One the best articles we’ve read all year is Zadie Smith’s comparison of two books as blueprints for the future of fiction. So we’re going to read the books she discussed, and talk about whether Zadie got it right. The first post in this series will review Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. The second post will focus on Remainder by Tom McCarthy. The final post will rate Zadie’s essay about the two.
A man has an accident. Something falls out of the sky and lands on him. It wrecks his body and damages his brain. He goes through vast amounts of physical therapy just to regain a basic hold on the world. He starts over. A corporation is at fault for the accident, and they settle by giving the man 8.5 million pounds sterling. The catch is that he can never so much as speak about the accident again.
All of this happens in the first few pages of Remainder by Tom McCarthy. And then we move on. The corporation isn’t named. The narrator-protagonist isn’t fleshed out. The mysterious accident is never described. Because none of those things really matter. In fact, the premise of Remainder is pretty useless as a means of discussing the book. Start over.
“What’s the most intense, clear memory you have? The one you can see even if you close your eyes—really see, clear as in a vision?”
That’s where Remainder kicks in. Maybe you have one of those clear memories, one you can recall if you concentrate on it, a moment when you felt a “sense of gliding, of light density. The moment I was in seemed to expand and become a pool—a still, clear pool that swallowed everything up in its calm contentedness.”
Now imagine you could freeze time during one of those moments, and just inhabit it. Walk around inside it, poke it with a stick, or sit down and stare into space—whatever. What if you could extend that moment into a whole afternoon, or even longer? Would the experience be spiritual, revolutionary, sublime? But slowing down time would be impossible, right? Right… unless you just won a settlement for 8.5 million pounds sterling. With enough money, anything seems possible.
Start over. Tom McCarthy, as his author bio claims, “is known for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semifictitious avant-garde network.” WTF? It turns out the INS is a half-serious, half-parody throwback to the days of grand, revolutionary art moments, and Tom McCarthy is the ringleader of that circus. (The only other INS member we’ve heard of is the philosopher Simon Critchley.) Their manifesto boils down to something about using art and criticism to build a vessel that will safely traverse the unknowable planes of death (we think). They claim to be fixated on space, death, codes, and repetition. So… either the INS is one of the coolest things happening in literature today, or it’s a bloated hoax.
Anyway, the book. In Remainder, after his accident, the narrator has to re-acquire a basic sense of how to interact with the material world. In physical therapy he obsesses over the mechanics of, say, how to lift a carrot to his mouth. And in re-acquiring his motor skills, he discovers that he, along with everybody else he knows, is inauthentic; that he is always copying the actions he thinks he should be performing, instead of doing what comes naturally. He longs to be fluid, unthinking, real. (Ironically, his favorite example of authenticity is Robert DeNiro’s performance in Mean Streets.) So he decides to use his new fortune to re-stage and recreate his most clear memories, moments when he felt effortless and alive. He hires re-enactors, purchases buildings and warehouses, bribes officials, and generally re-makes the world according to his memory. At first he just wants to re-stage the dull moments, but over time he develops a taste for more complicated, exotic scenes. He re-stages a fatal shooting. Then a bank robbery. It gets dangerous. He doesn’t care. What he’s doing is beyond art and morality. It’s pure action, and it has to be executed perfectly.
The whole process is extremely formal: you don’t just go ahead and do it—you do it slowly, breaking down your movements into phases that have sections and sub-sections, each one governed by rigorous rule.
The narrator says that about police forensics, but it could easily apply to any of his other new hobbies—geometry, cartography, diagrams, choreography. Remainder is packed with apparently dull, rote physical details about the re-staging of these scenes. But it’s not as excruciating as it sounds; it’s surprising and wonderful stuff. McCarthy’s narrator is intelligent, focused, and all too aware of the strangeness of his quest. By dwelling on the narrator’s minute re-staging of his remembered experiences, the book, like its narrator, slows down time, inhabits it. It’s crazy, but it works. You come away feeling like the narrator truly reveres the world he’s turning upside-down, and that his actions are completely necessary.
We’re still not sure what exactly the INS believes in, but Remainder is probably a better manifesto than the one they’ve posted on their web site. The novel dramatizes, step by step, the INS’s claims about time and space, memory and trauma. And it does so while eschewing most of the conventions of literary fiction—eschewing them so violently that Remainder’s distinctly un-literary style is actually quite unsettling to read. One of the main characters, instead of being described in any detail whatsoever, is introduced like this. “He looked just like I’d imagined him to look but slightly different, which I thought he would in any case.” Philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, sociology—all of the major areas of inquiry that typically inform a novel are absent from this book. It leaves you with nothing but a fresh, topsy-turvy way of looking at the material world. In fact, start over.
Remainder is really hard to describe. But it’s spectacular to inhabit. You should read it soon.