Monday, January 28, 2008

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Near the top of the vague and amorphous list of ways in which I'd like to improve as a reviewer is the desire to get better at writing about really good books. It's not just that, as Anton Ego tells us, negative reviews are fun to write; they're also easier. The problems in a book--not just bad books but good-yet-flawed ones as well--are like cracks in a rock face. They're points of access, places from which to start an examination, one which will ultimately comprise both weaknesses and strengths. A genuinely successful novel doesn't lend itself to deconstruction so easily. Its surface is smooth. My least favorite reviews are almost always of books I adored, and not just for a single quality--for beautiful writing or an exciting plot or well-drawn characters--but for a uniform excellence which left me with nothing to grab onto. I end up flailing about, trying to find something more substantial to say than 'this book is really good; read it.' Nevertheless, and in the hope that practice does indeed make perfect, I am going to try again, but before I do let's just get this out of the way: Remainder by Tom McCarthy is an exceptionally fine novel. You should read it (and here's an online copy of the first chapter to whet your appetite).

Remainder is narrated by a nameless man who, not long before the events it describes take place, was the victim of a freak accident. Something--both his damaged memory and a non-disclosure agreement prevent him from revealing what--fell on him from the sky. Though seemingly recovered, the narrator has suffered significant brain damage. He has had to painstakingly retrain his motor system, to learn how to walk and feed himself.
Everything was like this. Everything, each movement: I had to learn them all. I had to understand how they work first, break them down into each constituent part, then execute them. ... By April I was already almost up to speed, up to my ninety [percent]. But I still had to think about each movement I made, had to understand it. No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed me that forever, an eternal detour.
Perhaps because of this constant need for self-awareness, perhaps as a result of trauma or yet more brain damage, the narrator is detached and emotionally numb, equally unmoved by both his friends and the news that he has won 8.5 million pounds in an out of court settlement with the company responsible (or rather, the company refusing to admit responsibility) for his accident. The accident has rendered him somewhat autistic--incapable of differentiating between meaningful and meaningless data, of performing the thoughtless weeding out of extraneous information that we all need in order to function properly. This is not to say that he is diminished as a person--he comprehends his situation perfectly, and, inasmuch as his emotional bareness allows him to, is deeply distressed by it.

A solution seems to present itself when, while visiting the bathroom in a friend's new apartment, the narrator glimpses a crack in the wall which plunges him into a vivid and powerful memory. In those instants of recollection, he is entirely unrehearsed, unaware of his own churning, damaged mind. He can just be. With 8.5 million pounds at his disposal, the narrator sets out to recapture that moment. In his memory (which, it is strongly suggested, is mostly a figment of his imagination) he was a tenant in an apartment building. He could smell the neighbor below him frying liver and hear the neighbor below her playing the piano. He could see a man fixing a motorcycle in the courtyard and cats walking along the roof opposite from his window. With the help of a logistical genius, and bucketsfull of money, the narrator buys a building, converts it to match the details of the one in his memory, and hires people to portray the neighbors and perform the activities within it. In this environment, he can inhabit his memory, reenacting it again and again. More reenactments follow--of a perfectly mundane mishap in a tire shop, of a shooting that takes place near the narrator's apartment, of a bank robbery--each intended to bring him closer to a state of pure, unrehearsed existence.

It is possible to read Remainder as a narrative of brain damage, and one man's bizarre attempt to overcome it. It works equally well as a study of a man's journey towards enlightenment, or, given the disastrous results of the later reenactments and the narrator's nonchalant reaction to them, of his descent into madness. There's even a hint that the narrator's compulsion has an external source, and that something fantastic is at work. At several points, the narrator complains of the smell of cordite, which no one else can smell, but later admits that he doesn't know what cordite smells like. A mysterious man, whom no one else seems to notice, appears and begins narrating the narrator's actions to himself. The novel's ending even has a whiff of Donnie Darko about it. Ultimately, none of these solutions are sufficient. None of them describe Remainder fully, and in the end one is forced to admit that such a decryption is probably impossible. This is just an incredibly weird book.

Which, in general, is not the sort of novel I tend to enjoy. Add to that the first person narration--something for which I have a very low threshold of tolerance--and the flat, affectless voice in which Remainder is told, and you have what should by rights be a recipe for my disdain. I'm reminded of Patrick Thompson's Divided Kingdom, which came highly recommended by many of the same bloggers now touting Remainder, and which shares some of its characteristics: bizarre premise (in Thompson's case, that England and its population have been divided into four nations according to the four humors) described through the eyes of a dispassionate, not particularly pro-active, observer. I bounced off Divided Kingdom hard--not only did I not like it, once I finished it I found I had nothing to say about it, good or bad. I had no reaction to it whatsoever. I couldn't relate to either the narrator or his situation. In the back of my mind, I expected to be similarly alienated by Remainder. Instead, I was overcome.

The difference, I think, is that for all its weirdness, Remainder is rooted in reality. The genius of McCarthy's storytelling is that the bulk of the novel is focused on the minutiae of bringing the narrator's vision to life. The architects, builders, set designers, props masters, technicians, animal wranglers, and actors required for him to experience one moment of unstudied action. (The reenactment process is frequently compared to moviemaking, and the idea for it germinates in the narrator after he sees a movie and remarks that the characters within it possess a natural quality that he has lost, and there's no doubt some commentary here about our tendency to think of movies, and audio-visual media in general, as more real than reality.) By rooting the novel in these practical matters, McCarthy grounds us, and keeps us from the alienation that characterizes novels like Divided Kingdom. The narrator is going slowly insane, but that insanity is expressed through a million mundane, and utterly sane, details. He is still, recognizably, living in our world, though who knows what he is making of it.

More importantly, Remainder echoes a longing that, I think, most of us have felt at one point or another. We've all sunk into a vivid memory and longed to capture it more fully. And I think that we can all appreciate the appeal of simply existing, and the rarity of it. As the narrator is told when he laments that he has lost all access to that state since his accident: "Do you think you could before? ... Do you think that anyone outside of films lights cigarettes or opens fridge doors like that?" We all know what it's like to feel over-rehearsed, whether we're trying to play a part or seem cool or fit in, and we've all felt the certainty that everyone else around us has got the business of life down, while we're busy overthinking it. Remainder speaks to that desire to do without understanding, and expresses it with painful clarity.

As I've said already, Remainder occasionally seems to be telling a fantastic story, and as the novel draws to its end it begins veering more towards horror. Like the best entries in that genre, it takes something ordinary and familiar--in this case, a familiar desire--and builds upon it. Given the opportunity to indulge a desire most of us can only sigh at, and damaged just sufficiently that he can do so without caring about the people in his way, the narrator becomes something monstrous, and commits monstrous acts. Another way of looking at it is that he's become something transcendent--the ending is, unsurprisingly, inconclusive. What is surprising, or perhaps not so much given how excellent everything leading up to that point has been, is how little this ambiguity troubles us. Like the narrator, we'd simply like the moment, and the novel, to go on forever.

1 comment:

James said...

Great post.

I read Remainder in one sitting when it first came out, and it stuck in my head like little else in recent years. It's a strange read, satisfyingly unsatisfying, if that makes any sense. The closest comparison to the feeling I had in the immediate aftermath of my reading was the sensation I had after finishing Time's Arrow by Martin Amis, which is told backwards; I had to reinterpret every event I witnessed shortly afterwards in an attempt to put it back into its "proper" reverse chronology.

I work in an indie bookstore that encourages us to write recommendation cards for books we like, and I couldn't pin myself down to just one, so I wrote four for Remainder. It ended up as our third-best selling book of the year.

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