Posted on | July 22, 2010 | 3 Comments
When Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was first published in 2007, I remember giving a couple reviews a diligent skim and dismissing it as weird. (Weird is not my thing.) I’ve now since torn through it, and am surprised to find its weirdness almost entirely warranted by the breadth of McCarthy’s ambition. Contrary to my suspicions, it is not a gimmicky novel. Described in brief, insofar as description is possible, Remainder is the story of an unnamed narrator who, in the aftermath of an accident, finds himself increasingly obsessed with the inauthentic, second-hand nature of his actions. In his own words, “Recovering from the accident, learning to move and walk, understanding before I could act—all this just made me become even more what I’d always been anyway, added another layer of distance between me and the things I did.” In order to reclaim the moments in his life when he felt “least artificial,” he sets about creating “re-enactments” of scenes selected from his own roster of inexact memories. With the aid of an 8.5 million pound settlement for his accident and a tactical genius recruited from Time Control UK—imagine if Ahab had had a McKinsey consultant and you’ll have the right idea—he hires a team of architects and actors to execute his imaginings in fastidious detail. (Even accounting for his sky-rocketing investments, it’s not clear to me how 8.5 million pounds could fund this enterprise, with all the real estate, salaries, and decadent bonuses. I’m not sure if it’s me or McCarthy who has the sketchy grasp of finance.)
I found myself picking up Remainder three years after having written it off because of an essay by Zadie Smith in her recent collection Changing My Mind called “Two Directions for the Novel” in which she pins the future of fiction on two very different books: Remainder and Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill. O’Neill was among the strongest writers out of the gate in this last decade, and his mastery of what Smith terms “lyrical realism” would seem to align him with her own preference for the updated Edwardian classic. Instead, Smith goes after Netherland with fangs bared. The charge? Netherland is too self-indulgent, too knowing. According to Smith, the realist novel is “a literary form in long-term crisis” and Netherland’s fatal flaw is that it has managed to write from within this embattled tradition and to capture its stakes all in one go. “Out of a familiar love, like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, even though it wells knows they are empty,” she writes. If I am reading her correctly, Netherland’s problem is that it has so accurately given us the measure of our anxieties when it should be trying to trammel them instead.
There is something overdetermined in Smith’s anger at this book, and as Adam Kirsch diagnoses in a very smart piece for The New Republic, what we are witnessing seems to be a crisis of confidence. “Is it any wonder, then, that in castigating the tradition of ‘lyrical realism’” Kirsch questions, “Smith writes with the passion and injustice that an artist usually brings to her self-interrogations?” The dichotomy she sets up between Netherland and Remainder casts the latter as nothing less than the savior of the contemporary novel. Kirsch’s essay gets at most of the issues with Smith’s reading, but there is one additional aspect of Remainder with which she refuses to engage—its status as a psychological novel. She insists that to read it psychologically is to read it “against its own grain,” but I think this actually undersells Remainder’s complexity. It’s the “why” of the novel’s implicit psychology that keeps its pages turning. In Smith’s account—which is, in fairness, mostly on target—McCarthy has written the rare novel that eschews the mind in favor of the material. Strangely, for so perceptive a reader, however, Smith insists on taking Remainder’s philosophical claims at face value. For her, it’s genuinely a novel about matter, a phenomenological treatise on the thinginess of things rendered in fiction. She relishes the novel for its non-reflexivity: “Every detail is attended to except the ones we’ve come to think of as the only one that matters in a novel: how it feels.” Smith means this as a compliment.
But while Remainder may deal with memory loss and physical trauma, the narrator’s experience is not circumscribed purely by circuitry. For all McCarthy’s concern with the material, I was not reading to discover more about the contours of space in the narrator’s re-enacted building or the essential nature of the liver the liver-lady incessantly cooks in the flat below his (though admittedly, the descriptions of vaporized fat congealing on the vents are the among the novel’s most horrifying). I was reading to try to understand the narrator’s compulsion to re-enact, to see beyond its calculated obscurity. The reason this impulse is sustainable in the face of such a seemingly nihilistic novel is that Remainder is ultimately as much a “written” work as Netherland: McCarthy has a keen command of language and further, his narrator, in rare moments, even alludes to his existence beyond the action of the novel. He refers to his re-enactments, casually, as “the whole game” and mentions the “advantages of hindsight.” These clues are subtle, but there is, as it were, an “outside.” Remainder ends with the narrator quite literally in flight, his re-enactments having reached the limit of their re-enactability. It’s not clear what he will go back to, but it’s clear the story—and it is a story—has ended.
A version of Smith’s essay, which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books, is available here.