by Tom McCarthy
284 pages, Alma Books, Richmond, 2006
Review by Bill Kirton
A personal aside before I start. I was aware of the power of PR and bullshit quite early. A brief (but relevant) example: in sixth year at school, the headmaster thought it would be useful to offer us extra-mural clubs to broaden our interests. I chose philosophy – not because I knew anything about it or found it interesting but because I knew it would impress others. Week after week I sat through discussions, understanding nothing. Then came my turn to lead the discussion. ‘You’re doing French,’ said the two teachers in charge. ‘Why not take existentialism?’ (Sounds unlikely, but it’s true.)
So I did. I read the slimmest volumes I could find and gave a talk saying things like ‘Existence precedes essence’, ‘we are condemned to be free’, and ‘actions only have meaning retrospectively’. All the others in the group (including the two teachers) nodded and pretended to understand. Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. But I got away with it.
Later, as a student, I had to read the primary (fictional) sources – such as Sartre’s La Nausée and Camus’s L’Etranger. They were both disturbing, the Camus was a better read, but the need to understand the thinking interfered with the straightforward pleasure of reading and (paradoxically) involvement. Now, however, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder redresses the balance. It conveys the ennui and apparent disjointedness of experience felt by Camus’s Meursault and the nausea engendered by the sheer thinginess of things as perceived by Sartre’s Roquentin. But it’s also a bloody good, mysterious, page-turning read.
It’s narrated by the unnamed hero who, as a result of an unspecified accident (something technological fell from the sky and hit him), has to relearn to do even simple things. The settlement he receives from those responsible is 8 ½ million pounds, which frees him to indulge his various fancies. This is established very early and the rest of the book charts his progressively more complex attempts to access authenticity (of the narrative and of himself). He’s acutely aware of the contingency of everything and has a fixation with the immediacy of things. He remembers or experiences specific incidents and, thanks to his money and the organisational abilities of a facilitator, Naz, he’s able to reconstruct and/or relive them in minutely conceived detail. In immaculate existential parlance, it’s not a question of acting, but doing. Enacting and re-enacting. It’s a series of attempts to become one with the place and the moment, a search for substance and authenticity.
With the same lack of emotion as Meursault and the constant recurrence of Roquentin’s feelings of nausea (dizziness is a constant with him), the character moves through his life with a single-mindedness of purpose and a progressive determination to overcome the arbitrariness of experience.
At the same time, McCarthy reveals the workings of the novel form itself, simultaneously undermining and yet confirming the power of fiction to be (or seem) real. His language is chosen with great care to convey both precision and imprecision. At one point, the narrator wants a specific piece of music to be played on the piano; it’s part of a major narrative sequence that’s choreographed in minute detail, but his instructions to the facilitator with regard to the music are ‘it was called Second or Third Concerto or Sonata in A Major or B-flat, Minor, Major – something along those lines.’
Elsewhere, he describes a concierge thus: ‘as I walked around her in a circle, looking at her from all sides, her stunted arms and featureless face seemed to emanate an almost toxic level of significance.’ His description of a van recalls Roquentin’s feeling of nausea when he holds the pebble or looks at the root of the tree and senses the excrescences of matter. ‘It seemed bigger, its sides more faded, its tyres more bulging, its edges more turning, its steps more pobbled, more ready to take weight and relinquish it again, its indicators and exhaust more dirty, more protruding. There was something excessive about its sheer presence, something overwhelming.’ Matter, he says, is his ‘undoing’.
But my focus on the philosophy is doing McCarthy a disservice. This is a terrific novel, one which evokes all these uneasy feelings and builds from very funny, obsessive behaviours to a perhaps unexpected and yet inevitable violence. There’s the need to procure enough liver and pans to maintain the smell of it frying at a constant level for hours, or days, on end. Naz also has to source a supply of cats to laze on and run across the roof opposite – the problem being that they keep falling off and getting squished on the ground. And there are killings, re-enactments of a murder, and an anarchic ending which nonetheless is a perfect resolution for the hero.
As well as being a persuasive (and entertaining) rendering of the existential condition, this is a compelling story. For McCarthy, accuracy is not the same as truth, the unexpected will always intervene in the best-laid plans. Remainder satisfies at many levels and hoists its author into my select list of favourites.