‘It’s kind of a big deal…’ – Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Since it was first published in a limited edition by Metronome Press in 2005, Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder has been the single most recommended novel in my limited purview. If I had a pound for every person who had asked me if I’d read it and then (on learning that I hadn’t) urging me to read it as a matter of urgency – I’d have about £54. And, as was the case with Irvine Welsh’s debut some years ago, all each recommendation did was to put more distance between me and the book. ‘But you’ll really like it,’ I was told. Hmmm, I thought. Would I? Would I really?

Fast forward five years. Tom McCarthy is now the Booker-nominated Tom McCarthy. His third novel C met with almost unanimous praise on its hardback release back in September 2010 – but even this did not encourage me to dip my toe in the McCarthy waters. C is a book people will be studying for years to come, I was told. C is a book it’s impossible to understand after a single reading, they said. C, I understood, is one of those books by one of those writers in thrall to Joyce. C – I suspected – is one of those books that its fans hold dear exactly because it won’t appeal to the much-maligned common reader. I wondered if C was one of those books that stared at readers from the shelves like Kenneth Williams, staring down his nose, saying ‘Oh no, dear. This isn’t for you. Put it back on the shelf. Head on over to the 3 for 2 table. That’s more your speed.’

And so Remainder (and Men in Space and Tintin and the Secret of Language) grew ever more distant. Or so I thought.

Then, in the spirit of contradiction for which I am roundly hassled and condemned, Alma reissued Remainder with a new cover and I thought: why the hell not? Let’s see just how difficult this book is! And the truth is – it’s not (entirely) difficult at all. What it is is modern and intellectual and (yes, okay) open to interpretation, if Baudrillard and the idea of representation and facsimile is your bag, but, at the same time, compelling and fascinating and unusual and (relatively) straightforward.

What happens is sort of high concept. Before the book begins, ‘something’ falls from the sky, knocks our hero on the noggin and forever changes him. By the time he emerges from hospital he is not the man he was and has to relearn the most basic of acts (picking up a carrot and taking a bite, for instance). Newly strange, our hero – if he can be said to be a hero – receives an eight and a half million pay-out which he invests and uses some of the proceeds from to… well, recreate an elusive feeling. What he refers to at one point as ‘a symbol of perfection’. Attending a party at a friend’s house, he sees a crack in a wall by a toilet that suggests to him another, similar building – a building in which an elderly woman cooks liver and a man plays piano. It’s never clear whether this is déjà vu or some kink in his rerouted brain, but he goes ahead and recreates/rebuilds/summons forth the building and hires actors to play various parts. The recreated building is, however, merely the first in a chain of gradually more intense re-enactments – and it is these re-enactments that pull both the reader and a small cast of peripheral characters into an exceedingly strange world indeed.

In some respects the world of Remainder is a little disgusted with itself. From the ‘black goop’ seeping from a coffee cup to the oil left by a motorbike in the back of his recreated house, there is always, beneath the surface, a prurient sense of wanting to keep the world at one remove, even as the narrator of Remainder seeks to create a feeling of interacting authentically, in the way – paradoxically – that Robert De Niro does in Mean Streets. Each re-enactment ‘silently zing[s] with significance’, leading our narrator eventually into fugue states that last hours and then days. I was reminded of the character of Quinn in Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass’ – Remainder is like the last eight or so pages of ‘City of Glass’ exploded novel length.

Those people who recommended Remainder to me said that one of the best things about the book is that it sticks around in your breadpan long after you’ve finished reading it, that it’s one of those books that quietly urge you to reread after you’re done. I started out as a McCarthy unbeliever. I finished as a McCarthy convert. It may be a novel for the head rather than the heart, and Tom McCarthy might even be a writer for whom books from the heart are not to be trusted, but, even so, I’ll be reading those other three books shortly…

Any Cop?: If you, like me, have resisted reading Remainder before, I would suggest you do as I’ve done and read Remainder now. Loathe as I am to agree with Zadie Smith, it’s kind of a big deal…

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