Notes Reading Notes

Remainder

By Tom McCarthy, 2005

What literary theme more perfectly sums up the zeitgeist of the early 2000s than authenticity? Remainder must be one of the most interesting novels from this time period. Rather than follow the fraught path of ironising irony to the point of earnestness that finds its extreme in stories like Good Old Neon by David Foster Wallace, Remainder works in a satisfyingly subtle and ambiguous way with a narrator who actively rejects and fights against self awareness, all the while planning remarkably intricate and expensive schemes to satisfy his unconscious urges.

The story is of a nameless Londoner who is hit by technological debris falling from the sky. Emerging from a coma with severe head trauma, amnesia and loss of fine motor skills, he has to re-learn all the basic physical and mental activities he previously took for granted. After receiving a £8.5 million accident compensation settlement from the nameless corporation responsible for the MacGuffin that struck him, the narrator finds himself empty and confused with no idea what to do with the money.

The story is told from the first person perspective with the narrator an artless, affectless persona whose intensity is built up through contrasting flat repetition with scenes of detailed descriptive reverie.

His numbness could be a direct consequence of the head injury, but he experiences it as an existential crisis. After the £8.5 million comes through, his very first impulse is to stand outside a tube station with arms outstretched, begging for coins from passers by. This makes him feel so serene and intense that he almost feels real for the first time since waking from his coma.

Later, in the bathroom at a house party of an acquaintance, he sees a crack in the wall that triggers the same sensation, the same feeling of realness, as he recalls the entirety of an experience in an apartment building with a similar shaped crack. He can’t remember where the building was or if he lived there, but he vividly reimagines everything about it and its inhabitants. The rush he feels is so strong and pure that he realises re-creating this memory is how he must spend his money.

From this point, the rest of the novel is spent swirling through the consequences of managing this obsession—finding and renovating a suitably exact building, hiring actors and arranging props and staging re-enactments of the memory over and over again. Each re-enactment gives him the rush of intense serenity he craves, but no matter what he tries, there are tiny details which aren’t right. Inauthenticity quickly takes over.

The relentlessness with which he pursues his obsession is a form of solipsism. The re-enactments are separated from their context by discrete states—the on mode and off mode. The people hired to perform are contracted to remain on-call in the building where he requires them. In the on mode, they must continually repeat the same actions over and over again for as long as he asks them to. Eventually, the narrator acquires miniature architecture models of the building and all the people which deepens his obsession with control and dictation—he starts moving the models around, then instructs the real people to copy these movements almost entirely. His demands come across as callous, bordering on cruelty and only made possible by the excessive sums of money being offered.

As the obsession grows, he starts to expand the re-enactments towards violence, requiring ever more complex logistics and machinations involving bribing the local council and police.

Obviously, the only way this can end is through the spectacular tragedy of the re-enactments becoming real. This is telegraphed from a long way off and builds through increasingly broken and disordered scenes, reflecting the disordered thinking and mental breakdown of the narrator as he closes in on the final realisation of his project—a realisation he didn’t know he was working towards.

This third act is probably the most polarising part of the novel. With such a subtle and philosophically interesting premise to work from, it’s arguable that the theme is let down by this transgressive, violent, action-packed rampage as a conclusion, almost to the point of the work shedding its skin as a novel of ideas.

There is a single significant moment which brings the whole thing together effectively. As the carnage breaks out and the re-enactors realise what’s happening, one cries out: “It’s real!” For the narrator, this line is the most perfect thing he could possibly hear. Utterly disconnected and unable to empathise with the terror and emotional chaos of the situation, he lapses into a lucid trance where everything seems beautiful.

The final scene aboard a private jet, turning then counter-turning, looping in the shape of the ∞ symbol, finally realises the subliminal desire hinted at throughout the novel: to find reality in the moment of the present, a stasis suspended between past and future.

Afterthought

The whole thing could be interpreted as a dark joke about the fraught and frustrating process of writing and editing fiction. Given that the story is based on a series of semi-successful attempts to metastasise a temporary reality from an aesthetic desire by building models, repeatedly moving actors around and adjusting settings to evoke the exact right sensations, it could be read as a parody of a writer’s obsession with control. I found this thought bleakly funny.