Remainder by Tom Mc Carthy – What’s left over is all we are.

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 even 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. But whose to say that these are genuine memories? Whose to say my traumatized mind didn’t just make them up, or pull them out of somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap – the crater – that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.

Minds are versatile and wily things, says Tom McCarthy in the opening paragraph of his wonderful novel Remainder. Real Chancers. And thus he sets us up for a wild journey through the damaged mind and affected psyche of a name less hero – another man with no name. (there seem to be quite a few these days)

It’s difficult to speak in a literary essay about this novel after Zadie Smiths searing reflections in The New York Review of Books.  Remainder is a pathbreaking novel, one of those that dares the writing community to move in a new direction. That direction (of course) steers us strongly away from contemporary popular realism. She calls Remainder an avant guard novel, and I would agree with that assessment. Don’t let that be a judgement, however. Remainder is very readable and very enjoyable. It is an excellent essay that ultimately posits the problems of realism against the solutions in Remainder, with Remainder coming up the winner.

I am reviewing this book late in the game. Remainder was published in November 2005 (six years after it had been completed) by the small press Metronome Press, it was something of a sleeper success. Very clever lit folk pursued it and chased it into being, so that in 2006 Alma books and then in 2007 Vintage took Remainder up and propelled it into the main stream. I’ve said it before and I will say it again – god bless readers of the avant guard and subscribers to the small press. if you can’t acquire blessings from god any more, you most certainly have mine.

Tom Mc Carthy is the secretary of the International Necronautical Society and this society gives him the platform from which to launch – inauthentically ‘legitimize’ – his work. With Simon Critchley as its chief philosopher and Tom Mc Carthy established as its secretary and chief author, the society claims to do for “death, what the surrealists did for sex.” The Necronautical society has to do with matter – “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….” – and concern themselves with the debris of existence. The left over remains – the remainder.

(“The Necronautical Society calls for the end of all 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.” Quote from Zadie Smith.)

And here lies the link. The unnamed protagonist of Remainder (and he’s hardly a protagonist, he’s a re-enactor of failed memory) is a Necronaut. He exists in the lost and the forgotten detail that comprises existence. He has become artificially separated from the world (or rather authentically separated from the world) because “something hit him on the head” and he lapsed into a coma, and needed severe rehabilitation when he woke up. That rehabilitation had to deal with memory, since the accident wiped certain motor memory from his consciousness. With no memory, he no longer feels. This is a direct commentary on the idea of recognition of experience as process through our neural pathways. You feel  because of a remembered experience – not because of an authentic response to a moments stimuli. He has to re-learn (via reenactment) how to do everything. The meaningless detail called life about which we run an endless commentary in order to avoid the anxiety of our eventual death. This process is called “rerouting’.

To cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualise things. Simple things, like lifting a carrot to your mouth. For the first week or so they don’t give you a carrot, or even try to make you move your hand at all: they just ask you to visualise taking a carrot i your right hand, wrapping your fingers around it, and then levering your whole forearm upwards from the elbow until the carrot reaches your mouth. they make you understand how it all works: which tendon does what, how each joint rotates, how angles, upward force and gravity contend with and counterbalance one another.  Understanding this, and picturing yourself lifting the carrot to your mouth, again and again and again, cuts circuit through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. that’s the idea. 

And this is what we know of getting what we desire. As a child, it is from watching other adults and wanting to be a walker that teachers us to walk. As an adult it is our perception of ‘ourself’ as a waiter (to co-opt Sartre’s famous example) that has us do the work of being a waiter. The idea exists in the vision or the dream. The idea comes first, and we ‘be’ out of the vision of ‘being.’ Love itself is the closest manifestation of our reality because that which we admire ‘claims’ us into existence. I must be real, he loves me. All this is seen long before it manifests.

But the act itself, when you actually come to try it, turns out to be more complicated than you thought. There are twenty-seven separate maneuvers involved. You’ve learnt them, one-by-one in the right order, understood how they all work, run through them in your mind, again and again and again for a whole week – lifted more than a thousand imaginary carrots to your mouth, or one imaginary carrot more than a thousand times, which amounts to the same thing. But then you take a carrot – they bring you a fucking carrot, gnarled, dirty and irregular in ways your imaginary carrot never was, and they stick it in your hands – and you know, you just know as soon as you see the bastard thing that it’s not going to work.

And there in lies the rub. Because nothing is real outside of death and according to Freud anxiety over death is the only true emotion we will ever feel, the actions never quite meet with the vision of how the actions are supposed to be. The personal struggle with inauthenticity ensues, frustration in the human creature over almost every facet of their day. The narrator of Remainder goes about his day, doing as little as possible because “too much makes him dizzy.” Then one day, the company that dropped ‘the thing’ on his head about which he remembers nothing, pays him 8.5 million pounds in a settlement to ensure he never speaks of it to anyone. At the precise moment his lawyer informs him of this he experiences an important communication break down with the world.

It took another second or so for me to take in just how much money that was. When I had, I took my hand off the wall and turned suddenly around, towards the window. the movement was so forceful that it pulled the phone wire with it, yanked it right out of the wall. The whole connection came out: the wire, the flat-headed bit that you plug in and the casing of the hole that plugs into to.  It even brought some of the internal wiring that runs through the wall out with it, all dotted and flecked with crumbly, fleshy bits of plaster. “Hello?” I said. it was no good: 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.

He severs communication. The money seals his fate and changes everything. He’s not sure what to do with it. Altruism and hedonism are both suggested and both occur as equally unfulfilling to a man who feels perpetually on the edge of a disappearance into in-authenticity. He doesn’t know what to do about the money. Then he has an experience out with his friend watching Mean Streets. He relates to Robert DeNiro as an actor. He makes the observation that when acting is done well, it is authenticity. (isn’t that why we all imagine ourselves as the subject of a film in our adolescents and hopefully not too far beyond?  Isn’t that a stretch toward legitimization? Authenticity?)  Our protagonist decides it is the precision of DeNiros actions that have him arrive at a perceived authenticity.

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect. Seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

Nothing in between him and the action. No remainders. None of those nasty little pieces of happening that prevent one’s complete connection and submerging. It is the actors – not the characters the actor plays – but the actors who are authentic because every little remainder in the movement has been taken away. We are left with the smooth, intended action. We are left with absolute authenticity.

In searching for a time inside himself when he was truly authentic (childhood is dismissed rapidly because of its complete self consciousness and endless attempts to display itself) he eventually comes to a moment at a party where a crack in the wall reminds him of something. This reminding, leads to a proper memory of an apartment block and a series of seemingly unconnected events at a particular time. Our ‘hero’ decides to use his money to recreate the memory – in a search for authenticity – and have it play over and over effectively making sure that one moment of authenticity exists in his world.

And this is where the book really begins. It is our ‘re-enactors’ relationship with his projects, others relationship with him and the desire to include every remainder (a very Derridean concept) into the re-enactment that propels both the book and its protagonist. He wants to get closer to the moment where action exists at one with objects and things. Authenticity – the great battle within us all. First it is about a perfect recreation (from his memory) of an event so that it runs in a perpetual loop seamlessly. Then it is about perfecting a moment that didn’t go according to his own perception of transcendence. Then it becomes about re-creating an actual event precisely the way it occurred, but with attention paid to every detail. Finally, in a devastating moment of action colliding with the real, it becomes an actual event in real-time, practised to perfection by the actors – who remain actors only to themselves – where every detail is felt in all its fullness. At this moment the re-enactor can allow for chaos because he knows he will experience it as the chaos and not plaster an alternate emotion over the top of it in order to avoid it.

The truth is that, for me, this man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him – and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extent of having no more consciousness of them. He’d stopped being separate, removed, imperfect. Cut the detour.  Then both mind and actions had resolved themselves into pure stasis. The spot that this had happened on was the ground zero of perfection – all perfection: the one he’d achieved, the one I wanted, the one everyone else wanted but just didn’t know they wanted and in any case didn’t have eight and a half million pounds to help them pursue even if they had known.

Our re-enactor can only have this experience because he doesn’t feel. The only feelings he has are ‘tinglings’ that occur when he is at one with an authentic moment. These tinglings start to take him over and move to blackouts and complete lapses in time. A kind of spiritual transcendence, or what we call transcendence.  A mysterious figure, I suppose meant to represent ourselves, turns up toward the end of the novel to ask the questions we all want to ask the re-enactor. Why are you doing this and how do you feel. There is no anser for him, or rather no satisfying answer, because the re-enactor is on the other side of something and we can’t fathom the words in his description.

When the money appears, so does Naz, a professional perfectionist who becomes a zealot. Naz is described as a facilitator, a person employed to take care of the details (remainders) that we forget in the inauthenticity of our day. The re-enactor becomes his perfect client and Naz becomes lost in the seduction of perfect fulfilment. This reminded me of a submissive in a BDSM conversation. They give the perfection of wish fulfilment freely, but only by making themselves an unquestioning slave to the demands of the other.

Yes Naz was a zealot – but his zealotry wasn’t religious: it was bureaucratic. And he was drunk: infected, drive onwards, on toward a kind of ecstasy just by the possibilities of information management my projects were opening up for him, each one more complex, more extreme. My executor.

Zadie Smith makes the interesting point that Naz is an Asian. Politically, he has his own agenda, and he is shown to be the most intelligent character in the novel. He is swept up in the reach for authenticity his fascinated gaze settled upon the rich white man. Naz isn’t a follower. He’s an executor. But he is fascinated by the projects of the en-actor and he is, in his own way, connecting with the actions. Bonded by the task of including the remainders, Naz becomes the re-enactors closest human companion on the journey that must lead to destruction. Zadie Smith also reminds the man who died (quoted above) is a black man laying dead in the streets – the symbol of perfection. She says:

“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. 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.”

Thank you Zadie Smith.

The book closes with the re-enactor being trapped in an endless loop (a circle – infinity) of authenticity where he sits perfectly in time, at one with all the remainders, the chaos. A moment in time when the most devastating of events are all part of the smallest detail that goes into creating the absolute moment.

If this perfection is what we all seek, and it results in stasis – the endless repetition of our most meaningless actions – isn’t the re-enactor right? Isn’t this what we all want ultimately? To know we exist by being one with the moment, with things? If we had eight and a half million pounds, we would either abdicate responsibility for it by giving it away, blow it all on denial, or spend our time trying to be perfect, make our objects perfect, recreate and obsess over the small detail that will give us pleasure.

Reconstructions, everywhere. I looked down at the interlocking, hemmed in fields, and had a vision of the whole worlds surface cordoned off, demarcated, broken into grids in which self-duplicating patterns endlessly repeated.

Highly recommended.

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Thanks so much for dipping into this amazing book with me.