Remainder by Tom McCarthy

In Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind, Smith contrasts Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and uses both to consider two possible directions for the contemporary novel. I’ve never read Netherland, discouraged by the gushing superlatives that accompanied its release. Remainder appeared more interesting, eulogised here by Smith:

The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side-road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchard, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions-yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity. So it is with Remainder. The Re-enactor’s obsessive, amoral re-enactions have ancestors: Ahab and his whale, Humbert and his girl, Marlow’s trip downriver. The theatre of the absurd that Remainder lays out is articulated with the same careful pedantry of Gregor Samsa himself. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternative road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

How could I resist? The book accompanied me on my spring sojourn to the sun, read mostly poolside, washed down with an occasional Brandy Sour.

A traumatic, disabling accident leaves an unnamed, wealthy protagonist in need of greater authenticity. He obsessively enacts and re-enacts situations from his past, scenes within memories, all on a grand scale. It is a deeply amoral story, carefully structured with a unembellished prose that gives an almost hypnotic effect (that could have been the Brandy Sour). I read the novel, torn between admiring the technique and wondering how it would reach a conclusion. Disappointment set in in the last section, the final enactment was unsatisfactory, too trite. Almost certainly I will reread and perhaps manage to understand Smith’s conclusive sentence.