Drew's Reviews > Remainder

Remainder by Tom McCarthy
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's review
Aug 14, 2011

it was amazing
Read from July 21 to August 05, 2011

Rarely does a book manage to break down the habits and expectations that a reader builds up in a lifetime of reading.
Novels conform to schemas: there are quests, there are obstacles to be overcome, there are the universal standbys of love, hate, sex and murder: death must come violently and suddenly in order to grip the reader and to disentangle her from the nasty feeling that it might be her destiny too one day.
Of course these are broad and possibly unfair generalisations, but you get the point: the reservoir of storytelling is limited, and most authors are quite happy to wallow in the same shallows that their forebears found so reassuring. True, the 20th century saw some brave and sometimes foolhardy attempts to punt out into uncharted waters - the French nouvelle roman is perhaps the most prominent example of this - but today we are back to compendiousness, narrative and the Jonathan Franzens of this world: wise witty wordsmiths whose pat answers and worldly patter is carefully weighed against liberal Doubts and Cultured Concern as to the Future of the World.
And then along comes Tom McCarthy. A writer whose books (all right, call them novels if you must) record the bravest moments of Robbe-Grillet, but make it all look so effortless and at the same time manage to entertain to the extent that you want to slap him on the back and buy him a pint.
So what does happen in Remainder? Not very much, and when it does, it gets repeated time after time after time. Not exactly a recipe for success, you might think. But McCarthy's style is so casual, so insouciant, so offhand, that everything comes across as a paradox and a poser, as if there were a novel behind the novel, a story behind the story.
But what could be behind it though? This is the question that occupied me in the first few run-throughs: who is his model? Is it Sartre, or perhaps Kirkegaard, or is it more contemporary, perhaps Ballard? This last option comes closest to the truth: McCarthy's protagonist in Remainder is the victim of an unexplained accident; he obsesses over memories that he believes can lead to insights if re-enacted, and when these actually are re-enacted he falls into fugues and trances that are reminiscent of the catatonic states in which so many Ballard characters spend their happiest hours.
In this way the book is tinged with the atmosphere of both Vermilion Sands and Crash. The private, psychological, obsessive nature of the book all speak for a Ballardian inheritance, as does the book's later phase in which the scene moves to an abandoned airport hangar near Heathrow, a Ballardian location if ever there was one.
What speaks against it though is the language, the attitude. Unlike Ballard, McCarthy writes in a modern, idiomatic, demotic style. For anyone who has lived in - or even spent time in - London, the tone and overall slant of the protagonists blank, hacked-off impassivity will be familiar, if not welcome. (A brief aside: this is a London novel with a London attitude that is so far removed from the flavourless word-strudel of The Finkler Question, that I feel inclined to suggest that Howard Jacobson should take the time to read his younger contemporary's effort - and learn.)
The city pervades and invades every aspect of the book: places are always described with the utmost accuracy, whether Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, a bank in Chiswick or a lawyer's office in Islington. But more than geography, it's about texture: the brick dust, chewing gum, tarry oil and generic filth that defines the urban environment: a world of tawdry minutiae in which the protagonist loses himself and temporarily escapes the apparent meaninglessness of his existence.
It seems that the more I write the more there is to say with this book. Because I haven't even started describing the actual story, if that's a meaningful label for what happens here.
What does happen is a curious set of events that begins with something unexplained falling from the sky. This object injures the novels protagonist so severely that he spends several months in hospital: initially comatose, then without the use of his limbs, and eventually in the hands of a physiotherapist who re-teaches him basic movements, from holding objects to eating and finally walking. This is related in flashback on the day when "the settlement", a payment of eight million pounds from whoever let the unknown object fall on our hero, arrives.
After overcoming the initial shock of receiving such a massive payout, he wonders what to do with the money and rejects his friend Dave's hedonism - sniff cocaine of the back of the best-looking prostitute you can find until the money runs out - and his not-quite girlfriend Caroline's altruistic suggestion that he donate the money to a charity in Africa. In fact he has very little idea of what to do until he goes to a party and discovers a crack in the bathroom wall that triggers a set of previously concealed memories. In these memories he lives at the top of a block in a flat that also has a bathroom with a similar crack in the wall, sick but living plants in the hallway and a rear window view of a courtyard where black cats stalk languidly over red rooftops while in the flat below an elderly woman fries liver and in the flat below hers a melancholy pianist practices all day long. Other details also emerge: a motorbike freak who spends hours in the yard tinkering with his machine and a concierge who is present but quite static.
In the midst of this memory is another: the memory of moving through the flat completely at ease in the world: he remembers gliding through the rooms like a dancer, without even thinking about his movements, opening the fridge in a fluid, lyrical movement and not having to think about what he was doing.
Of course this plays with the reader's expectations on several levels: is this a psychological problem, a philosophical problem or rather something in the aesthetic realm? All three ideas are handsomely treated, though none is finally excused. We are kept in suspense between the various possibilities, with connotations, cultural cross-references and symbolically loaded reverberations whizzing around the echo-chamber of Mr. McCarthy's wonderful machine.
I could go on now, but I haven't got the time. It's a wonderful book. More later...
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Reading Progress

07/25 page 50
17.0% "Marvelously flat prose and a narrative that isn't much more than a rather confused bloke wandering around London: what more could you want?"
08/03 page 170
57.0% "If Remainder was a picture hanging in an art gallery, people would be standing and whispering "what is it?" to each other. An intriguing book."
03/08 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Dale Pobega great review!

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