Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Well received in Europe, Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, Remainder, is premiering in the United States this February in paperback form. It’s a good move on the part of Vintage, marketing “new to you” fiction in a more economical package to American readers. For the price, Remainder is definitely worth picking up. It’s a quick and gritty novel that begs, thanks largely to a cinematic plot, to be read in one sitting.
From the start readers are given a nameless narrator who has recently settled to receive an egregious sum of money from certain “bodies” so long as he does not “discuss the accident in any public arena or in any recordable format.” He freely discusses his painful recovery: time spent in traction with shattered bones and tedious rehab resulting in rerouted brain circuits. The details of “the accident” are never related, but one gets the sense that it may have involved some falling object and some entity, “the bodies,” were responsible. Here the narrator relays how “the accident” affected his memory in a simply elegant and mildly cheeky tone:
After the accident I forgot everything. It was as though my memories were pigeons and the accident a big noise that had scared them off. They fluttered back eventually -- but when they did, their hierarchy had changed, and some that had had crappy places before ended up with better ones: I remembered them more clearly; they seemed more important.
The novel really starts to move when, at a housewarming party, the narrator notices a crack in the bathroom plaster and is suddenly ambushed by a flood of imagery. The course of action is thus set. Almost immediately, he starts work to recreate a perceived memory of standing in a similar bathroom with the scent of cooking liver, the tinkling of a piano and various other sensory-specific details. With the help of Nazrul Vyas, or Naz, an agent of “Time Control UK… a company that sorts things out for people,” the narrator purchases several buildings and hires a cast of “re-enactors” and contractors to carry out the impossible: recreate reality.
This initial endeavor reveals that the fundamental conflict in Remainder is the narrator’s ability to discern between reality and reenactment. In that respect, the novel’s tension is remarkably similar to Fellini’s 8½, where the lines between madness and genius, actual and artifice are imperceptibly blurred.When the narrator’s high risk investments yield seemingly limitless resources, he commissions more and more extravagant reenactment scenarios. From an exchange at a tire shop to various shootings in his old Brixton neighborhood, it becomes clear through these elaborate productions that the narrator’s grip on sanity is tenuous at best.
The action in the final third of the book is dizzying. The prose becomes hurried and jumbled and events are punctuated by the narrator’s blackouts. When the narrator proposes that a robbery be reenacted, not at the bank replica he has fabricated in a hangar at Heathrow airport, but at the actual bank and unbeknownst to the bank’s staff or clientele, the official unraveling begins. This is a stark contrast to the distinct details and careful prose that illuminate the painstaking apartment project. At this point it is evident that “the accident” completely fucked this guy up and a precipitous freefall is inevitable.
If Remainder has any faults, they are in its last hundred pages. The deterioration of the narrator as exhibited in the deterioration of cohesive prose can be frustrating and overtly contrived. This is one of the main reasons that it may be daunting to prolong the reading experience past one or two sittings. Additionally, the plot is given to predictability and the downfall of the narrator is pretty well telegraphed throughout the book’s final chapters. Thus the novel’s conclusion may not be as rewarding as anticipated.
Still, Remainder provides many worthwhile points of interest for readers. The outlandish and absurd nature of its protagonist is enchanting as is the mystery that surrounds his eccentric existence. The book is at its best when McCarthy’s prose is precise and detailed. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the narrator’s attempt to recreate his apartment moment. From the sizzle of liver to the splatter of cats falling from rooftops, each detail is meticulous and intriguing. An apartment building has not been so interesting since 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. For a first novel, Remainder shows a lot of promise and Tom McCarthy’s future work should deserve a harder look when making a States-side debut.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy