Archive for the ‘McCarthy, Tom (2)’ Category

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

February 14, 2012

Purchased at

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.


C, by Tom McCarthy

August 21, 2010

Puchased at the Book Depository

First off, the good news — C is a much more accessible novel on the second reading than it was on the first. Now the bad news, if time is an issue for you — unless you are really into “modernist” fiction, I’m fairly certain you will want to read this twice. I certainly appreciated it more the second time than I did the first, but even then I was a frustrated reader when I reached the end. In no way do I mean that as a putdown — indeed, I think it should be regarded as an indication of the author’s success in crafting an intricate and complex book. This is a novel that both demands and rewards commitment.

I am not going to pretend that this review explores all (even most) aspects of the novel in any kind of detail. You will also note the absence of quotes — McCarthy is the kind of writer whose linked prose makes review quotes an exercise in futility (trust me, he can write). Indeed, I would predict that academics will be spending a lot of effort over the next few decades to contemplate the antecedents, references and echoes that are all part of C because it is a novel that deserves that kind of attention. This review, on the other hand, is aimed at would-be (or just-done) readers who want and respect a broad overview. Details to follow in scholarly journals down the road.

Equally interesting NA cover

I do think that Tom McCarthy should be thanking his UK publishers (Jonathan Cape) for the best physical design of a book (in terms of relating to its themes) that I can recall in recent memory. If you are lucky enough to find a version of their original presentation, it comes with a palimpsest dust cover of scribbled patterns, while underneath on the cover itself is the “C”, with a gridded starscape in the background. The black spills over into the front and back inner covers with almost furry edges. The design is an entirely fair — even brilliant — visual representation of the challenges of the book. You need to fight your way through the confusion of the present, find the patterns that are in the array of the supertext, hark back into history, knit all those elements together and then it might all make sense. (You can see why I needed two reads.)

And now to the book. Serge Carrefax, its central character, is the son of an inventor/teacher/savant who runs a school for the deaf in England — the pedagogy is on the speaking, not signing, side of that debate: “You have to make them speak. All the time!” The location is the Carrefax estate, Versoie, not just a school but also a silk farm not far outside London. The timing is 1898 and Carrefax Senior is not only a teacher of the deaf, he is an obsessed scientist, a fellow traveller with Marconi and Bell in exploring the idea of transmitting dots and dashes, radio waves, perhaps even speech, through the ether. Serge’s mother, meanwhile, may know more about making and selling silk than anyone in England, even if her husband doesn’t recognize the talent.

McCarthy chooses to tell his story through the medium of Serge (that might be “surge” like the radio wave — his father’s pronounciation — or “serge” like the cloth — his mother’s) and it comes in a series of separated episodes, starting with an exceptionally good set piece on Serge’s birth. Childhood and maturation at Versoie (titled “Caul”), moving into the war (“Chute”) and further on to London and eventually Egypt (yes, every chapter starts with C). In the opening sections of the book, this playfulness is a strength. I won’t give away the real “C” but I will admit, as much as I respected the book, the conceit wears very thin as it moves on.

And, at the risk of a major spoiler, some experienced reader advice: you need to pay a lot more attention to Serge’s sister, Sophie, than you might think early on in the book. She is three years older and is an interesting child — if Serge is inclined to the ephemeral radio waves, Sophie is very much into chemistry, botany and small insect life. There is a wonderful scene early on at the school pageant where stage manager Sophie creates so much “brimstone” in her effects on the classical theme that the audience of parents and supporters can’t get to the tea table at intermission because of the acrid fog.

McCarthy’s first (and in my opinion greatest) failing, in fact, is that he doesn’t develop Sophie nearly well enough. He needs her to create the dialectic tension with Serge’s development but she disappears fairly early on in one of the author’s less successful elements. When he finally concludes the novel, what she represents will be very important — even on a second reading, he gives the development of her character extremely short shrift. It is a major flaw in the book.

Serge, meanwhile, continues to develop his scientific side. He follows his father’s interests and becomes an amateur radio expert. One of the strong parts of the early section of the book is to watch the way that he and his sister start to diverge in their talents and interests. McCarthy plays this up by sending Serge to a German spa, Klodebrady, in a section that is so (badly) reminiscient of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain that it had me frothing.

Okay, I admit that Mann’s book is one of my favorites of all time. And what I like about it best is not the central narrative of the sanatorium, but the way that Mann contrasts the rational/spiritual, Western/Oriental views of the world which he develops in conversations between his characters — without doubt, it is one of the best novels ever written. And I appreciate that McCarthy is exploring that same tension with Serge (add Kafka in for another angle) when he sets him in this environment. But I will admit that throughout this whole section, I was gritting my teeth — the modern author is simply not up to the image that he is borrowing.

Serge then heads off to war where he is an airborne observor in the British forces in the Great War air corps. McCarthy uses this section quite effectively to establish the notion of someone who “sees from above” (while facing backwards) and then makes things happen, but is always aware that he is just an “insect” in the overall machine. And the writing is even more effective when he brings Serge back to ground and officers’ prison camp. But again, it has derivative overtones (Pat Barker did this much better) which do not serve the novel well.

Our hero acquires a drug habit during the war and when he returns to London finds a way to continue it. For me, this section of the book was the easiest to read and because of that probably the most effective. It is replete with a variety of most rewarding set pieces. There is an absolutely marvelous section where Serge exposes a psychic that makes you wish McCarthy would consider writing a totally comic novel. (Sorry — perhaps he already has as I don’t know his backlist.)

It is at this point that McCarthy gets truly serious with his novel and starts to pull some of his themes together — and I should apologize for being so flippant in the previous paragraphs. To his credit, those themes range back to early Egyptian history, pass through classical Greece and Rome and don’t ignore the decline of the British Empire as the twentieth century dawns. And he never abandons his central character Serge and his conflicts as all of this unfolds.

If the first three-quarters of the novel work for you, I think you will find this closure most effective. I had some nagging doubts, so I would rate it at maybe 4 out of 5 — parts of me wondered if McCarthy was just closing off story lines. And I did not find the closing scene very effective at all, but I suspect I will be in the minority on that count.

I will admit that on the first time through, I was pretty confused as the novel drew to a close; very much aware as I approached the end of the book that I had overlooked things to which I should have paid much more attention. I certainly felt less of that on the second read — this is a very good novel — but I could not help feeling that academics would be paying a lot more attention to this novel than most readers do. Which, in a way, is too bad as there is much to like here.

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