by Tom McCarthy
284 pages, Alma Books
Review by Marc Nash
Tom McCarthy has made the long list for the Mann Booker Prize 2010. His book "C" wasn't actually out when the list was announced (how does that work then?) so I bought this, his previous offering. McCarthy heads Necro Nautilus, a fictive avant garde art group which I had the pleasure of attending a 'public hearing' into architecture and neurosis, and was unable to determine who was in on the act and who wasn't. I was intrigued enough to push this book to the front of my reading queue and now that I own a copy of "C" that won't be too far from being read soon either.
The protagonist of "Remainder" has suffered an accident that has cost him his recent memory and his motor functions. He has to relearn all bodily movement and although he is awarded a huge financial settlement in compensation, he emerges back into the world alienated from an authenticity of feeling. Two people who have stuck with him through his recuperation offer him ways to spend his windfall, either in a splurge of sensory pleasure, or making a difference in the world through donating to charity. He rejects both options and in time both these people recede from his life entirely (and with them any 'normal' relationship) as he utilises his money in pursuit of recapturing a sense of authenticity.
He engages in a huge project of what he calls 're-enactment'. Constructing a whole building culled from a detailed recovered memory and then populating it with paid re-enactors to repeat a distilled set of actions either associated or extrapolated from this same memory. The project consumes him with a mania, the detail reminiscent of Nicholson Baker's early book, the small human gestures with Jon McGregor's debut work. At this early point in the novel, the pace flags, subsumed under the welter of details of the construction.
Once the project goes live, the protagonist moves through this building encountering setpiece interactions with the re-enactors as he attempts to get back in touch with the affectivity behind his lost memories. He is also obsessed with the fine mechanics behind how people move and gesture, since he is cut adrift from his own which he has had to artificially regraft on to himself. The protagonist is struck by the difference between the everyday blunt and coarse movements, contrasted with the umpteen takes in a De Niro movie so that his movement is always flawless and smooth. At times he seems to yearn for the perfect movie motion and yet at others is keen to break down every aspect of an ordinary person's 'real' actions. When he himself snags his shirt on a countertop's corner during a re-enactment, he practises the motion over and over again until it is flawless.
Further re-enactments follow, a small incident while having his tyres repaired leads to him duplicating the whole tyre shop in an aircraft hangar near Heathrow airport. When an architect is commissioned to build scale models of both scenes, the protagonist realises his puppeteer/god like status to make all these people obey his every whim. Money buys him such power and status. He moves the little figures around on his models and then asks the flesh and blood re-enactors to reproduce the same in actuality.
When he does strike exactly the right chord in his re-enactment, he feels it only as a tingling. He seems unable to expand beyond that. With his forensic approach to detailed reconstructions, it is not too much of a stretch for him to move into reconstructing crimes. Only he soon moves to inserting himself into these scenarios being replayed. I won't give a spoiler away as to the logical development of this, but you can probably guess.
The book is a fascinating portrayal of this gradually evolving processes of mind. A mind that has suffered trauma and taken bold strategies to try and recover itself. It is however, peculiarly uninvolving, as perhaps is inevitable seeing as the personality at its centre is alienated from real feeling himself and it is his eyes we see the book through. His one male friendship and his one chance for female companionship and relationship are both jettisoned by him fairly rapidly within the book, leaving us with his mania and his Man Friday who is increasingly sucked into his singularity of vision because he is the bureaucrat, the executor par exemplar.
There are many divinely-wrought metaphors for our modern living, the estrangement of life itself lived as a fiction through consumption. The power that money buys you and the will to wielding that power like a Greek God of old. It is a very clever book, one that increasingly sucked me into its developing logic after a stuttering start of a couple of plot confusions (what kind and the derivation of the memory of the building and its denizens is never quite satisfactorily explained for example) so there was much to admire for all that I the reader am kept at arms-length from it. There is a curious late appearance of a "local councillor" who seems to be able to predict and read our man like a book, yet is never satisfactorily explained, nor does he form any part of the climax, so seems a rather randomly bolted on device. But all in all this is an intriguing read that once I'd reached some sort of entry velocity about a third of the way into its length, swept me up into its world.