Remainder, by Tom McCarthy


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We never do learn the full details of the event that precipitated the story in Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, Remainder: “It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge.”

Part of the reason for that is physical: the first-person narrator went into a coma and simply does not remember what happened. An equally important part, however, is legal, structural, externally-imposed by “authorities”. The Settlement that the narrator receives is a seemingly outrageous £8.5 million but, as his lawyer informs him, it comes with a condition: “You can’t discuss, in any public or recordable format, the nature and/or details of the incident…. You’ll lose the whole lot if you do, plus any surplus this might have accrued while in your custody.”

The event and the Settlement establish the conditions for the novel and its purpose — as the title implies, Remainder is about outcomes but they are necessarily clouded ones, bounded both by incomplete memory and “terms drawn up between my lawyer and the parties, institutions, organizations — let’s call them the bodies — responsible for what happened to me….”

Author McCarthy’s purpose in the novel is to establish those two altered realities, internal and external, each with a very different set of new controlling factors. On the physical side, once the narrator has emerged from his coma he has to (re)learn how to move — the part of his brain that controls motor functions has been damaged irreparably and he has to learn “re-routing”, literally finding a new path through the brain for even the most elementary actions.

To cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualize 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 make you try to move your hand at all: they just ask you to visualize taking a carrot in your right hand, wrapping your fingers round 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 through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. That’s the idea.

“Again and again and again” — and that’s even before you actually make a physical attempt. The countless mental repetitions will require an even larger set once the physical effort begins — how many times does a child (much quicker at learning than an adult) fall before he learns how to walk?

That’s just the internal world. Getting back to relating to an altered external world requires a similar process. The Settlement means the narrator is rich (in conventional terms) beyond belief, but his retained knowledge of the external world is as irreparably damaged as his motor function. The “re-routing” involved, and its consequences, is what the bulk of Remainder is about. We get a hint of the form it will take early on in Chapter One: a series of telephone incidents means the narrator has to make several calls to his lawyer to learn of the Settlement and we are gently introduced to the notion of repetition as both the learning and the reality that will become his new guiding force. And just as picking up a carrot turns out to require more bits of process than can be imagined, the new reality involves even more.

A couple of mundane incidents will further establish the new parameters. In the first, returning from his lawyer’s office where he signed the Settlement papers, the now incredibly wealthy narrator is on his way to a recommended financial advisor as he emerges from the Underground at Victoria Station:

It felt strange. After a while I stopped wondering which way the office was and just stood there, feeling them hurrying, streaming. I remembered standing in the ex-siege zone between the perpendicular and parallel streets by my flat two days earlier [when the repeated phone calls took place]. I closed my eyes and turned the palms of my hands outwards again and felt the same tingling, the same mixture of serene and intense. I opened my eyes again but kept my palms turned outwards. It struck me that my posture was like the posture of a beggar, holding his hands out, asking passers-by for change.

The feeling of intensity was growing. It felt very good. I stood there static with my hands out, palms turned upwards, while commuters streamed past me. After a while I decided that I would ask them for change. I started muttering:

“Spare change … spare change … spare change …”

Obviously, we do not have an unreliable narrator here but a different version: an incomplete one, more than adequately supplied with some resources (particularly money), completely lacking in others. Equally obviously, we have an author who is determined to take readers into the creation of an alternate, even absurd, reality that shares those characteristics of over-abundance and total absence.

I’m not going to try to describe the elements that McCarthy puts together there: suffice to say they all involve the idea of “re-enactment” as the consistent force (that “re-routing” lesson with the carrot has left an indelible mark). It will start by recreating in real-life the narrator’s hazy memory of a multi-story apartment building, complete with hired tenant/re-enactors including a liver-frying old woman, a pianist and minders who place wandering cats on the roof of the building across the courtyard. It will expand into the detailed recreation of a scene at an auto-repair shop, which then segues into re-enactments of three drive-by gang shootings in the neighborhood. With £8.5 million (the sum itself expanding through some wise/lucky investments in the technology industry), the narrator is not crimped on that front. I will, however, jump well ahead in the story to highlight an exchange from late in the book that illustrates the scope. It involves a local Councillor, a lawyer-like figure who has been involved in facilitating logistics for the re-enactments:

“He (the narrator) has, moreover, had the most trivial of incidents — a spillage that occurred during a visit to a tyre repair shop — played and replayed like a stuck record for the last three weeks, residual.”

“I’d forgotten about that,” I said.

“Forgotten about that, he says?” His tone rose slightly as he uttered this rhetorical question, then dropped again as he ploughed on. “No less than one hundred and twenty actors have been used. Five hundred and eleven props — tyres, signs, tins, tools, all in working condition — have been assembled and deployed. And that’s just for the tyre shop scene. The number of people who have been employed in some capacity or other over the course of all five re-enactments is closer to one thousand.” He paused again and let the figure sink in, then continued: “All these actions, into which so much energy has been invested, so many man-hours, so much money — all, taken as a whole, confront us with the question: for what purpose?”

If my brief outline has interested you enough to want an answer to that question, Remainder is worth the read. If your response is a version of “who would care”, you probably want to give the book a miss.

I read this novel because I was impressed by McCarthy’s 2010 Booker-shortlisted C which explores a far different altered reality. My initial response to both novels was remarkably similar: at the halfway mark, I was enrolled and intrigued; then frustration set in (repetition, almost by definition, becomes boring); only to have the closing portion of the book return me to a positive frame of mind. It has been 18 months since I read C and I would have to say that it has aged well — I’ve come to be more understanding of some of those parts that initially frustrated me. I’m hoping that same thing will happen with Remainder although, at this stage, I have to say some “re-routing” of the KfC brain may be necessary.


8 Responses to “Remainder, by Tom McCarthy”

  1. Lee Monks Says:

    I can’t help thinking that McCarthy’s ideas are somewhat better than his execution, but at least he has ideas. I must re-read this: my recollection of it is that I found the actual writing quite flat, dry, humourless. I will have another go.

    I look forward to the Chad Harbach review, having read The Art of Fielding fairly recently.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I too have some minor issues with the writing — there is a “sameness” to it that I think fuels the frustration that I experienced mid-book in both novels. I do feel that C is a better novel since it involves more story lines (even if some of them don’t really succeed). I’d take that as a good sign — the first novel is quite good, the second even better and there is promised of more to come.

    I’m enjoying the Harbach very much so far.


  3. Stephen Page (eudaimonia) Says:

    very thorough.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Stephen.


  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t like it more Kevin. For me it was one of my reads of 2011 (my review is here: As you say it goes beyond unreliable narrator. Does that questioning councillor actually exist for example? At one point the narrator admits that a just-described scene didn’t actually happen. And of course the heart of the book is the recreation of a memory that may be (probably is) partly or wholly imagined.

    For me this is very much a novel of ideas. The notion of truth waiting within a thing to be discovered, the desire for authenticity and the impossibility of actually authentic experience, the clash of our desires and the insensible obduracy of stuff.

    It’s also an intentionally disquieting novel (I described it as the opposite of Brooklyn, which of course I also loved). The narrator lacks anything approaching empathy, his main facilitator becomes so wrapped up in meeting his client’s desires he doesn’t ask if they should be met, the (wholly intentional) jarring reminders of the falsity of the narrative and the questionability of the narrator’s own perceptions and memory (and if you remove both current perception and memory, what’s left?).

    Looking back at my review I see that I thought the final third weaker, which still rings true, and the book at its weakest when most realistic which also still rings true. The ending though is very well chosen. It sounds like C has a similar path, but with the writing improving (which is as it should be, how terrible it would be for the first book to be the best).

    On that last note, South African SF writer Lauren Beukes recently won an SF literary prize for her second novel. After that her first book naturally got a lot more attention than it had previously, and several reviewers read it and commented that it wasn’t as well written as the one that won the prize. I saw an interview with her where she was asked if that reaction troubled her. Her rather likeable answer was that was exactly as it should be.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I certainly did not dislike it and am glad that I read it — my biggest problem perhaps was that in the early part of the second half I felt that McCarthy had become so wrapped up in some of his ideas that he was re-treading ground already visited, without much new effect. And I would agree that that may well be a “first novel effect”, although I did find it frustrating at that time. I did find the concluding part to be a bit tidy but felt it worked — the author needed some way of illustrating that the whole book was a Mobius-strip-like portrayal where we really are not sure whether we are on the reality or alternate reality side of the strip because each eventually turns into the other.

    The reason why I think (at least at this stage) that C is a stronger novel (and a positive step forward) is that McCarthy places his ideas in much more complex and varied environments, with many more developed characters. Again, parts of it work better than others do but for me it came together very well.


  7. litereader Says:

    I’m curious if you plan on reading his recently re-released novel, Men in Space, as it was actually his first completed novel (at least, I seem to recall reading that it was). It was my introduction to his work, and I wasn’t that impressed with it. That said, I could tell there were ideas in it that were of some value and I do intend on reading it again – I’m thinking it may be one of those novels that hid something from me the first go round. I also own his two other novels, and do look forward to reading both of them, though I honestly can’t figure out why. Men in Space was, in all actuality, one of my least enjoyed books of 2011…


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    litereader: I think I will give the first novel a pass. McCarthy is good but not so good that I feel a need to explore the entire catalogue.


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