Crackling Embers I
Tom McCarthy, Remainder, Metronome Press, Paris, E13.30
It’s taken quite a while really; for a book to spring from the ether and reaffirm one’s own belief in Literature again. For a long while now it’s looked like the conglomerates had it all sewn up — zapped everything out of us that is, reduced us to a multitude of categorised life-style addicts; moulded us into a collective bolus of magazine-influenced somnambulists, a polished collective of individuals happy to consume our authors from frothy-topped high-street bookshop chains with extra sugary chocolate sprinkled on top for extra sweetness. What we weren’t meant to do was take risks, such behaviour is useless and they have no design for it. And then, amongst all this, Metronome Press publishes Tom McCarthy’s Remainder — a novel that is fast becoming an underground behemoth and a breath of fresh air strong enough to topple any Ivory Tower. How dare they! Such Insolence! A bare-faced cheek! I can almost hear those marketing suits at Random House wail as I type. For me, and countless other like-minded souls, such distant caterwauls couldn’t come soon enough.
You see, let’s get this straight from the outset: Remainder is a wondrous book, practically pulsating in mouth-watering fluidity and literary candour. Foremost it posits new questions about the novel and the creative world we inhabit. Primarily Remainder concerns itself with two things: violence and aesthetics, and what happens when these all too human of conditions intersect. And quite possibly a lot more besides.
But whoa there! I’m getting carried away with myself here. It’s best one approaches this slowly — I have a lot to say.
Remainder is narrated by an anonymous everyman who doesn’t much care about that many things. He just exists. Literature and Art are anathema to him — which is rather telling as Remainder literally oozes Literary and Art Practice. He finds the city [London in this case] an obfuscating terrain, and although McCarthy’s everyman has just more than a dash of the flaneur about him, he is still rooted firmly within an alienation that keeps him disjointed from those around him. His daily life is patterned and orchestrated; one is given the impression that it always has been. Until, that is, his world comes crashing upon him, quite literally:
“About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts. Bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.” [Pg 7].
The narrator recovers from this extraordinary accident [after months of intensive rehabilitation] and is subsequently given eight million pounds compensation, a deal orchestrated with the help of the mysterious Marc Daubenay, just as long as he adheres to just one stipulation:
“‘You can’t discuss the accident in any public area or in any recordable format. To all extents and purposes, you must forget it ever happened’” [Pg 10].
He agrees. It is true that when most people are put into a situation where they can spend vast amounts of money they invariably don’t know what to do with it. He ponders numerous options; giving thought to various charities and trusts, but he soon decides to invest; but mostly he begins to think about what is real and what is not:
“As I sat by the window watching people go by, I wondered which of them was the least formatted, the least unreal. Not me – that was for sure – I was an interloper on this whole scene, a voyeur.” [Pg 51].
He begins to ponder this notion in great detail, becoming increasingly obsessed with each facet and possibility. Such behaviour manifests itself in multitudinous ways, most notably in the get-one-coffee-for-free offer in the coffee shop he is sitting in and the proposed reality of a young homeless man sitting on the corner of the street with his dog. He collects receipts for each coffee [he needs to purchase ten] inching closer to his free cup whilst watching the homeless man rather intently. The episode culminates in him asking the homeless man to join him at a local restaurant for a meal. After first mistaking him for a Born Again Christian he soon acquiesces. Inside the restaurant he struggles to explain to the homeless man his heart-felt concerns:
“‘Look,’ I told him. ‘You know in films, when people do things – characters, the heroes, like Robert De Niro, say – when they do things, it’s always perfect. Anything at all. It could be opening the fridge, or lighting up a – no, say picking up a napkin, for example. The hero would pick it up and give it a simple little flick, and tuck it in his collar or just fold it on his lap, and then it wouldn’t bother him again for the whole scene.’” [Pg 55].
Here lies the crux of his nausea. Life for him isn’t just something to accept, it is something to be observed, to be scrutinised, to be played out over and over again until it is deemed perfect and spotless — each movement, sound, smell and surface. A crystallized formation of the perfect image. Repeated until the event is clear and free of obfuscation. When, for example, he has locked himself in the bathroom at a friend’s party he experiences the epiphany that sets into motion the actions that occupy him implicitly:
“It happened like this. I was studying the bathroom with the door locked behind me. I’d used the toilet and was washing my hands in the sink, looking away from the mirror above it – because I don’t like mirrors generally – at this crack that ran down the wall … I was standing by the sink looking at this crack in the plaster when I had a sudden sense of déjà vu.’” [Pg 60].
This dejavu involves a series of images that immediately flash into his mind. The crack itself pours out into a whole room, a building, a courtyard, and red roofs across the way with black cats walking upon them. People occupy this building, including a man playing the piano amateurishly over and over again, a young man continually tinkering with his motorcycle in the courtyard, and an old lady frying liver in a pan in her kitchen. Most importantly the narrator remembers:
“That inside this remembered building, in the rooms and on the staircase, in the lobby and the large courtyard between it and the building facing with the red roofs with the black cats on them – that in these spaces, all my movements had been fluent and unforced.” [Pg 62].
Right away he knows what to do with his eight million pounds:
“I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would. Nothing else mattered. I stood there staring at the crack. It all came down to that: the way it ran down the wall, the texture of the plaster all around it, the patches of colour to its right. That’s what had sparked the whole thing off.” [Pg 62].
This whole thing? Well, how about hiring an entire team to help orchestrate these elaborate re-enactments, including a personal assistant to help with the logistics, down to the very last detail; the hiring of actors, even hiring a continuous supply of cats for the red roofs. Eventually, with the help of Naz [a hired personal assistant, employed to act on each of his myriad whims immediately and without question] a suitable building is found in Brixton, as well as a smattering of buildings in its immediate environs. The building, with the help of set designers, is renovated to match that of the building in his deja vu exactly. When everything is finally in place the building is switched “on” [which means the various actors go about their daily business how he remembers it] and the whole scenario becomes an event: The Event. A whole world re-enacted on his command whenever he wants. An event he can participate in at his own volition.
Such posturing is pure Jacques Lacan of course. His made-up world is, indeed, a mirror which he at first seeks himself and then perfection, or, in fact, the unobtainable. Tom McCarthy is being clever with this, very clever — posing those essential questions I mentioned about the role of the artist and novelist; a type of re-enactment in itself if you like. The book is aware of its role, and Tom McCarthy is also aware that what we have it in our hands as we read, that it is nothing more that a re-enactment of an idea, an event into which we participate, a fiction turned real. Like De Niro in a film when we see him act out a scene seamlessly. We are used to such moments, our world is made up of them, from the patchy reconstructions on ‘Crimewatch’, to the books we read, the TV we watch, and to the news that’s written each day.
A couple of years ago Faber & Faber brought out The Greatest Gift by Danny Leigh, and although it was an exciting debut it failed in so many ways. Both books deal with similar themes. The Greatest Gift is about a man who works for the very people who can afford anything they want — his job to find them anything they desire [a Naz equivalent then], whilst Remainder is about a man who can afford to employ such people, the same human beings who are willing to be paid to do all that he wants. Both novels stand against modern values such as entrepreneurship and media-led consumerism. The world in which their actions inhabit is stifling and discordant. But Remainder succeeds where The Greatest Gift failed: whereas Danny Leigh’s debut concerned itself with the flawed individual within a capitalist construct he can find no escape from, Remainder concerns itself with the whole artistic process within a consumerist milieu — pointing us to the ever-widening unreality of our modern world and not just its aggrieved individual inhabitants. It also, quite bravely, points us to the unreality of the novel itself.
Of course I haven’t touched upon Tom McCarthy’s own, deep-rooted, intellectual fascination with death yet. Although I presume now is as good a time as any to elucidate. In Tom McCarthy’s other role, away from the novel and as that of a conceptual artist, as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society [or the INS, a real life artistic/literary "construct for acting out fictions."] he boldly states in his manifesto:
“3. That we shall take it upon us, as our task, to bring death out into the world. We will chart all its forms and media: in literature and art, where it is most apparent; also in science and culture, where it lurks submerged but no less potent for the obfuscation. We shall attempt to tap into its frequencies – by radio, the internet and all sites where its processes and avatars are active. In the quotidian, to no smaller a degree, death moves: in traffic accidents both realised and narrowly avoided; in hearses and undertakers’ shops, in florists’ wreaths, in butchers’ fridges and in dustbins of decaying produce. Death moves in our apartments, through our television screens, the wires and plumbing in our walls, our dreams. Our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.” [INS Manifesto: www.necronauts.org].
How should we take this? Is our everyman actually dead? Does he inhabit some world that doesn’t actually exist? Are these the last fantasies of a mind fizzling out? Is Remainder a prank? Or a serious dispute damning the very state we’re in? Possibly, or it could be just Tom McCarthy’s idea of fun. Whichever way you choose to look at it throughout Remainder the clues are evident.
But back to these puzzling re-enactments. Increasingly these become more and more elaborate as he becomes progressively bored with the outcome of the last — each becoming more dangerous as his fascination with re-enacting what he sees, especially the violence around him starts to manifest itself. And after a series of gangland shootings pepper the Brixton landscape Remainder begins to take a chilling turn. This is the intersection of the novel; where aesthetics smear into violence. Bored with his building, he begins to re-enact shootings, and finally a bank robbery — only this time the workers aren’t actors, they are the real staff and it is a real bank. The re-enactments aren’t play anymore they are the real thing. The line has been crossed and the consequences are disastrous. Here we are given the inner machinations of a creative act turned inside out as the boundaries between authenticities in art and violence in culture become increasingly blurred.
Is this search for reality the ultimate goal for the artist? The moment when art practice becomes a living, breathing moment in time; the ultimate event? Is the narrator trying to create the real from the unreal, a new beginning, a recirculation of what already exists? Is the novel, then, displaying the agonizing attempts an artist will contemplate in realizing an idea? Or is Tom McCarthy pointing us to a long history, a succession of aesthetics that can be traced all the way back to Sophocles’ Antigone? Remainder covers every possibility as it spirals inwardly towards its own conclusion — a conclusion that I am not about to disclose here. It is this downwards spiral and continuous loop that intrigues me of course, a motif that has fascinated many throughout our history [think Finnegan's Wake] — it is Tom McCarthy’s idea of recirculation that weaves it way through Remainder, we don’t have to look far to pick up on the number eight patterns that float intentionally throughout the entire narrative. This image is stitched into every facet of the novel; a widening gyre of doubt, repetition and uncertainty, swirling around us and the narrator like a maddening whirligig forcing him to repeat, repeat, repeat until he is dizzy with nausea and we are back at the beginning again — a real event with real consequences.
And its title? That’s quite self explanatory really; revealing all that is left behind. Remainder follows the classic pattern of trauma. What we are reading is the remainders of an event, the passing remembrances, and the matter. When Heidegger [whose influence hangs above this novel like a hooded spectre] writes about all that is “unthought” standing for all that remains, thus solidifying matter and philosophy in a world in which is increasingly devoid of meaning Remainder, then, stands on the side of matter and the meaning thereof. And when the Narrator is ordering his coffee in a corporate chain at the airport towards the end of the novel, the following exchange makes perfect sense:
“I approached the counter. ‘I’d like nine small cappuccinos,’ I said. ‘Heyy! Nine short – nine.’ he said. ‘Yup,’ I told him, showing him my loyalty card and handing him a twenty pound note. ‘I’ve got nine more to go. So: nine, plus one.’ He started lining the cups up, but a thought struck me and I told him: ‘You can strip the other eight away. The other nine, I mean. It’s only the remaining one I want. The extra one.’” [Pg 269].
Remainder is a novel of exquisite standing and although the writing within it bares no resemblance whatsoever to Albert Camus’ I still felt his presence throughout. Like Camus’ The Plague, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder can be read on many levels, put simply it is a modern Literary Theorist’s dream, and like Camus’ tome possesses a erudite weightiness that is both challenging and fluid. Remainder, taken on its most elementary level is an easy, extremely enjoyable and humorous book to read, but just scratch beneath its surface and the reader will be at once struck by its myriad possibilities. The debate about Remainder will run on an on and on, and so it should, books of this ilk are desperately needed — I’m just happy to be part of it. This is just the start. It’s probably best you become part of it too by reading this clever book yourself.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 21st, 2005.