By Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is a remarkable first novel that calls to mind another impressive literary debut: John Fowles’s The Collector. Both books deal with young men who suddenly come into a large amount of money: £73,091 in 1963, £8,500,000 in today’s deflated cash. Wealth brings freedom, and they are soon able to make all of their psychotic fantasies real. Their worlds become intensely introverted and solipsistic, with other people turned into mere facilitators and props. It is an aesthetic kind of madness, with their forefather being the reclusive Des Esseintes in Huysmans’s A Rebours. They are both artists and audience, their goal to create the ultimate effect.
The nameless narrator of Remainder has won a metaphorical lottery, receiving a massive settlement after being involved in some kind of bolt-from-the-blue accident. We don’t know anything about the accident, in part because the narrator can’t remember it, in part because the terms of the settlement forbid him talking about it even if he could remember, and in part because it’s a subject he isn’t very interested in. The narrator is nothing if not narrowly focused. After idly spinning his wheels for a while, not knowing what to do with all his loot, he receives an epiphany while staring at the crack in the wall of a bathroom. The crack expands to a vision the size of a building. And he dedicates his fortune, his life, and the lives of everyone else he comes in contact with, to making that vision real.
Primarily what he is after is a kind of supreme authenticity. What he identifies as authentic, however, is something entirely artificial, a way of being that is only just “like” some preconceived, pre-scripted reality. He has a dream vision of living in an apartment: what he sees from his window, and all of the surrounding sounds and smells. He then buys an apartment building and has it reconstructed to look just like the way he imagined it. He even hires people to live in the building and perform for him, playing the same music, the same way, he heard it played in his dream. They cook the same meat and perform the same chores. Over and over and over in an endless loop. Even when he is not present he insists that they always be “on.” Some re-enactors work in shifts so the performance can go round the clock. Then he has another vision and that too has to be recreated. And while there seems no threat of his ever running out of money, the stakes keep getting higher.
It’s not clear what his obsession with the authentic artificial is meant to signify. Though initially inspired by seeing Robert DeNiro in a movie he is adamant that his re-creations not be filmed. No cameras are allowed on any of his sets (which are designed by professional set designers). He doesn’t even want his cast to be described as “performers.” They are staff, participants, re-enactors, tools to be used in hunting down the real, the natural, what is “fundamental to events,” the seamless and perfect “core.”
His experience of the core is like a drug. If the moment is captured just perfectly he gets an orgasmic tingling in his spine (some vague and thematically irrelevant physiological explanation of which is offered) and he passes out. The spot of time expands into an interior sublime like some kind of psychic black hole. An inflection of voice, a gesture, the shape of a stain on the ground, takes on the weight of the universe when he’s in the zone. But in order to get his fix he keeps needing more intensely real re-enactments. He becomes a parody of the autocratic film director, thrilling at playing God, asking his actors to move slower and slower as the tingling increases, and even at one point getting angry at the sun for moving across the sky the wrong way.
The book as a whole is an enjoyably self-conscious literary performance. Echoes of other books, like The Collector and J. G. Ballard’s Crash, are obvious. There are also plenty of elements tossed in for symbol-hunters, especially the leitmotifs of stains and cracks. The smell of cordite is another, seeming to follow the narrator around and foreshadowing an appearance by the Devil himself as a London borough councilor, apparently leading the narrator on to the Other Side.
Which, one supposes, is Death: The real real, the authentic, what can’t be re-enacted or experienced vicariously. Playing God on Earth can be fun, but it provides a diminishing buzz. Dying, imagined as a kind of transubstantiation and ascension, is the only escape from the enduring patterns of repetition that make up the dull round of our unnatural, second-hand existence.
Review first published June 23, 2007.