Tom McCarthy
Vintage ($13.95)

by Ken Chen

In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, a man suffers a traumatic injury and adopts an unusual method of recovery: a quest for authenticity. He builds enormous sets and hires actors to resurrect his life from before the accident, careful that his stagecraft not only mimics but recreates his previous more perfect life. The narrator’s form of therapy, in other words, is nostalgia, a way to reach back to a time when his life still felt whole and authentic. Yet as the narrator grows more and more obsessed with living only in these flawless moments, Remainder suggests that our fixation with authenticity may be itself a trauma. It describes the truth of representations and stars a man who erects his memories as gigantic art pieces and finds himself frustrated by how simulations can only stand-in for reality. Think here of postmodern metafictional novels and their precursor Beckett, whose plays also resemble art installations; like Krapp’s Last TapeRemainder is a non-stop quotation of stark repetitions. But Remainder is also about another more political conception of “truth”—being true to one’s own self. Sharing some territory with the works of David Foster Wallace, Daniel Clowes, and Alexander Payne, Remainder is a story about how modern life corrodes the self’s ability to live a “right” life.

We first encounter our main character, a young man that McCarthy never names, after he has suffered an unspecified industrial accident. Though he now possesses eight and a half million pounds in settlement money, the resulting injuries have left him shaken up and cut off from his body, so that the narrator must explicitly will his hand towards his mouth even to eat. Frustrated, he wonders why he can’t occupy his body as easily as those he sees on the street: a homeless man (who he initially exoticizes for his access to “real life”), beautiful young models, and the projected image of Robert Deniro. All these people become targets of his envy. Deniro, he tells a friend, flows into his movements. “He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” Even though Deniro, as an actor, is “fake” by definition, his life as a flickering picture renders him incapable of second-guessing his own motions. Consequently, although the narrator does suffer a small scar, his disease seems less physical than psychological—and the injury is self-consciousness.

One night at a party, the narrator sees a fleshy pink crack on the bathroom wall and remembers that he had one just like it on his kitchen wall. He remembers standing in his kitchen, the whiff of frying liver drifting into his apartment, a pianist practicing upstairs. Snugly ensconced in his déjà vu, the narrator suddenly realizes he can heal his postmodern ailment by literally living inside this memory. “I was going to recreate it: build it up again and live inside it,” he says, of his past. “It’d work outwards from the crack I’d just transcribed.”

The novel tracks the narrator’s quixotic efforts—“re-enactments,” he calls them—to cobble together a world that only recites his memory. He builds a new apartment designed to mimic his old one. He hires actors to play his old neighbors: a team to fry liver downstairs; a music professor instructed to occasionally flub a note for the sake of realism and a landlady who wears a hockey mask when he can’t remember her face. These re-enactments constitute a zoo of his boring old life, joyously ho-hum and safely quarantined from the oppressively mediated world. So although Remainder is an occasionally cold novel, it also describes the way that art—or reading, specifically—can sequester us from life, while also bringing us closer to it. The poet Kenneth Rexroth once wrote that, when reading novelists like Tolstoy and Flaubert, whole worlds would envelop him and he “would emerge into real life with the strange outlandish feeling of someone back from years abroad.” Remainder parodies this sense of secondhand life, since the narrator can only choreograph these quotidian moments with the help of an immense bureaucracy. Yet because the re-enactments so successfully capture the sense of being alive, the narrator experiences a feeling of transcendental purity each time he tours his creations. (By the end of the novel, he compares himself to God, another artist of everyday life.)

Here, Remainder most obviously deals with a type of game-like authenticity—the distance between art and representation. What distinguishes an ordinary apartment from a set, if they’re physically identical? A man acting as a piano player from a piano player? The narrator’s greatest frustration is actually the paradox of realism—an aesthetic that aspires towards the ideal through accurate mistakes. He fires his initial cast of actors, for being performers rather than actual neighbors, and his interior decorator, who’s unwilling to make the building as ugly as the narrator wants. He chides another employee who sweeps the hallway of debris that the narrator had carefully arranged on the floor. These people want beauty, not mimesis. But, because the narrator wants the authenticity offered by perfect representation, the actual content or value of these signifiers—cigarette butts and sickly houseplants—doesn’t matter, as long as they link back to a pure and innocent past.

As the novel progresses, the narrator’s stagings grow more ambitious and less ethical. The narrator models a local shooting, using his own blood when the red dye looks fake. He adores crime scene forensics, calling it a higher art—as abstract as the avant-garde, but empirically real. In the final scene, the narrator trains actors to perform a bank robbery and at the last minute, shifts the performance to an actual bank. Here, McCarthy cites Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which instructs the reader, “Organize a fake holdup.” The “audience” at the bank will react to the hold-up as real, rather than simulated. The policeman will shoot on sight. A customer will faint, stricken with a heart attack. And so “you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real.”

In other words, no life is vicarious. It is impossible to escape from reality—for where would you escape to? But the narrator is originally attracted to his re-enactments because they do allow an escape. They are risk-free rehearsals, a way of recusing himself from life. Because the re-enactments cannot surprise him, they allow him to avoid self-consciousness. “The moment,” the narrator says, describing what a certain re-enactment felt like, “seemed to expand and become a pool—a still, clear pool that swallowed everything up in its calm contentedness.” So, like Deniro playing a role, the narrator becomes merely another fixture in a predetermined world—not a person with intentions, but an actor. Much like the secondhand life offered by TV shows, video games, and DVDs—all of which reduce us to extras, spectators in a life that is never accessible—these re-enactments offer a soothing predictability that is capable of blotting out the self. Accordingly, Remainder resembles a Michel Houellebecq novel in how it never asks us to relate to the narrator’s opaque psychological goals.

Rather, Remainder is a study of atomization—the lonely prerequisite for authenticity. McCarthy shows us what it’s like to live in the mind of the atomized urban man—more aware than empathetic, longing for something (but what?), overstimulated but flaccid, cut off from his family and his own body, exiled from the public sphere to an unfulfilling private life. Remainder’s narrator doesn’t possess a job, family, love life, religion, political affiliation, or even a name. When he first learns about his newfound wealth, his then-girlfriend suggests that he fund housing projects in Kenya, while his best friend advocates cocaine and parties. Here, McCarthy presents us with the old dichotomy between public virtue and private hedonism—a not unpopular proposal in contemporary novels (see You Shall Know Our Velocity andIndecision, for just two examples)—but the narrator doesn’t like either option. Although he can’t connect partying with a life of meaning, a moral life seems too distant from his private interests to seem remotely relevant. He refuses both proposals and burrows back into his solitary life. McCarthy highlights this disconnectedness through his neutral use of the first person (“I held my eyes level with a kink in the glass pane, then moved my head several millimeters down”) and the story’s highly logistical plotting, which resembles a to-do list more than it does a three-act arc (“We hired an interior decorator. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard”). Such denotative, goal-oriented writing suggests not just a certain strand of anti-humanist experimental literature, like the noveau roman, but surprisingly resembles American genre fiction. Whereas novelistic empathy has a soaking, bruiselike quality, McCarthy has written a small, glasslike novel that, like many novels of ideas, is not terribly interested in character. Yet the novel is also about how we have become apathetic about other people.

Remainder tells the familiar story of how the urban experience corrodes the self’s ability to live a “true” life. The novel’s more political point seems to be that even when things are “real,” as opposed to simulated, they still may not be authentic—here an ethical rather than ontological quality. These re-enactments, for example, really serve only to cover-up the narrator’s actual emotional life, his trauma. McCarthy has elsewhere quoted Freud as saying that trauma causes “a desire for repetition mixed with a need to disguise the scene being repeated,” and at every re-enactment, the narrator smells cordite, an explosive propellant possibly linked to his accident. Yet the narrator sees his re-enactments as both artwork and self-fulfillment project. This is no accident, since the idea of such a project conceptualizes the self as a type of artwork and the artist as the model self. (This is why Richard Rorty can describe scientists like Darwin and Galileo as “strong” artists.)

Yet, while the narrator begins the novel longing for soft humanist details, like his landlady’s taking out the trash or the fresh smell of cooking, the modern world’s dehumanizing lack of values slowly contaminates him. Remainder’s London isn’t a city in the bustling, lucky, sumptuous sense, but an alienating mathematical grid. The narrator talks about how a “feeling of exclusion coloured the whole city as I watched it darken and glow, closing ranks. The landscape I was looking at seemed lost, dead, a dead landscape.” And he hires a businessman named Naz to manage and build the re-enactments. Described as a “bureaucratic zealot,” Naz helps organize the bank heist, replete with submachine guns. Even though he doesn’t really understand the project, he loves the challenge of facilitating such difficult means. Similarly, the narrator obsesses over a Starbucks coupon that allows him to get a tenth cup free, and as he flees the bank, he buys nine cups of coffee just to get the final freebie. The novel is a fable of Adorno’s instrumental reason—the rampaging buzz of means without any goal in sight.

Like many critics of modernity, McCarthy’s narrator stops seeing the self as the normal product of experience and starts seeing it as yet another consumer item, the prix fixe selection from a lustrous but deadening menu. At the novel’s start, when the narrator spies on the excluding world—Deniro et al.—he sees some beautiful “media types” and reviles the way they’ve plagiarized their lives from some trendy advertisement, their “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 young people laughing and hanging out: they could be the beautiful young people themselves.” (This is the paradox of using taste to represent our true selves—we grow more self-conscious as we create ourselves, but we began creating to escape self-consciousness.) The narrator’s early re-enactments, in contrast, have an innocent, glamourless fakeness: boys playing at a gas station; an old lady taking out the garbage. To the narrator, the latter scenes offer life—a thing that looks increasingly precious as it grows scarcer—rather than the dead quotations of mass media.

A connoisseur of authenticity has another option. Rather than adopting the role of the artist, galloping towards identity, he can search for that unadorned self that existed prior to culture. This idea that real life is out there, capable of being captured in its native form, resembles an ideal of authenticity that tells us to touch the unmediated world, the thing itself. We hear this animal injunction from Buddhist meditators, the banal sensuousness of mainstream poetry, and the Star Wars films, all of which admonish us to feel rather than think. Remainder describes how the narrator first thinks of re-enacting his memories: he notices his shirt brushing against a refrigerator door, and these types of moments, he says, “run through me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real—been without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.” Like the Buddhist meditators, the narrator slips into his re-enactments to feel undifferentiated from his environment, as though he’s slipped behind culture and found the plaster of truth glinting through the wall crack.

But like many projects towards purity, the desire to be “real”—like the desire for happiness—is frustratingly asymptotic. We slowly learn that the re-enactments don’t duplicate real memories, but a faultless past the narrator has invented—“events that hadn’t happened, but which. . . were on the verge of being repeated.” Consequently, the narrator’s re-enactments always fail to match his imagination, because in his inverted hierarchy, the world is only a sloppy knock-off of his ideal. The crack in the wall isn’t pink and fleshy enough. The liver smells wrong. To McCarthy’s narrator, the world is dross left over from this ideal—the remainder. His world is fallen, but such an outlook would only make sense if one believed in a context that possessed greater validity than society, some more magical setting the world.

Yet this is not the case. We have no other home than culture. In fact, this desire for authenticity arises from our a desire we share as a group—why else are there so many novels about self-consciousness, indecision, authenticity, and irony? And our metrics of authenticity—what it would mean to be cool, kind, or different—are only meaningful through culture, not our body’s sensations or the smothering of self. Even in private life, we still refer back to the conventions we create in public. “Defining myself,” as Charles Taylor writes, “means finding what is significant in my difference from others.” No one predicates their self-worth, he notes, on having 3,732 hair follicles or the same height as a rare tree; such facts are not socially meaningful. Consequently, the narrator’s authenticity fixation looks increasingly like a Fascist insistence on purity. He watches an airport walkway become “a fashion catwalk, with models acting out different roles… all so self-conscious, stylized, false.” No one, he decides, is unpolluted by culture. The narrator seems to want a self untainted by society—and since such a thing does not exist, he insulates himself with his re-enactments, where he can be the sole arbiter of moral and social conventions. And so, during one “authentic” moment, he faints and a sign reading “Fire Escape” blurs until it only reads, appropriately enough, “Escape.” But these sensitive moments never connect to anything beyond the narrator. Like many scenes of private happiness, these re-enactments have no communal, ethical significance. Instead, they constitute an elaborate self-help project—but unlike, say, the typical person’s attempt to “find himself,” the narrator cumulates his search for personal fulfillment by storming a bank with machine guns. McCarthy, a lover of Bataille, writes the bank robbery as an act of transgressive violence, but the scene may tell us something subtler about authenticity and ethics. In the bank lobby, the narrator’s actors die onstage, but he doesn’t care. He just says, “Beautiful!” Authenticity at this extreme becomes art without morality.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008