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The Narrative’s Nervous Breakdown

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Zadie Smith reviews Tom McCarthy‘s Remainder along with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books:

“…If Netherland is a novel only partially aware of the ideas that underpin it, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is fully conscious of its own. But how to write about it? Immediately an obstacle presents itself. When we write about lyrical Realism our great tool is the quote, so richly patterned. But Remainder is not filled with pretty quotes; it works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event. It plays a long, meticulous game, opening with a deadpan paragraph of comic simplicity:

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.

It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that—well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been—or, more precisely, being about to be—hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed.

This is our protagonist, though that’s a word from another kind of novel. Better to use Enactor. This is our Enactor. He has no name, he lives in Brixton, and recently he has been hit on the head by some kind of enormous thing. For a long time he was in a coma, his mind “still asleep but getting restless and inventing spaces for me to inhabit…cricket grounds with white crease and boundary lines painted on the grass.” After a time, he recovers, though he has to learn to move and walk again. But there is a remainder: it appears that the “parties, institutions, organizations—let’s call them the bodies—responsible for what happened” are offering him a settlement on the condition of his silence (though he can’t remember what happened). His lawyer phones to tell him the amount. It is £8.5 million. The Enactor takes his hand from the wall it is on and turns suddenly to the window, accidentally pulling the phone out of the wall:

The connection had been cut. I stood there for some time, I don’t know how long, holding the dead receiver in my hand and looking down at what the wall had spilt. It looked kind of disgusting, like something that’s come out of something.

For the first fifty pages or so, this is Remainder‘s game, a kind of anti-literature hoax, a wind-up (which is, however, impeccably written). Meticulously it works through the things we expect of a novel, gleefully taking them apart, brick by brick. Hearing of the settlement he “felt neutral…. I looked around me at the sky: it was neutral too—a neutral spring day, sunny but not bright, neither cold nor warm.” It’s a huge sum of money, but he doesn’t like clothes or shoes or cars or yachts. A series of narrative epiphany McGuffins follow. He goes to the pub with a half-hearted love interest and his best friend. The girl thinks he should use the money to build an African village; the friend thinks he should use it to snort coke off the bodily surfaces of girls. Altruism and hedonism prove equally empty.

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We hear of his physiotherapy—the part of his brain that controls motor function is damaged and needs to be rerouted: “To cut and lay the new circuits [in the brain], what they do is make you visualize things. Simple things, like lifting a carrot to your mouth.” You have to visualize every component of this action, over and over, and yet, he finds, when they finally put a real carrot in your hand, “gnarled, dirty and irregular in ways your imaginary carrot never was,” it short-circuits the visualization. He has to start from the top, integrating these new factors.

All this is recounted in a straightforward first person which reminds us that most avant-garde challenges to Realism concentrate on voice, on where this “I” is coming from, this mysterious third person. Spirals of interiority are the result (think of David Foster Wallace’s classic short story “The Depressed Person” in which a first-person consciousness is rendered in an obsessive third person, speaking to itself). Remainder, by contrast, empties out interiority entirely: the narrator finds all his own gestures to be completely inauthentic and everyone else’s too. Only while watching Mean Streets at the Brixton Ritzy does he have a sense of human fluidity, of manufactured truth—the way De Niro opens a fridge door, the way he lights a cigarette. So natural! But the Enactor finds he can’t be natural like De Niro, he isn’t fluid. He’s only good at completing cycles and series, reenacting actions. For example, he gets a certain tingling pleasure (this is literal, he gets it in his body) from having his reward card stamped in a certain “themed Seattle coffee bar,” on the corner of Frith Street and Old Compton. Ten stamps, ten cappuccinos, a new card, start the series again. He sits at the window people-watching. He sees inauthenticity everywhere:

Media types…their bodies and faces buzzed with glee, exhilaration —a jubilant awareness that for once, just now, at this particular right-angled intersection, they didn’t have to sit in a cinema or living room in front of a TV and watch other beautiful people laughing and hanging out: they could be the beautiful young people themselves. See? Just like me: completely second-hand.

The clubbers, the scene gays, the old boys heading to their drinking clubs—all formatted. Then suddenly he notices a group of homeless people, the way they take messages up and down the street to each other, with a sense of purpose, really seeming to own the street, interacting with it genuinely. He makes contact with one of them. He takes him to a local restaurant, buys him a meal. He wants to ask the boy something but he can’t get it out. Then the wine spills:

The waiter came back over. He was…She was young, with large, dark glasses, an Italian woman. Large breasts. Small.

“What do you want to know?” my homeless person asked.

“I want to know…” I started, but the waiter leant across me as he took the tablecloth away. She took the table away too. There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up—the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins—but I didn’t go across to him.

Because, in fact, the homeless are just like everyone else:

They had a point to prove: that they were one with the street; that they and only they spoke its true language; that they really owned the space around them. Crap: total crap…. And then their swaggering, their arrogance: a cover. Usurpers. Frauds.

Large breasts. Small. The narrative has a nervous breakdown. It’s the final McGuffin, the end of the beginning, as if the novel were saying: Satisfied? Can I write this novel my way now? Remainder‘s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel. A few days after the fake homeless epiphany, at a party, while in the host’s bathroom, the Enactor sees a crack in the plaster in the wall. It reminds him of another crack, in the wall of “his” apartment in a very specific six-story building he has as yet no memory of ever living in or seeing. In this building many people lived doing many things—cooking liver, playing the piano, fixing a bike. And there were cats on the roof! It all comes back to him, though it was never there in the first place.

And now Remainder really begins, in the mission to rebuild this building, to place re-enactors in it re-enacting those actions he wants them to enact (cooking liver, playing the piano, fixing a bike), doing them over and over till it feels real, while he, in his apartment, fluidly closes and reopens a fridge door, just like De Niro. Eight and a half a million quid should cover this, especially as he has entrusted his money to a man much like Hans van der Broek—a stock trader—who makes money for the Re-enactor (for that’s what he is now) almost as quickly as he can spend it.

To facilitate his re-enactment, the Re-enactor hires Nazrul Ram Vyas, an Indian “from a high-caste family” who works as a facilitator for a company dedicated to personal inauthenticity: Time Control UK. They take people’s lives and manage them for them. Nazrul is no more a character (in Realism’s sense of the word) than I am a chair, but he is the most exquisite facilitator and it is through him that every detail of the re-enactment is processed. He thinks of everything. In place of the pleasure of the rich adjective we have an imagined world in which logistical details and logical consequences are pursued with care and precision: if you were to rebuild an entire house and fill it with people re-enacting actions you have chosen for them, this is exactly how it would play out. Every detail is attended to except the one we’ve come think of as the only one that matters in a novel: how it feels. The Re-enactor in Remainder only ever has one feeling—the tingling—which occurs whenever his re-enactments are going particularly well.

The feeling is addictive; the enactments escalate, in a fascinating direction. A black man is shot by two other black men near the Re-enactor’s house. The Re-enactor at once asks Naz to “lay the ground for the re-enactment of this black man’s death. I think I’d have gone mad otherwise, so strong was my compulsion to re-enact it.” In this re-enactment, the Re-enactor himself assumes the role of the “dead black man” (who is everywhere referred to like this). His tingling goes off the charts. It’s so good, he begins to fall into trances. It’s impossible not to note here that the non-white subject is still the bad conscience of the contemporary novel, obviously so in the Realist tradition, but also more subtly here in the avant-garde.

Why is the greatest facilitator of inauthenticity Asian? Why is the closest thing to epiphany a dead black man? Because Remainder, too, wants to destroy the myth of cultural authenticity—though for purer reasons than Netherland. If your project is to rid the self of its sacredness, to flatten selfhood out, it’s simply philosophical hypocrisy to let any selves escape, whatever color they may be. The nameless “dead black man” is a deliberate provocation on McCarthy’s part, and in its lack of coy sentiment there is a genuine transgressive thrill. Still, it does seem rather hard to have to give up on subjectivity when you’ve only recently got free of objectification. I suppose history only goes in one direction.

But to Remainder‘s provocation it’s tempting to answer with another: that beneath the conscious ideas of this novel, a subconscious trace remains, revealing a faint racial antipathy that is psychological and social rather than theoretical. (If Netherland can be read against its own grain, which is to say, theoretically, why not read Remainder psychologically?) For though these novels seem far apart, their authors are curiously similar. Similar age, similar class, one went to Oxford, the other Cambridge, both are by now a part of the publishing mainstream, share a fondness for cricket, and are subject to a typically British class/race anxiety that has left its residue. A flashback-inclined Freudian might conjure up the image of two brilliant young men, straight out of college, both eager to write the Novel of the Future, who discover, to their great dismay, that the authenticity baton (which is, of course, entirely phony) has been passed on. Passed to women, to those of color, to people of different sexualities, to people from far-off, war-torn places. The frustrated sense of having come to the authenticity party exactly a century late!

3.

Aspects of this constructive frustration were aired publicly at the Drawing Center in New York, on September 25, 2007, when two men, Tom McCarthy and the philosopher Simon Critchley, sat at a table in semidarkness and took turns reading “The Joint Statement of Inauthenticity,” latest manifesto of the International Necronautical Society (INS). The men identified themselves only as the society’s general secretary and chief philosopher. Their voices were flat, nasal, utterly British; they placed sudden emphasis on certain words. It was like listening to a Smiths song.[1]

“We begin,” announced the general secretary, “with the experience of failed transcendence, a failure that is at the core of the General Secretary’s novels and the Chief Philosopher’s tomes. Being is not full transcendence, the plenitude of the One or cosmic abundance, but rather an ellipsis, an absence, an incomprehensibly vast lack scattered with—” and here the General Secretary tripped over his tongue, corrected himself, and continued,

—with debris and detritus. Philosophy as the thinking of Being has to begin from the experience of disappointment that is at once religious (God is dead, the One is gone), epistemic (we know very little, almost nothing; all knowledge claims have to begin from the experience of limitation) and political (blood is being spilt in the streets as though it were champagne).

On the scratchy live recording, the audience coughs nervously and is silent: there is not much else to be done when someone’s reading a manifesto at you. The Necronauts continue: through the brief (by now traditional) faux demolition of the Greek idealists, specifically Plato and Aristotle, who believed form and essence to be more real than anything else, and therefore perfect. But “if form is perfect,” asks the general secretary,

if it is perfection itself, then how does one explain the obvious imperfection of the world, for the world is not perfect n’est-ce pas? This is where matter—our undoing—enters into the picture. For the Greeks, the principle of imperfection was matter, hyle. Matter was the source of the corruption of form.

Necronauts, as you might guess from the name, feel differently. They are “modern lovers of debris” and what is most real for them is not form or God but the

brute materiality of the external world…. In short, against idealism in philosophy and idealist or transcendent conceptions of art, of art as pure and perfect form, we set a doctrine of…materialism….

So, while Dorian Gray projects his perfect image into the world, Necronauts keep faith with the “rotting flesh-assemblage hanging in his attic”; as Ernest Shackleton forces his dominance fantasy onto the indifferent polar expanse, Necronauts concern themselves with the “blackened, frostbitten toes he and his crew were forced to chop from their own feet, cook on their stove and eat.” And so on. Like Chuck Ramkissoon, they have a motto: “We are all Necronauts, always, already,” which is recycled Derrida (as “blood like champagne” is recycled Dostoevsky). That is to say, we are all death-marked creatures, defined by matter—though most of us most of the time pretend not to be.

In Remainder, the INS general secretary puts his theoretical ideas to lively yet unobtrusive use, for the Re-enactor himself does not realize he is a Necronaut; he is simply a bloke, and, with Naz facilitating at his side he hopes, like the rest of us, to dominate matter, the better to disembody it. To demonstrate the folly of this, in the middle of the novel Remainder allows itself a stripped-down allegory on religion, staged in an auto shop where the Re-enactor has gone to fix a flat tire. While there, he remembers his windshield washer reservoir is empty and asks for a fill-up. Two liters of blue liquid are poured into the reservoir but when he presses the “spurter button” nothing spurts. The two liters haven’t leaked but neither do they appear to be in the reservoir:

They’d vaporized, evaporated. And do you know what? It felt wonderful. Don’t ask me why: it just did. It was as though I’d just witnessed a miracle: matter—these two litres of liquid—becoming un-matter—not surplus matter, mess or clutter, but pure, bodiless blueness. Transubstantiated.

A few minutes later, the engine catches, matter has its inevitable revenge (“It gushed all over me: my shirt, my legs, my groin”), and transubstantiation shows itself for what it is: the beautiful pretense of the disappeared remainder. In the later re-enactment of this scene (which Naz restages in an empty hangar at Heathrow, running it on loop for weeks) the liquid really disappears, sprayed upward into an invisible fine mist by the Re-enactor’s hired technicians.

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McCarthy and his Necronauts are interested in tracing the history of the disappeared remainder through art and literature, marking the fundamental division between those who want to extinguish matter and elevate it to form (they “try and ingest all of reality into a system of thought, to eat it up, to penetrate and possess it. This is what Hegel and the Marquis de Sade have in common”) and those who want to let matter matter:

To let the orange orange and the flower flower…. We take the side of things and try and evoke their nocturnal, mineral quality. This is, for us, the essence of poetry as it is expressed in Francis Ponge, the late Wallace Stevens, Rilke’s Duino Elegies and some of the personae of Pessoa, of trying (and failing) to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing, of saying “jug, bridge, cigarette, oyster, fruitbat, windowsill, sponge.”

That “failing” there is very important. It’s what makes a book like Remainder—which is, after all, not simply a list of proper nouns—possible. Of course, it’s not unusual for avant-garde fiction writers to aspire to the concrete quality of poetry. Listening to the general secretary annunciate his list, emphasizing its clarity and unloveliness, I thought of Wis awa Szymborska, in particular the opening of “The End and The Beginning”:

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.
Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Even those who are allergic to literary theory will recognize the literary sensibility, echoed in this poem, of which the INS forms an extreme, yet comprehensible, part. The connection: a perverse acknowledgement of limitations. One does not seek the secret, authentic heart of things. One believes—as Naipaul had it—that the world is what it is, and, moreover, that all our relations with it are necessarily inauthentic. As a consequence, such an attitude is often mistaken for linguistic or philosophical nihilism, but its true strength comes from a rigorous attention to the damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable. Remainder reserves its finest quality of attention for the well-worn street surface where the black man dies, its “muddy, pock-marked ridges,” the chewing gum, bottle tops, and gum, the “tarmac, stone, dirt, water, mud,” all of which forms, in the mind of the narrator, an almost overwhelming narration (“There’s too much here, too much to process, just too much”) that is yet a narration defined by absence, by partial knowledge, for we can only know it by the marks it has left.

Remainder recognizes, with Szymborska’s poem, that we know, in the end, “less than little/And finally as little as nothing,” and so tries always to acknowledge the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can’t understand or control—the ultimate marker of which is Death itself. We need not ever read a word of Heidegger to step in these murky waters. They flow through the “mainstream” of our canon. Through the negations of Beckett. The paradoxical concrete abstractions of Kafka. The scatological thingy-ness of Joyce at his most antic. The most famous line of Auden (“Poetry makes nothing happen”). They flow through our own lives in the form of anxiety, which is, in Freud’s opinion, the only real emotion we have.

For those who are theory-minded the INS manifesto in its entirety (only vaguely sketched out here) is to be recommended: it’s intellectually agile, pompous, faintly absurd, invigorating, and not at all new. As celebrations of their own inauthenticity, the INS members freely admit their repetitions and recycling tendencies, stealing openly from Blanchot, Bataille, Heidegger, Derrida, and, of course, Robbe-Grillet. Much of what is to be found in the manifesto is more leisurely expressed in the chief philosopher’s own “tomes” (in particular Very Little, Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature[2] ).

As for the general secretary, within the provocations of the INS he is a theoretical fundamentalist, especially where the material practicalities of publishing are concerned. In 2003, he expelled two INS members for signing to publishers, charging that they had “become complicit with a publishing industry whereby the ‘writer’ becomes merely the executor of a brief dictated by corporate market research, reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics.” It will be interesting to see what happens to these ideas now that McCarthy’s material circumstances are somewhat changed: in 2007, Remainder went to Vintage Books in America and picked up a Film Four production deal.

Still, that part of the INS brief that confronts the realities of contemporary publishing is not easily dismissed. When it comes to literary careers, it’s true: the pitch is queered. The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard. Friction, fear, and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity.

So it is with Remainder: the Re- enactor’s obsessive, amoral re-enactions have ancestors: Ahab and his whale, Humbert and his girl, Marlow’s trip downriver. The theater of the absurd that Remainder lays out is articulated with the same careful pedantry of Gregor Samsa himself. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

4.

Maybe the most heartening aspect of Remainder is that its theoretical foundations prove no obstacle to the expression of a perverse, self-ridiculing humor. In fact, the closer it adheres to its own principles, the funnier it is. Having spent half the book in an inauthentic building with re-enactors re-enacting, the Re-enactor decides he needs a change:

One day I got an urge to go and check up on the outside world myself. Nothing much to report.

A minimalist narrative refusal that made me laugh out loud. Remainder resists its readers, but it does so with a wry smile. And then, toward its end, a mysterious “short councillor” appears, wearing this same wry smile, like one of David Lynch’s dwarfs, and finally asks the questions—and receives the answers—that the novel has denied us till now. Why are you doing this? How does it make you feel? In a moment of frankness, we discover that the Re-enactor’s greatest tingle arrived with his smallest re-enactment: standing in a train station, holding his palms outward, begging for money of which he had no need. It gave him the sense “of being on the other side of something. A veil, a screen, the law—I don’t know….”

One of the greatest authenticity dreams of the avant-garde is this possibility of becoming criminal, of throwing one’s lot in with Jean Genet and John Fante, with the freaks and the lost and the rejected. (The notable exception is J.G. Ballard, author of possibly the greatest British avant-garde novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, who raised three children in the domestic tranquility of a semidetached house in Shepperton.) For the British avant-garde, autobiographical extremity has become a mark of literary authenticity, the drug use of Alexander Trocchi and Anna Kavan being at least as important to their readers as their prose. (The INS demands that “all cults of authenticity…be abandoned.” It does not say what is to be done about the authenticity cult of the avant-garde.)

In this, the Re-enactor has a true avant-garde spirit; he wants to become the thing beyond the pale, the inconvenient remainder impossible to contain within the social economy of meaning. But no: it is still not quite enough. The only truly authentic indivisible remainder, the only way of truly placing yourself outside meaning, is through death, the contemplation of which brings Remainder, in its finale, to one of its few expressionist moments. It also enacts a strange literary doubling, meeting Netherland head-on:

Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it’s real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams…. They’re records of atrocities. Each line, each figure, every angle—the ink itself vibrates with an almost intolerable violence, darkly screaming from the silence of white paper: something has happened here, someone has died.

“It’s just like cricket,” I told Naz one day.

“In what sense?” he asked.

“Each time the ball’s been past,” I said, “and the white lines are still zinging where it hit, and the seam’s left a mark, and…”

“I don’t follow,” he said.

“It…well, it just is,” I told him. “Each ball is like a crime, a murder. And then they do it again, and again and again, and the commentator has to commentate, or he’ll die too.”

In Netherland cricket symbolized the triumph of the symbol over brute fact (cricket as the deferred promise of the American Dream). In Remainder cricket is pure facticity, which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark. Everything must leave a mark. Everything has a material reality. Everything happens in space. As you read it, Remainder makes you preternaturally aware of space, as Robbe-Grillet did in Jealousy, Remainder‘s obvious progenitor. Like the sportsmen whose processes it describes and admires, Remainder “fill[s] time up with space,” by breaking physical movements, for example, into their component parts, slowing them down; or by examining the layers and textures of a wet, cambered road in Brixton as a series of physical events, rather than emotional symbols. It forces us to recognize space as a nonneutral thing—unlike Realism, which ignores the specificities of space. Realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.

Something has happened here, someone has died. A trauma, a repetition, a death, a commentary. Remainder wants to create zinging, charged spaces, stark and pared-down, in the manner of those ancient plays it clearly admires—The Oresteia, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. The ancients, too, trouble themselves with trauma, repetition, death, and commentary (by chorus), with the status of bodies before the law, with what on earth is to be done with the remainder. But the ancients always end in tragedy, with the indifferent facticity of the world triumphantly crushing the noble, suffering self.

Remainder ends instead in comic declension, deliberately refusing the self-mythologizing grandeur of the tragic. Fact and self persist, in comic misapprehension, circling each other in space (literally, in a hijacked plane). And it’s precisely within Remainder‘s newly revealed spaces that the opportunity for multiple allegories arises: on literary modes (How artificial is Realism?), on existence (Are we capable of genuine being?), on political discourse (What’s left of the politics of identity?), and on the law (Where do we draw our borders? What, and whom, do we exclude, and why?). As surface alone, though, so fully imagined, and so imaginative, Remainder is more than sufficient.”

[Pictures taken at the Serpentine Gallery Manifesto Marathon, 2008. Credits: Serpentine Gallery and Mark Blower, photography]

First posted: Friday, October 31st, 2008.

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