Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Well it’s gone and happened now hasn’t it? That wonderful moment when you have to let go and things, for whatever reason, take their natural course. In November Remainder by Tom McCarthy was published by the enigmatic, Paris-based Metronome Press; then just a novel, an ideal, a stab at something quite special, that if it was actually pulled off then ... who knows? Well, it’s gone and taken off hasn’t it? Remainder is a triumph and probably one of the most refreshingly brilliant novels you will read for a very long time to come. You will treasure this novel, it will sit on your book shelves with pride, you will hold it in your hands and grin like a child at Christmas. It will be passed onto friends and family. You will read this remarkable novel again and again and again. And for once I’m deliriously, unashamedly without-one-iota-of-sarcasm happy about it.
Some of you may have already heard of Tom McCarthy, the shadowy figure behind the cryptic International Necronautical Society. Some of you will have read his manifestos, some of you will have attended his joint exhibitions or tuned into the INS’ radio broadcasts from the ICA - and some of you will have read his debut novel Remainder. For those of you who haven’t I seriously urge you to do so immediately. I kid you not.
Remainder begins with the following announcement from its nameless narrator:
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. [Pg 7]
It is foremost a novel about trauma and the intersection of violence and aesthetics told by an everyman, a lone voice detached from art, literature, feelings and the world around him. All he is left with is that which he remembers; vague incidents, droplets of dialogue, trickles of emotion - the rest is dizzying obfuscation. After a long rehabilitation process he is awarded 8 ½ million pounds compensation with the help from a shadowy underworld figure who stipulates that the payment will only take place if our everyman never breaths another word about his accident to anything or anyone again. He instantly agrees and is soon paid the elaborate sum of money. Suddenly our everyman want's to get himself in touch with something altogether less fabricated.
It is at this immediate juncture that things start to turn awry. As things generally seem to do when such a vulgar amount of money suddenly falls into one’s lap from out of the ether. At first our everyman is puzzled. What does exactly one do with that amount of money. He soon invests, reaping the rewards almost instantaneously. Things are looking up. But he also starts to think about what is real and what is not - paying close attention to every facet of his life - each minute particular of it; where he walks, the coffee he drinks, the homeless, his friendships and past lovers. Each seem less and less real and the more our everyman thinks about this the more he wants to move away from them and towards something altogether more tangible by his own definition.
One night while locked in the bathroom of a friend's flat at a party our everyman experiences the déjà vu which eventually propels his life into a downwards spiral he has no control over:
It happened like this. I was studying the bathroom with the door locked behind me. I’d used the toilet and was washing my hands in the sink, looking away from the mirror above it - because I don’t like mirrors generally - at this crack that ran down the wall. [Pg 60]
Suddenly the déjà vu hits him and the crack becomes a room, then a flat, a whole building with the smell of liver frying from a space below; a man playing his piano badly over and over again; the building has a courtyard with a man tinkering with his motorcycle and then beyond the courtyard is the red roofs with the black cats on, lazing, walking, yawning. This déjà vu is so mind-numbingly strong he directly has to do something about it.
So what does he do? He buys a replica building in Brixton of course, moves in and renovates it to look like that very building which appeared to him in his déjà vu, right down to the final detail - including the courtyard outside and the buildings across the way with the red roofs. And then he hires Naz, a personal assistant willing to do absolutely anything he asks without question or a second glance, and a team of equally as acquiescent workers to help replicate everything he has seen. But it doesn’t stop here, oh no, our everyman hires numerous actors and a supply of black cats to help re-enact each scenario played out: the smell of the liver frying, the piano being played, the man fixing his motorcycle, the cats lazing on the roofs (and when they fall off to their deaths he simply replaces them). This is what our everyman does with his money, he recreates what he sees, what he remembers, and what, for reasons only known to himself, feels right. He creates an event that can be switched on or off at his own volition. He is in control. But is he creating a past life? His own life? Are these déjà vu’s just a product of his trauma? Whatever they are they begin to increase with intensity, paradoxically becoming the crux of his own existence, each re-enactment becoming more real that the state he is in when they are not acted out. In short, he starts to become ill.
But he doesn’t stop here, his re-enactments become all the more surreal and violent - a garage run by some teenagers, a shooting in Brixton and finally a bank robbery. This bank Robbery being his final re-enactment. I suppose you can guess the way this story is going, but it would be stupid of me to elucidate further. I don’t want to spoil a thing.
There are many influences in this momentous novel but none are as obvious as to ruin the plot or the simple-joy-to-read slant of McCarthy’s adept story telling; there is nothing topsy-turvy about Remainder and its intertextuality doesn’t clog the narrative flow, but if you just care to look a little bit deeper into the work then there is an hell of a lot to discover. The themes of Remainder are gargantuan; from Greek tragedy to Joycean recirculation, from cool Martin Scorsese Cinema to intellectual philosophy such as Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, Beckett, Ballard, Huysmans and Lacan - it is a heady mix alright, but it is clear of pretension and posturing. It is crystallised and everything a good novel should be. It is a breath of fresh air.
The biggest allusion in Remainder is that of re-enactment and the Event, obviously, but there is also a strong whiff of Cordite running through the whole novel. Cordite I hear you ask? Cordite is a smokeless explosive. The motif of an explosion hangs distantly in Remainder - but McCarthy isn’t playing detective writer here, he doesn’t want you to search for a clue as to what happened to our everyman, the accident in that sense would be made redundant, what Tom McCarthy is searching for is a connection with all that has happened before, all that has already taken place; the repetition in Remainder is pointing to history and time, our place on the earth, the earth’s in the universe - and not just a simple déjà vu in our everyman’s mind. He wants us to search beyond the ripples and practice of his novel and look at how we perceive the things, everything, around us. He wants us to look into fictions and art, the way we read our books or watch a film - the very way we interact with all that stands before and beyond us. Through our everyman we begin to see how all is mapped out, how the real is unreal and the unreal real, how we create lines of distinction in art and reality and how these lines become increasingly blurred the more we try to figure out what it is we’re actually doing hanging up here on this shard of rock in the universe, the last remnants of something inexplicably beyond our collective comprehension, and like that of the classic trauma victim all we have left is the little snippets, that which we so desperately cling onto: the remainder.
Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder will be read and re-read, it is undoubtedly one of the most important novels written in a long, long time. But time? What on earth do we know about that? Maybe Remainder will take us that one infinitesimal step closer.