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[475] Remainder – Tom McCarthy

” Yes: lifting the re-enactment out of its demarcated zone and slotting it back into the world, into an actual bank whose staff didn’t know it was a re-enactment: that would return my motions and my gestures to ground zero and hour zero, to the point at which the re-enactment merged with the event. It would let me penetrate and live inside the core, be seamless, perfect, real. ” (Ch.15, p.265)

Remainder has been a singular reading experience: it’s the most insane but sophisticated book I’ve read. McCarthy has invented a character so perverse and controlling that the book keeps me riveted from beginning to end. The anonymous narrator suffered a terrible accident. Emerging from a coma into a trance of self-consciousness, he tries to fake normalcy by trying to capture certain moments and events. He feels threatened by the messy and irksome physical world into which he contrives to introduce order.

The only camera I allowed on site was Annie’s Polaroid. She used it to capture positions and arrangements: what was where in relation to what else. It was quicker than sketches or diagrams. More accurate too. If we’d got something just right but then had to move it while we carried something else through its space, Annie would take a Polaroid snap . . . (Ch.7, p.127)

When an ordinary sight—a crack on his friend’s bathroom wall—sets off a series bizarre visions he cannot place, with the huge sum of settlement money, he contrives to reconstruct the space of these déjà vus and enter it so that he could feel real again. All along he doubts the solidity of his own existence as a human being, so he has to surround himself with enough remainders to provide a reassuringly packed context, regardless how trivial these events might be.

I want to buy a building, a particular type of building, and decorate and furnish it in a particular way. I have precise requirements, right down to the smallest detail. I want to hire people to live in it, and perform tasks that I will designate. They need to perform these exactly as I say, and when I ask them to. (Ch.5, p.83)

A concierge who must wear the mask the whole time. A lady who fries pig liver all day. A pianist who must play imperfectly. So, empowered by the windfall wealth, the narrator becomes an existential tyrant, replicating spaces that have come to him in visions and enlisting Londoners to re-enact actual local events beyond the tenement building. These mundane moments—a car tuneup, a drive-by shooting, comings and goings—are repeated and prolonged until they assume an almost sacred aspect. As the narrator becomes more obsessive-compulsive with maintaining this “reality”, his re-enactments also take on more ambitious and dangerous scale.

Remainder is a beautifully strange and chilly book. The anonymous narrator’s (could have been an everyman) creeping madness is what captures me to the very end. His desire to ratify his existence is blown into an obsession that is edging into a delirium: all those actions, into which so much energy has been invested, so many man-hours, so much money—all confront us with the question: for what purpose? The randomness of the re-enactments maybe philosophically sound, but it may drain momentum for some readers. I find the his seriousness and devotion in the enterprise that is obviously absurd very entertaining. This book is one idiosyncratic and intelligent read; and McCarthy’s unadorned, taut style is not to be faulted.

308 pp. Vintage Original. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

3 Responses

  1. What an interesting subject, a fight to hide your insanity… sounds creepily fascinating!

    I reviewed a horror novel recently! Do visit!

  2. […] Remainder by Tom McCarthy. This is a beautifully strange and chilly book. The anonymous narrator’s (could have been an everyman) creeping madness is what captures me to the very end. His desire to ratify his existence is blown into an obsession that is edging into a delirium: all those actions, into which so much energy has been invested, so many man-hours, so much money—all confront us with the question: for what purpose? This book is just plain intelligent. […]

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