Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder was a bit of a puzzle for me; I felt lots of conflicting emotions as I read.  Underlying all of it was pleasure in the reading — let me make it clear that I enjoyed this book very much — but it was difficult to know what to make of it.  The book made me feel wonder and horror at the same time, if such a thing is possible, and also joy and disbelief and amazement, and I don’t know what else.  It was confusing, but in a good way.

But enough of generalities.  The book is about a man who has had something, we never learn what, fall from the sky and hit him.  When he comes to, he has lost his memory, and slowly regains only some of it.  He finds himself with £8.5 million as a settlement from the accident and now must figure out what he wants to do with it.  He has little idea until he has a vision of what might be a memory, although he’s never sure where the memory came from.  It’s a vision of an apartment building that comes to him with vivid details — the smell of liver cooking in the kitchen downstairs, the sound of a pianist practicing, the noise of a motorcyclist tinkering with his bike outside.  He now knows what he wants to do — recreate the vision exactly as he experienced it.  He buys a building, redesigns it from top to bottom, hires actors and buys props to fill the space, and then he relives the vision or the memory or whatever it was over and over and over again.

The problem he struggled with before he settled on this bizarre way of spending his money was that after the accident he began to realize just how inauthentic and unreal he had always felt, as though he weren’t really living out his life, but were an actor acting it.  He couldn’t really inhabit his body and his actions and the world around him but always lived at a remove from it.  He thinks about actors he has seen, Robert De Niro, for example, who can move around the world with complete unself-consciousness, doing what he is doing single-mindedly:

I’d always been inauthentic. Even before the accident, if I’d been walking down the street just like De Niro, smoking a cigarette like him, and even if it had lit first try, I’d still be thinking: Here I am, walking down the street, smoking a cigarette, like someone in a film.  See?  Second-hand.  The people in films aren’t thinking that.  They’re just doing their thing, real, not thinking anything.

His vision seems to rescue him, then, because in that vision he realizes he felt perfectly authentic.  It was a memory of a time he wasn’t distanced from himself, wasn’t hyper self-aware, and could just do what he was doing, without thought.  He thinks that if he can recreate the exact circumstances of that memory, he can recreate the experience of authenticity.

And he succeeds in doing this, at least for short periods of time.  He runs a reenactment of the vision again and again — which is a huge production, with a large staff to watch over all the details — living out one part of it and then another and another, lingering over brief moments and moving through them in slow motion.  He’s happy, at least for a while.  But then he moves on to another reenactment, and another and another, all in his quest to try to capture reality and live in it authentically.  Eventually these reenactments take him in some bizarre and deranged directions.

What was so puzzling about this book, causing all of my mixed emotions, is that I both admire this quest for authenticity and find it profoundly disturbing.  I think we all know what it’s like to feel inauthentic, to feel estranged from ourselves and as though we aren’t really living out life but are acting it out on a stage or with a narrator in our heads telling the story as we live it.  It’s a wonderful thing to be able simply to do something, without the self-awareness and without the narrator in our heads.

And yet this man is incredibly selfish and self-absorbed. He wants to lose himself in the moment, but to do so requires that he become even more wrapped up in himself.  Rather than do something useful with his money like donating to charity organizations, as another character suggests to him that he might, he spends massive amounts of money on buying buildings, creating sets, and hiring actors and staff to create his fantasies.  He loses the few friends he formerly had and comes to live in a bubble, surrounded only by those who will pander to his increasingly outrageous whims.

And losing himself in the moment to gain that elusive feeling of authenticity comes to mean losing himself in more profound ways — he starts to fall into trances that come to last for days, where he will simply stare at the wall or a spot on the ground and lose consciousness.  He starts to lose a sense of what it means to be a human being and what it means that other people exist, outside of his mind.

So as much as the idea of living without self-consciousness and self-awareness is intensely appealing, McCarthy seems to be saying that living with a sense of inauthenticity and distance from ourselves is part of what it means to be human.  The narrator never seems to realize that Robert De Niro, as much as he appears to be moving about with complete unselfconsciousness in his films, is an actor, and is intensely aware of what he is doing at every moment.  What he is doing is the opposite of living in the moment — he is pretending to live in the moment.  Losing that sense of inauthenticity is a hopeless dream that takes the narrator to nightmarish places.


Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

  1. I read Remainder last year and struggled with it.

    I have to say that I enjoyed reading your post much much more than reading the book! At first I was fascinated with the book as it explores the nature of memory, identity, human nature and behaviour. Then I found it becoming gradually more and more tedious as he went over and over everything in his mind and tried to reconstruct his former life from fragments of memory. For me it moved into realms of fantasy, and became increasingly unreal as he tried to be more real.

    Like you I came away with a sense of both wonder and horror.


  2. How very interesting! I must definitely give this a try one of these days. It sounds to me like an exploration of the hyperreal – the kind of reality that only ever existed as an image, but which is dominant in modern culture (Disneyland being a prime example – also a big production attempting fake authenticity). Wonderful review, Dorothy – I’d been looking forward to it!


  3. I really enjoyed this book. In some ways I even found myself identifying with the character, which is odd when you think about it. The only let down was that it ends – literally – going round in circles. But probably that’s the whole point.


  4. You said it better than I ever could. I loved this book, but for completely different reasons. I was so drawn to the narrator and, like Stephen said, found myself identifying with him. He was very unlikable, but that’s what I liked about him. And the way he insisted on recreating a perfectly boring and common existence was both infuriating and thought-provoking. It makes you think about the kind of events you’d recreate if given the time and resources. I mean, would you *really* recreate something fantastic, like the best day of your life or a totally new experience, or would you rather stick with something safe and predictable? I saw this book as a metaphor on how much we truly depend on and enjoy routine. Think about it: a good day is one in which everything goes according to plan, right? Nothing out of the ordinary, unless you get a present or something. A bad day is generally one in which something (or everything) goes wrong–which is to say, those things that break our routines. Just remember how bent out of shape the main character got when things didn’t go perfectly, and think about how you might react when things go wrong–the car breaks down, the dog gets throws up on the expensive new rug, the in-laws drop by unexpectedly. Interesting that McCarthy never named the narrator or gave him a deeper personality or any features outside of those that provided the simplest backstory; the story could be about anyone. It’s a challenging book, but only because it’s the complete opposite of what we might expect. Instead of making an ordinary existence extraordinary, he’s doing the reverse, trying to make an extraordinary existence perfectly normal. How do you make a bank robbery “normal”? It’s like he’s trying to be normal by doing increasingly outlandish and stupid things.

    God, what a long comment. Still, “Remainder” made me think on so many different levels. Best book I read this year, hands down.


  5. What an astounding review of this book. I have to say, I’m not sure whether or not I want to read it after this…on the one hand you write so intriguingly about it that I want to buy it asap, but on the other it sounds like it can be overwhelming. Regardless, it is on my tbr list.


  6. This is a fantastic review! Now I’ll have to find my copy of the paperback and actually read it. I’m wondering if your review might be more satisfying than the actual novel, though. Imagine my disappointment if I start reading this and think, “Blah, Dorothy wrote this so much better!”


  7. I tend to be very safe in my reading–choosing books I think I am very likely to really enjoy and not so many to stretch my mind in different ways. I should give this a try–you make it sound good in a way that I might not be drawn to had I only read the book blurb. In any case I’m curious now to know how it ends.


  8. The other comments are much more articulate than what I can offer, about authenticity and identity. It’s an interesting puzzle, but from what everyone has said, I’m not sure I like the character enough to take on the book.


  9. I can see why you had mixed feelings about the book. It does sound really interesting. It’s going on my tbr list. Don’t know when I will get to it, but one of these days I will.


  10. Sounds interesting, and like something that should be just my cup of tea, what with explorations of memory, identity, authenticity, etc. However, something about it (maybe the fact it seems very contrived?) leaves me hesitant.


  11. BooksPlease — I agree that the pace does slow a bit in the second half of the book. You realize what the structure of the rest will be and it gets a little slow until the very end. I guess I was willing to follow along though, for the sake of the ideas, and to see where he would take the whole concept.

    Litlove — I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! Yes, I think you can read it as dealing with the hyper-real — the character’s reenactments are like his own private Disney World — his own theme park. He hopes it will provide him bliss, which it does for a while …

    Stephen — yeah, I think you’re right that going in circles ends up being the whole point — the narrator’s reenactments are taking him nowhere.

    Brandon — wow, great readings in that comment. I like the idea of the book being about routine — you’re right that the character wants sameness and repetition, and he thinks that sameness will bring happiness. I can identify with that, actually, and I’m sure a lot of people can. We have such a problem with change, and yet change is inevitable. And the narrator had change happen to him in a huge way. I also like your idea of the author making an extraordinary existence ordinary. But what is ordinary?

    Courtney — oh, I hope you like it if/when you do get to it. It’s not overwhelming at all — just strange and thought-provoking and a little disorienting. In a good way 🙂

    Chartroose — well, I hope you like it! It’s hard for me to judge how others will like it — it doesn’t have much of a plot, but the ideas are interesting enough to keep you moving along.

    Danielle — I like reading unfamiliar and new things, at least within certain limits, and yet sometimes it does mean I end up reading things I’m not thoroughly enjoying. It’s a risk, I suppose. But you strike me as willing to take risks in reading! It’s not like anybody needs to take risks in reading all the time.

    Debby — it’s definitely not so much a character-driven book as an idea-driven book. If you read it for the plot or the character development, you’d be disappointed, I think!

    Stefanie — oh, I’m glad you plan to read it. It’s fun to read a book that is so thoroughly disorienting now and then. 🙂

    Emily — it doesn’t feel contrived, although I can see that a description might make it seem so. It all feels thoroughly plausible, though strange, and perfectly natural. Sort of, until things go bad, that is. It starts off thoroughly believable and then takes you into strange territory, but the journey somehow made sense to me. If that makes any sense …


  12. The idea of having this degree of self-awareness is intriguing. I try to live in the moment every day and enjoy everything as it comes. However, if you stop and think about the need to live in the moment too often — are you truly living in the moment? Very interesting indeed. I may have to read this one.


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