Remainder: a book I didn’t enjoy (but you should still probably read it)

Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005) is the story of an unnamed man who is severely injured in an unspecified accident. After he has painstakingly retaught himself to walk and move, he receives a payout of so much money that he can practically choose to do whatever he wants.

What he chooses to do is search for what he believes is an ‘authentic’ moment of naturalness, inspired by watching how naturally Robert De Niro opens a fridge and lights a cigarette in a film. The narrator spends his unending pot of money on a series of ‘re-enactments’, where he pays people to re-create a series of escalating moments he has observed, in his search for a feeling of buzzing numbness.

Given its origin in the artificiality of film and the artifice of the theatrical re-enactment – complete with numerous rehearsals – the narrator’s search predictably fails to achieve what he thinks he’s trying to do. Instead his health and ability to stay conscious diminish, as does his grip on reality.

From this point of view (and given my interests) Remainder is a deconstruction and critique of the role of the fiction industries: novels, films and plays. The narrator is inspired to try and find a connection to authenticity and naturalness by the De Niro performance, and the only way he can achieve it is through devising giant plays for which he is the sole audience.

The narrator’s inability to find this connection through his re-enactments points to the folly of putting our faith in the Arts to provide the depth of meaning we might want them to. Let me ask you this: how often do people on the television programs we devour sit down and devour television programs?

Remainder is a deeply unsatisfying while eminently readable novel. The narrator himself is dissatisfied with his efforts to find authenticity through reenacting moments, to the extent that he begins to involve ‘real’ people in his schemes rather than just ‘re-enactors’.

The book is without doubt clever, readable and of conscious intent. With the number of red herrings (which I have barely touched the surface of here – my main thesis is actually that the book is a deconstruction of material capitalism) McCarthy creates a Tabula Rasa. This blank slate allows the reader to project a dissatisfying level of meaning in a variety of areas: homelessness, trauma, human relationships, mental illness, the list goes on. In the end (intentionally disappointingly) the blank slate remains.

For me the dissatisfaction with Remainder comes from the lack of emotion, reason and closure. In my history of reading, and my life experience writing, teaching and politicking, all three are requirements for connecting with people authentically.

While McCarthy may understand this, and have intentionally stripped these elements from his novel to make his point, whether long-term the book is going to be anything more than navel-gazing for the literary elite remains to be seen.

I may not have enjoyed Remainder but I’m glad I read it. As a writer and editor, any reading  for me is research. I’m conscious of what the writer is trying to do, how they are doing it and have a fair sense of whether they’re pulling off what they’re trying to do.

There should be no doubt that McCarthy has succeeded Overall he has done something very interesting with the form of the novel, while remaining accessible to the general reader. It’s impressive.

I may not agree with his intent, his analysis or have enjoyed the experience, but I do want other people to read Remainder and tell me what they think of it, so in that sense it’s highly successful indeed.


PS: So the 30 Day Challenge item today was to write about a book I enjoyed, and one I didn’t. The one I enjoyed that I was going to write about (but then ran out of time) was ‘A Single Man’, by Christopher Isherwood.

It’s a beautiful, powerful and haunting book about loss and identity (which in some senses ‘Remainder’ is too, which is why I thought comparing them would be useful). It’s regarded as one of Isherwood’s best. I highly recommend not reading another word about it and just go and read it. It has reason, emotion and closure in spades.

Header picture is a still from the film of ‘Remainder’ by director Omer Fast. Interesting interview here.


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