Remainder, Tom McCarthy

A couple of years back, Zadie Smith (who, for the record, is still way too hot for her profession – for maximum credibility you need to be either a hunched, macchiavellian ghoul like Martin Amis or an elephantine oaf like A.S Byatt) published a long essay called ‘Two paths for the novel’, which pretty much did what it said on the tin. Said potential paths were represented by two novels: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. It’s an old argument with a twist, really, which comes down to how novelists these days deal with the aftermath of modernism – during which Joyce took the novel to one ‘what the fuck are you on about mate?’ extreme, and Beckett beat the shit out of it in a Parisian toilet whilst taking it to another.

One of Zadie’s two paths  – the lyrical realist highway – involves knowing that you’re peddling a bit of a shoddy and washed-up old bag of tricks, but doing it anyway (with the occasional wink or furtive flash of your still-crossed fingers to the reader) because, let’s face it, noone can really be arsed to read – or indeed write – Finnegan’s Wake or The Unnameable. This is the quickest and most convenient route to commercial success, and it’s the one taken by Joseph O’Neill, whose Netherland was magisterially accomplished in pretty much every respect, but ultimately so formally conventional as to be quite forgettable (Zadie’s argument less felicitously paraphrased, but I’m pretty much with her on this one).

The other way is the ‘scenic route’ – which involves being fancy, self-aware and META rather than just telling a story in nice pretty sentences. This is the less commerically viable route, as evidenced by the fact that Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – designated ambassador of the latter approach – took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. I’d already read Netherland (basically The Great Gatsby with more cricket) when I read the Zadie Smith essay but I’d never heard of Tom McCarthy. And I’ll be honest, I thought it sounded more my scene: a guy wakes up from a mysterious accident (involving ‘bits of technology’ falling from the sky) and has to have cognitive therapy to rewire him back into reality; he wins loads of money in compensation and blows it all on staging increasingly elaborate reconstructions of trivial events (later graduating to a gang execution and a fully-fledged bank robbery involving shootings and hijacked planes); he then re-reconstructs it by telling you about it (but he might actually just be making it up), and it turns into a bit of a Borgesian labyrinth of reconstructions to the power of reconstructions.

(It’s not as much of a twat-fest as I just made it sound, but I understand your concerns).

Those who have had the not-entirely-unmoderated pleasure of seeing it will at this point say ‘Isn’t that pretty much exactly the same as Synecdoche New York?’ (where a writer blows his Macarthur Fellowship money on elaborately re-staging scenes from his life in an apartment block). This had occurred to me, and two minutes on google revealed that Remainder was written before Synecdoche New York, but it wasn’t really very well known until recently, and Charlie Kaufman said in an interview he’d never heard of it (cough).

Not that originality is really what Remainder aims for – it’s packed full of literary samples, like an insanely highbrow mash-up: from the opening sentence’s tip of the cap to Gravity’s Rainbow to the waft of fried liver carried over from Ulysses to the private eye who seems to have drifted in via Molloy to do some of the interpretative leg-work for us, to the reconstructed apartment block out of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Tom McCarthy – who has been all up in the literary press since his new novel C was made this year’s token highbrow effort on the Booker longlist – has been quoted as saying that he thinks of writing as being a bit like DJing, and Remainder was certainly designed with the needs of the point-scoring literary train-spotter firmly in mind.

Unlike Synecdoche New York – which seemed to me to turn into a big theory-obsessed, kitchen sink-shaped mess about half way through – Remainder manages to keep all of the knowing post-grad jiggery pokery pleasingly under control. It’s so controlled, in fact, that it took until about half-way through for me to stop feeling underwhelmed. As sparely styled as Coetzee at his most stingey, this is a novel that makes no concession to conventional lyricism (and is all the more refreshing for it) – but this means that it is, as they say at boarding school, a grow-er not a show-er. In fact, the opening hundred or so pages – complete with scenes down the boozer, rubbish dates, house parties in Brixton, the occasional heavy-handed shout-out to pop culture (someone whistles ‘History Repeating’ by The Futureheads) – reads a bit like Martin Amis without the flashy prose.

As Tom McCarthy puts it in an essay on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy (an incredible novel, incidentally), “literary realism is itself a contruct as laden with artifice as any other”, and in the often plodding opening section – in which McCarthy has yet to show his full hand – we are left with something initially resembling a half-hearted rendition of the sort of literary realism that McCarthy is writing against, without any of the stylistic luxuries we would normally associate with the genre. However, in the second part of the novel – where reconstructions spiral into reconstructions and the novel turns into a hall of mirrors – the original perseverance yields some serious dividends.

Whether I would place Remainder in the company of the literary heavy-weights it implicitly seeks to a align itself with is another matter – but the fact remains that accomplished, inventive and genuinely ambitious British novelists with mainstream recognition are few and far between. Whereas so many middlebrow lyrical realist novels seem to be merely going through the motions – like Wolf Hall, which though clearly very accomplished and painstakingly detailed left me catatonically underwhelmed – Remainder is a novel that isn’t afraid to look in the mirror and drop the convenient realist fallacy for long enough to explore some other potential ways of playing the fiction game. And with critics cueing up to sound the novel’s death knell, that seems to me to be a very good thing indeed.

I have, accordingly, purchased C in its imposing hard-back edition, complete with jacket copy modestly suggesting that it is “reminiscent of Bolano, Pynchon and Beckett”. It may or may not live up to the hype, but at least it won’t be reminiscent of every other carbon-copy, production-line middlebrow novel on the Booker longlist this year.

  1. Very astute appraisal. I read Remainder a while ago but just watched Synedouche, New York and I had to go looking for a connection between the two. I guess we’ll never know but it is funny to think that a film about artifice and repetition could be accused of borrowing a little too much from a novel…

  2. Hi David (sorry for late reply!) – yes it is an odd thought I suppose, and given TM’s ongoing spiel about writing being like DJing, rearranging pre-existing material rather than labouring under any pretence of originality, I’m not sure it’s an accusation that he’d consider to be valid.

    Have to say I thought Synecdoche New York ended up turning into a pretentious pile of cack, though. At least Remainder managed to keep vaguely on the rails, whereas SNY seemed like an incontinent explosion of half-digested theory. Even so, if Charlie Kauffman can persuade Hollywood execs to spash massive cash on Baudrillard-inspired experimentation then good luck to him!

  3. First of all, may I just say that, having stumbled upon your blog purely by accident, I’m quite impressed. Your reviews are very astute, intellectual without being academic. Plus it would appear from your word choices, syntax and sense of humor that you’re British, and, like many Americans, I find some kind of delightful transatlantic thrill in careening through your nation’s witty prosodic loop-de-loops.

    As far as The Remainder and SNY are concerned, what I’ve discerned from my own dubiously rigorous Internet research is that the script for SNY was written before the publication of The Remainder, even though The Remainder was indeed published before the release of the film. So presumably, Kaufman and McCarthy were both working on their projects independently, long before either work had reached the public. I think any commonality in subjects can largely be ascribed to the fact that questions of reproduction, self-reference, recursion, arbitrary existential disconnnect, etc have become so central to our cultural discourse these days that they’re practically archetypes. Mise en abyme has, for better or worse, been a preocuppation of Western literature and art for at least several hundred years now.

    PS I really liked SNY, but I can easily see how other people could feel differently. What you interpreted as incontinence or messiness, I saw as a quite poignant depiction of modern-day confusion, of personal unraveling, of morbid fear and delusion, and of the total INABILITY to actually apply any theoretical framework to reality.

  4. Hi Kyle, thanks for your kind words, and glad you enjoyed the British clausal contortions and ‘cor blimey guv’nor’-isms.

    You’re of course right about mise en abyme being as old as the hills, and it isn’t even necessarily a particularly ‘highbrow’ technique. I was watching The Sting the other day – as in snappily besuited Robin Redford and elegantly dissipated Paul Newman in casually self-referential classic Hollywood caper – and was reminded of Remainder. Two con artists staging elaborate imitations of reality within a larger imitation of reality, until you don’t know one from the other (because they’re ultimately the same thing).

    I see what you’re saying about SNY’s formlessness reflecting contemporary experience – I guess art often involves a compromise between a form that is to some extent arbitrary and a formlessness that is largely incomprehensible. I think it was Beckett who said the challenge was to find a form to accomodate the chaos. Or something. A matter of taste I guess, but I tend to find Charlie Kaufmann’s particular brand of postmodernism a little hysterically undergraduate. Then again, as I mentioned in the comment above, I’m glad that there’s someone like him out there bringing these ideas into the mainstream. Better flawed ambition than endless accomplished repetitions of an unchallenged formula.

  5. Very, very nice. You’re better on modernism than I am so I’m interested to see your references. It’s like a reading list given where my enthusiasms have recently started trending.

    It’s an impressive novel isn’t it? Not as wanky as it should be on the description. When I blogged it at mine the comments were full of mentions of Synecdoche, New York and here it is again here. I suppose I should see it.

    How come you read this and C but not Men in Space?

  6. Thanks, and yes I was pretty impressed by Remainder, more so than I expected to be. No particular reason I didn’t read Men In Space, C just happened to come out as I was finishing Remainder. I’m sure I’ll get round to it and TM’s Tin Tin book eventually, though my to-read pile is currently gargantuan – there are just so, so many books, aren’t there?

  7. Men in Space was among the books I ordered this weekend. As you say though, there are so, so many books. Given a thousand years I’d still have to leave unread books that I’m sure I’d love.

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