A true success story, first published by an art-based micropress, then picked up by a small literary press, then, strictly through word-of-mouth, to Vintage, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is that curious object: a novel with narrative propulsion that soars above the overbaked combat of lyrical realism vs metafictional filtering. It’s easy to see it, as did Zadie Smith’s positive essay on McCarthy (contrasting Remainder with another novel from Joseph O’Neill), as modernism’s new circuitry, but McCarthy has, himself, disavowed the pro forma connections.
The first-person, post-coma, emotionless, instant millionaire (over a million pounds as settlement from a mysterious accident) obsesses on his sense of unreality. McCarthy exquisitely navigates through the exterior dimensions of his madness, covering, in fastidious detail, the narrator’s demands and orders to his new minions – directors, actors, logistics experts, blue-collar contractors – in a desperate attempt to “re-enact” (his insisted-upon term) a previous déja vu moment, that moment filled with fluency, grace, a oneness of being, the memory and manifestation merging in spiritual bliss.
Now this is a terrific premise, and an exciting and timeless one. And it’s terrifically complex. The narrator’s team – at its peak involving over a thousand employee re-enactors – are given no interior detail (the narrator doesn’t care about others, and in any case, McCarthy stays inside this one man’s head), but the narrator, also, has little desire in illuminating the why of his quixotic plans. At just past the two-thirds mark, though, we get this, from a doctor, speaking to, and summoned by, the troubled man’s top director:
“ ‘[t]he body administers its own painkillers – hefty ones. The problem is, these can be rather pleasant – so pleasant, in fact, that the system goes looking for more of them. The stronger the trauma, the stronger the dose, and hence the stronger the compulsion to trigger new releases. Reasonably intelligent laboratory animals will return again and again to the source of their trauma, the electrified button ... although they know they’ll get the shock again.’ “
It’s here (if not before) the book’s biggest problem materializes, as startling in its way as the recreated smells of liver, re-enacted from two floors below the re-enacted building with the re-enacted players, the cats meanwhile falling off the roof, not being able to follow directions. That is, the wish for oneness, glimpsed at in the earlier déja vu vision, somehow merges with the wish for repeating, impulsively, painful behaviour. Philosophically and spiritually, I don’t buy it, unless the reader wants to entertain the possibility that the goal wasn’t spiritual unity, but a desperate bid for time-released soporifics. That said, the novel then faithfully drives the destructive element to its nadir. After the re-enactment of an actual murder and then an imagined bank heist, the narrator conspires with director Naz to attempt an actual bank robbery, with an attendant and absurd spiraling of logistical detail. I thought the novel would surely fall apart here in a ridiculous thriller-based riff, but the writing becomes almost unbearably beautiful, the actions slowed down, the detail relentless and fascinating, and the narrator’s vision morphing into further unexpected territory (“light and blood”). There’s a little too much direct nodding to Camus’ L’Etranger, but its more for emphasis than in homage. And the final scene is perfectly set-up and realized.
Despite its dark narrative and despicable lead character, there are flashes of loud humour throughout – the narrator complaining to his directors that the sun won’t behave, ditto for his doctor (“I’d even have let him stay if he’d only behaved himself and not moved”), and, when going through the rehearsals for the elaborate murder re-enactment after a dizzyingly difficult set-up by his employees, congratulating himself for his supposed largesse (“I thought of asking to try too, but didn’t want to get all self-indulgent”).
There are many suggestions throughout the book as to how to process the information, the “materiality” of the novel, how to integrate that with possible meanings and to what purpose any conclusions may point to. But I haven’t yet seen the rather obvious one mentioned. That the superstructure may suggest the problems a novelist may (will) have in writing his or her work – how to move characters around seamlessly and believably, how to demand certain actions from those characters without caring about their own projected wishes, and, certainly not least, how porous are the borders between reality and fiction.