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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]

[338] C – Tom McCarthy

C reads very much like a literary experiment. Literary fiction it is, it doesn’t remind me of any stylistic precursor. The enigmatic title refers to the protagonist, Serge Carrefax, who grows up around the turn of 20th century in England in Versoie House, where his father runs a school for the deaf. He and his ill-fated sister, Sophie, cultivate very esoteric interests. They enact strange experiments in chemistry and astronomy in a school pageant depicting Ceres’s journey to the underworld. After Sophie dies, he travels to a Bavarian sanitarium in search of the healing chemical cysteine and, following his enrollment in the 104th Airborne Squadron, enjoys flying reconnaissance while high on cocaine.

“Cocaine?” Serge asks. “Isn’t that for teeth?”
“Yes, but it works wonders on your vision: sharpens it no end. Go pick some up from the Field Hospital in Mirabel.”
Serge does so. He’s given a small make up tin of white powder, a little of which he daubs onto his retina just prior to take-off the next day.”

The book follows Serge through his relationship with Sophie, to some recuperative health spa, to his experiences in the Great War, to his homecoming as an adult, to his Egyptian espionage, to a fateful tryst in an ancient tomb—where he at last discovers the delicate wavelengths that connect him to some historical signals for which he is the ideal receiver.

Serge becomes fascinated with these tunnelers, these moles. He pictures their noses twitching as they alternately dig and strap on stethoscopes that, pressing to the ground, they listen for sounds of netherer moles undermining their undermining. If they did hear them doing this, he tells himself, then they could dig an even lower tunnel, undermine the under-undermining: on and on forever, or at least for as long as the volume and mass of the globe allowed it – until earth gave over to a molten core, or, bypassing this, they emerged in Australia to find there was no war there and, unable to return in time for action, sat around aimlessly blinking in the daylight . . .

While C features a strong thematic foundation, with themes strecthing and intertwining in abundance throughout the book, it reads much like a bunch of dazzling flights of description put together not for telling a story. C delivers almost nothing in the way of either characterization or psychological insight. Instead, one is treated to page after page of explanations such as this one:

The detector’s brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser’s Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn’t any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiver-pattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms.

In spite of sheer creativity, one knows almost nothing about Serge other than his eccentricity. Readers are as completely oblivious of the important aspects of his life as Serge is, consider McCarthy works so hard to appeal by way of indulgent snapshots of digressive materials. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out which instance is the one that McCarthy intends reader to decode and add to the meaning of the story. C is as creative as it is admirable, but admiration is separated from loving with a distance. The book gets too carried away with the creative digression.

320 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
C is shortlisted for Independent Literary Awards: Literary Fiction.