The narrator of Tom McCarthy’s brilliant and unusual novel, Remainder, is recovering from a horrible accident. “It involved something falling from the sky,” he tells us. “Technology. Parts, bits. That’s all I can divulge.” He can’t tell us more for two reasons. One, he’s not permitted to, because the terms of his financial settlement prevent him from discussing the accident in detail. Two, he can’t remember it anyway. The few images he can summon, he doubts: “Who’s to say my traumatized mind didn’t just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap—the crater—that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.”
Real chancers, indeed. The novel’s early pages concern the narrator’s settlement, eight-and-a-half-million pounds, and his dealings with his lawyer and a friend who’s come to stay with him. We get the sense that though he’s not yet normal, he’s making progress toward reintegrating himself in the world. Then one night, he goes to a party, where a crack in the bathroom wall unleashes a sudden and overwhelming déjà vu:
I’d been in a space like this before, a place just like this, looking at the crack, a crack that had jutted and meandered in the same way as the one beside the mirror. There’d been that same crack, and a bathtub also, and a window directly above the taps just like there was in this roomonly the window had been slightly bigger and the taps older, different. Out of the window there’d been roofs with cats on them. Red roofs, black cats.
Toward the end of In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s Marcel muses on the pleasures of déjà vu, or involuntary memory: “Always, in these resurrections of the past, the distant place, evoked about the common sensation, had grappled for a moment, like a wrestler, with the present scene. The latter had always been the victor, but it was ever the vanquished that seemed to me the more beautiful.” It’s the vanquished scene that gives rise to Marcel’s writing—he locks himself up, eschews social events, and works on his masterpiece, in part because the “pleasure it had bestowed upon me at rare intervals in my life was the only one that was fecund and real.” The ability to experience the past a second time, to slip into a moment between memory and the present, becomes for Marcel a kind of obsession.
Rather than seek out a cork-lined room and a pad of paper, Remainder’s narrator decides to put his eight-and-a-half million pounds to work and recreate his moment of déjà vu in the real world. He finds a building, has it remodeled to his specifications, hires people to play various parts, and even dedicates crew members to making sure black cats traverse the red roofs across the way. He does so, he tells himself, to “feel real again”:
Opening my fridge’s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I’d merged with them, run through them, and let them run through me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been realbeen without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.
The detour has been the defining feature of his life since the accident. He’s had to relearn how to walk; even now he must concentrate on “each footstep, how the knees bend, how to swing my arms . . . understand them first, then do them.” Since the accident, his entire life has revolved around re-learning movements that used to be intuitive, second-nature.
Within the microcosm of his reenactment, though, he discovers that he’s able to repeat actions over and over again until he’s got them right. He discovers, too, that he can slow everything down to simulate the manipulation of time itself—stretching the moment to make it more easily inhabitable. Eventually, through enough repetition, the reenacted moment can become, as Proust put it, “fecund and real.”
This process raises a flurry of tantalizing questions: Is he simply applying the lessons of post-trauma rehabilitation to everything in his life? Has he, in his efforts to isolate and make natural a moment, become a sort of repetition machine? Or is he after something deeper, something more philosophical? One of the great (tensile) strengths of this book is that McCarthy does not tip the scales in either direction; he refuses to draw a line between the metaphysical and the mechanistic, between philosophy and physiotherapy.
Eventually, the narrator reenacts other scenes, some from his own life, others from the neighborhood, including an incident at a tire shop and a local murder. Each time, he seeks the elusive feeling that he’s “cut out the detour” and experienced “reality,” and each time he becomes more and more hooked on the sensation. In the process, he becomes something of a little dictator, a font of instrumental reason. Thanks to his funds, he is able to employ a facilitator or, as he calls him, an “executor,” Naz, to assist in the logistics and organization of his reenactments. With Naz on his side, the narrator can do just about anything.
When he learns that the black cats are falling off of the tile roof, a chat with Naz ensures that a replacement cat will be released on the roof whenever a cat falls to its death. We’re not hit over the head with this detail—the narrator treats it as matter-of-factly as he treats everything else—but it lingers in the background as part of the unspoken ethical calculus. At that moment we understand that everything, including loss of life, will be subordinated to the narrator’s desire to feel “real.”
Even as his actions, his indifference, his brain-damage, make us want to dismiss him as a sinkhole of selfishness, he is redeemed by his simple stated desire to experience authenticity, and more significantly, by the way he describes the world around him. Because of the careful attention with which the world is described, the ethical takes a backseat to the aesthetic. It is only once we’ve put the book down that the spell is broken, that we recognize, from the outside, what a monster he’s been. Here, he describes the local shooting victim whose death he reenacts:
The truth is that, for me, this man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extent of having no more consciousness of them. He’d stopped being separate, removed, imperfect. Cut out the detour.
It’s a paradoxically chilling yet tender perspective. Even as he solipsistically flattens the man into a “symbol,” he extracts from the scene a fragile sort of beauty—and hints at the possibility of death as the ultimate perfection.
This is a highly descriptive book, and reading it one gets the sense that perhaps McCarthy concocted his story solely as an armature upon which he could execute his real work: depicting the texture of experience, illuminating the choreography of daily life, and applying a keen thoughtfulness to seemingly insignificant events.
I must admit that from the moment I understood the premise, I half-expected this novel to devolve into a multilayered ironic napoleon, a winking, nudging confection of empty calories—the fake is more real than the real, and all that. But I’m happy to report that McCarthy delivers no such thing. Rather, Remainder is a deeply philosophical novel of the best kind—the kind without any philosophy in it.
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