic only someone with a lot of money can think: He sets out to recreate the conditions so that he can re-enact this feeling of being alive. Before long he's hired staff to follow his every whim, bought a building in Brixton, and hired people to re-enact the other people who appeared in his déjà vu.

And there are further re-enactments, which get more and more elaborate. In his effort to isolate the moments in which he feels most alive, he has elements of the re-enactments slowed down. He enters into these moments: here, this is where life happens, in the moment, at the atomic level. He finds authenticity in the most literally unreal situations (more and more artificial re-enactments of real or supposedly real events). He goes into trances from which he doesn't awake for hours, even days. He appears to be further and further removed from reality around him.

Repetition plays a major role in this novel. The re-enactments are repeated over and over again. The narrator's singlemindedness creates restlessness in the reader (or, well, this reader): what, I wonder, is the purpose of these re-enactments? Or, where is this going? Indeed, expectations of "story" are continually raised and then thwarted. But the re-enactments are the point: he is trying to have a real experience, to enter into the experience, and his experience is such that we enter into it ourselves, almost achieve a trance state in our reading... In the re-enactments, as the narrator seeks to enter into the moment, to recreate these fleeting sensations when he felt most real, most alive, as he slows down the process, the prose slows, and we enter into the moment as readers, achieve an almost trance-like state, as he does.

Throughout, McCarthy's prose is appropriate to the material: precise, controlled, deliberate, restrained. One of the blurbs on my copy of the novel talks about how, in the novel, the event, is "lived and relived in... Beckettian vibrations...", which I immediately scoffed at as typical blurby hyperbole. But now I know what it means. I've only read Beckett's Murphy, which I know is not "mature" Beckett, but while reading Remainder, especially the slowed down, repeated re-enactments, I seemed to feel, yes, "vibrations" of what Beckett is about. Here he describes in minute detail the slowed down re-enactment at the building in Brixton:
We stayed there for a very long time, facing one another. The pianist's chords stretched out, elastic, like elastic when you stretch it and it opens up its flesh to you, shows you its cracks, its pores. The chords stretched and became softer, richer, wider; then they kinked back, reinstating themselves as he hit the keys again.
...and I am reminded of Morton Feldman... actually, scratch that: I'm not merely reminded of Feldman, the passage makes me feel that I know what it would be like to be inside Feldman's music; and then I remember that Feldman composed a piece "for" Beckett, and the reference seems entirely appropriate.

The temptation to write about this novel in excessive detail is strong. As is the temptation to quote from it at considerable length. But I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I think the novel is to be finally published in the US next year. If you can get it earlier, please do. I can't recommend this novel highly enough.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I'm now going to look for this book when it is published in the U.S.

Richard said...

Excellent. I look forward to learning what you think of it....

Anonymous said...

Nice review Richard.

Remainder is going to be published by Vintage US in February next year FYI. The UK edition from Alma press is currently available in Canada from Raincoast Books (

Tom McCarthy was actually at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto last month and the Raincoast blog has long interview I did with him here:

FULL DISCLOSURE: I work for Raincoast, but I do also LOVE this book!


Richard said...

Thanks, Dan. Yeah, I read your interview and enjoyed it very much. (Were I faster blogger, I'd already have drawn attention to it here....)

It's the Alma edition that I bought in France, incidentally. A very attractive book.

Steven said...

I just finished this book, and am now on a somewhat obsessive quest to find others who have read it and can tell me if they relate to the (initially benign) thoughts & behaviors of the narator. Specifically, the feeling of always being outside of the action and speech of life, as opposed to just being "real". I've felt that tingling sensatino he talks about, in exactly those kinds of moments he describes, for exactly the ame reasons. And I can't tell if this means that we all do at some point which is why we relate to the character, or if almost no one feels this way and so we are interested in the character because he's so unusual.

Feel free to email me to continue discussing.