Remainder – Tom McCarthy

20 October 2010
Chapters 1-6…
…which is about a third of the novel. The main thing to say about it is that we don’t know where we are, largely because the narrator doesn’t know where he is either. McCarthy kick-starts the narrative in Chapter 1: our man is still in recovery from being in a coma following a bizarre accident; and he’s going to receive an out-of-court ‘settlement’. The way he plays with the comfortable sound of the word is, surely, a deliberate echo of Humbert Humbert’s games with ‘Lo-li-ta’: ‘set-tle-ment’. He pretends to believe he’s looking forward to the idea of being set, settled, sorted – but the way he goes on about it makes us realise he believes no such thing. However… reader, the settlement turns out to be eight-and-a-half million pounds….

He’s so shocked he pulls the phone from the wall. (He isn’t quite in control of his movements yet, despite the months of physio he’s undergone to re-learn even the simplest of activities.) And… he tells the American woman he once met on a course in Paris, arrived on a stop-over in London on the very day he finds out, that it’s ‘several hundred thousand’; he tells his best friend it’s a million. So by about Chapter 2 the keynotes of all his dealings with other human beings are detachment – and that old favourite, unreliability

There are other clues pointing to how adrift he is, At a film he’s seen with the best friend, he remarks on how only in films do people’s actions seem to have any flow. Why can’t everybody in the real world be as comfortable in their own skin, and behave as unselfconsciously as Robert De Niro? He’s self-conscious about the artificiality of his own newly re-learnt movements, and wonders whether he was ever more self-possessed. Not really, says the friend…. We know that McCarthy, with our man in tow, is definitely taking us to a different place in the encounter with the homeless man. He overcomes the man’s suspicions, treats him to a restaurant meal, tries to find out from him – what? – how it feels not to be just acting a part? to live a life that seems properly attached to reality…? Not for the first time, he can’t really explain what he means – and then he tells us he’s making it up anyway. He never even spoke to the homeless man.

This is quite a big step. We’ve know he’s been through some strange stuff because he’s told us about it: the slow stages of his emergence from the coma, the reassembly of memories, the way his mental landscape is not the same place as it was before. Not surprisingly, we’ve also seen his obsessive seeking out of order in a messed-up world: perpendicularity – he loves right-angles – his own position in relation to walls and street-plans, patterns of other people’s behaviour…. I’m going to assume that he isn’t going to make a habit of making things up, that he (and McCarthy) will stick to the conventions of authorial veracity. But we know he can only give us the truth as he sees it, and we’ve had a clear warning to be on our guard.

Next. At a boring party he has an epiphany, an ‘event’ that he tells us will shape the next part of his life. He sees… a crack in a bathroom wall, and it propels him into such a vivid deja-vu that he spends minutes, ignoring the protests of other people who need the toilet, capturing the memory it evokes. He can’t remember where it was, but there was a flat, with particular neighbours, a view of black cats on red rooftops – and suddenly this becomes a holy grail for him. For the first time since the accident he can remember what it feels like to be fully engaged with the reality of the world, and he decides that his mission from now on – he doesn’t call it that – is to recreate life in that flat. It was on about the fifth or sixth floor, the concierge used to leave her mop and bucket just like that, the piano-teacher downstairs used to compose in this way… and so on.

All he needs to do is spend a little time, and as much money as it takes – the reader suddenly realises why McCarthy had to let him have that preposterous compensation payment – to create a kind of Truman Show world for himself where all the falsity he sees around him now will fall away. In The Truman Show there was a director, who became a kind of Old Testament God, jealous of his power and conjuring up a storm to keep his creation captive. But in this world it’s our man himself who will be in charge of location and mise-en-scene – he’s just found the right building in south London – casting, production, direction…. He’s going to create a world that is exactly as ordered as he wants it to be.

It’s doomed, obviously, even though McCarthy has found a convenient fixer for him to do the boring legwork – i.e. so our man won’t have to do it, and McCarthy won’t have to tell us about it. If it just, well, happens, we can get on with the interesting business of exploring questions of how human beings succeed or fail in their attempts to engage with the world. It seems this author is more interested in how we deal with reality than with real estate.

22 October
Chapters 7-12
I was wrong when I said our man’s project was ‘doomed to failure’. He wants to recreate a moment from somewhere hidden deep in his memory and, in the universe this novel inhabits, he can do it. ‘Facilitated’ – a word our man likes almost as much as ‘settlement’ half a dozen chapters back – by Naz, the endlessly resourceful fixer, a microcosm of his past really does begin to appear. In two chapters of detail McCarthy does as convincing a job as he can of persuading us that a team of carefully briefed professionals really could recreate the cluster of experiences he wants.

Do we have to believe it? Is this obsessive-compulsive accident victim really able to have professionals recreate and re-enact all the complex threads of everyday life from some earlier time? Or are we supposed to be having problems with the necessary suspension of disbelief? Plausible as McCarthy has made the uber-resourceful Naz, it’s as justifiable for us to dismiss the whole project as the fantasies of a damaged mind as to accept it as ‘real’. I’m sent back, again, to American movies of the past ten or fifteen years. The Keanu Reeves character in the Matrix films, and Jim Carrey in both The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are all in worlds in which perception is manipulated. I can’t decide whether I’d prefer it to be all fantasy or all true. I suspect it’s the latter, but… but I’ll shut up about it, because McCarthy is doing some interesting things.

As the first project gets going and, after endless tweaking becomes a complete success, our man starts to behave like an autocrat. The seedy building and its seedy environs, all realised by him, are his Palace of Versailles. He has ‘staff’ who do whatever he wants, and if there are unfortunate outcomes – like several of the black cats falling to their deaths from the red roofs every week – well, tough. One of the re-enactors, the pianist, is caught moonlighting and our man is appalled. He has no concept of anybody’s lives outside the project, will happily force them to work unimaginably unsocial hours. But it’s when he has a model of the building and its courtyard made that things become spooky. He starts to move the tiny figures in the model, then has his fixer radio to the re-enactors so they assume the positions he’s imagined for them. Or he enacts his short scenario over and over and over. He’s God now, and he reaches a kind of fulfilment. He starts to record elements of the scene: the oil-patch below the motorbike being endlessly tinkered with or the crack in the bathroom wall. He rarely feels the need to leave the flat,

But one time he does, and it takes him to his next project. The first has been to recreate the everyday perfection of a moment, but this new one is about how perfection can go wrong. He gets a puncture repaired, and narrates the story over a few pages. Details are important, obviously, particularly the practised actions of the surprisingly young lad doing the repair. It all seem right in that way he loves – until the accident with the screen-wash. The lad and his even younger mates fill up the reservoir… except it doesn’t fill. The water seems to disappear, because it hasn’t leaked out, and for our man this is good too: he can imagine it simply vaporising, as though a new physical law has come about. But it hasn’t: when he starts the car, water gushes out of the dashboard all over him.

This is what he recreates next, in a disused warehouse: the whole tyre-fixing shop, and the kids, the repair, the mishap. And the most important thing for our man is repetition. He has teams of the re-enactors working in three-hour shifts so that at any time of the day or night he can come and see it. Just knowing they’re there is a sort of comfort: the wish for order has become his primary object, and he will do anything to bring it about…. But again, it isn’t enough. He wants to do something to recreate the moment when the impossible became possible: can his staff get the water to disappear – no, not disappear, but vaporise, change its state, somehow become the sky?

For the next project – and this is as far as I’ve got, just over two-thirds of the way through – he recreates a gangland shooting. He’s connected to it in two ways: the police cordon delays a car-journey he is making; and it happens in and around the phone-box he went to after pulling his own from the wall all those weeks or months ago. (Patterns like this are a part of his world. He loves them for the order they bring.) His previous two projects have got him interested in the planning process: he’s more interested in the fixers than in the re-enactors. Now, he becomes interested in ever more arcane details of how things work. Guns, for instance, and car engines.

As he delves deeper into the inner workings of things he’s becoming ever more detached. He’s already reaching a state, often after multiple repetitions of whatever is being enacted, of complete close-down – to the extent that Naz has already had to call a doctor to try to bring him back from wherever he is. (Our man can’t understand all the fuss.) In the enactment of the shooting, he casts himself as the victim. Unselfconsciously, he identifies with the youth who was shot: they had the very similar experiences, he thinks, with one tiny difference: he survived. And as he reaches the tableau ending of yet another repeat performance, he goes into one of his absences. He vaguely remembers being taken home to bed, and later we are introduced to a doctor Naz calls for him more than once….

What’s going on? Detachment has morphed into a kind of anomie, the recreation of a moment of epiphany (or some other vivid experience) has morphed into a complete withdrawal from the everyday – as though, by creating film-like loops of experience, his consciousness of himself as either viewer or participant has got nowhere to go. So it disappears. Don’t ask me where McCarthy is going with this. Is our man becoming less alive? Is that the point? Might he just as well have died? Or – and I don’t know if I actually suspect this or not – did he die when that piece of ‘technology’ fell from the sky all those months ago, and all these carefully reconstructed episodes of a life once lived are really another Incident at Owl Creek Bridge. Reader, perhaps he’s just coming to terms with his own death, as it’s happening, by seeking something akin to it in this imagined life. Maybe.

24 October
Chapter 13 to the end
…and maybe not. I think I’ve been trying to answer questions that McCarthy isn’t asking, and they’re to do with plausibility. I was finding it all a bit unfeasible so, obviously, I picked up on that clue written in foot-high letters in the homeless man incident early on: the narrator, consciously or not, must be making it up. It would explain how all those increasingly unlikely developments might fit into a recognisably real world if, as I suggested before, this is another Incident at Owl Creek Bridge: the moment of death becomes prolonged in imagination until the normal rules of reality are stretched beyond breaking-point. This is at least as plausible to me as what McCarthy is offering by the end of Chapter 12 – and beyond, for that matter – which is why I began to ask questions.

But in the remaining chapters no easy get-outs are offered, and there’s certainly no confirmation that this is fantasy: the novel ends with our man, and us, literally up in the air. The imaginary encounter with the homeless man isn’t a warning about our narrator’s reliability or otherwise, it’s simply McCarthy reminding us that everything you read in novels is made up. In a novel, London can be a place where stockbrokers bring almost daily news of how much your wealth is increasing, where people exist who can provide absolutely anything for you if you pay enough. As I’ve said before, there are other things that McCarthy is interested in.

So what’s happened since I last wrote? Well, basically, the way our man adds to his enjoyment by making each reconstruction more closely based on reality than the last reaches its ultimate end: a pretend bank robbery turns into a real one. The way that McCarthy makes the idea of this final tweak come to our man in the bath, so that the Eureka moment is quite literal, is another reminder – as if we could forget – that we haven’t been in Kansas for quite some time. I’m beginning to wonder how many other reminders he’s laid in our path that I’ve simply not noticed. I got the joke about being left up in the air and the couple of other things I’ve already mentioned….

There’s a ‘councillor’ who appears in our man’s flat, uninvited and unannounced. But later on, Naz has no memory of him, although they were in the flat together. And this man’s role seems to be that of a sort of literary ombudsman: he tries to get our man to explain what he thinks he’s doing. Are his re-enactments art? Do they have a religious, shamanistic significance? What is he making out of his own residual experiences? McCarthy makes a big point of having our man tell Naz to have these words looked up – and, presumably, if the councillor knows words our man doesn’t, he can’t be explained away as a figment of his imagination. Can he? Maybe not, but he could be seen as another alienation device: McCarthy is giving us another warning about taking the events in this fiction as if they could ever be the literal truth.

If I haven’t been going into any details of the plot, it’s because they don’t seem important. If ever McCarthy has a stab at conventional narrative plausibility – which he quite often does – he will undercut it. It’s the ex-bank-robber who makes him realise that real robberies are rehearsed in exactly the same way as the enactments we’ve been witnessing – and this leads to the Eureka moment. Our man realises that all he has to do is move the long-planned enactment of a robbery to a real bank – and Naz simply goes along with it. That this simply wouldn’t happen is no longer relevant….

In fact, McCarthy plays all sorts of games in the final couple of chapters, starting with Naz. The computer-like way he’s had from the start, of processing information in a kind of trance, makes it an easy step for the software inside him to become corrupted and, in the end, for him to crash entirely. Meanwhile, as a wrong detail in the endless rehearsals leads to the robbery being ‘fucked up’, our man entirely loses his grip on reality. He loves the way it goes wrong for all the essentially aesthetic opportunities it presents, loves the look of a re-enactor’s shotgun wounds (we only know him and all the others as numbers or by the roles they play), marvels at the shapes made by the reflections in the growing pool of blood. Anomie has become a total lack of human feeling, as we see when he decides to shoot another of the numbered re-enactors, not because his shock and panic annoys him but because he wants to recreate the first shooting.

So. Novelistic verisimilitude has vaporised in exactly the way our man wants everything to go. (I told you from the start he was seeking the end he didn’t attain through the accident, and he’s had a fascination with entropy almost from the start.) At the end, in an aeroplane being flown back and forth somewhere in southern England, absolutely nothing comes along to alter our man’s unswerving belief that he can make anything at all happen. McCarthy has worked it so that he is on board a private jet with a shotgun; obviously, the real cabin crew will do what he says, just as the real bank staff did. And we realise we’re in that old Twilight Zone episode, originally a Jerome Bixby short story and once memorably parodied in a Simpsons Halloween special, in which a child is born who can make absolutely anything happen just by thinking it. For our man, it’s a good day.

Is it a good day for the reader? Some big claims are made for this novel: it’s been compared, for instance, to Sartre’s Nausée for its exploration of the possibilities of narrative truth and the nature of reality itself. Well, maybe. But, having begun to understand how – and, to some extent, why – McCarthy undercuts our expectations, I’m not massively thrilled by the experience. I’ve been wondering why that is ever since I finished it…. Is it to do with the way, as so often happens with ‘unreliable narrator’ novels, that the reader is left groping for understanding as the unreliable author chips away at the contract between him and the reader? I was similarly exasperated by American Psycho and The Good Soldier – both written by authors notorious even in letters and interviews for misleading statements. It’s perfectly interesting, but does it really raise any more questions about perception and memory than Total Recall, The Matrix or Hiroshima Mon Amour?

I know. Silly question, because this novel is about control as much as it is about the nature of perception, memory, consciousness…. I suppose my problem with it is that as McCarthy explores one man’s lunatic attempt to fix reality the narrative spins off in far too many other directions for comfort. By the end, for me, the novel is mainly about the reader’s disorientation, and I don’t find that as interesting as things that happen earlier on, when the narrator was less like the Anthony Perkins character in Psycho and more like a real human being, however damaged.

2 Responses to Remainder – Tom McCarthy

  1. Realise I’m about 5 years late but I really love this book and really enjoyed your summary- very helpful reminder and your responses as a reader reminded me of my own when reading! Thanks for posting this 🙂

  2. wecanreadit says:

    Thanks for this. Your response sums up why I write these journals – to remind myself at some future date what I got out of reading a particular book in the first place.

    If you know anybody else who might like the site, let them know!

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