16 December 2007

Tom McCarthy - Remainder

I had few expectations of this novel, although it had been recommended. It's a curious novel of some originality, but is in the end unsatisfying.

The narrator has suffered a traumatic accident which, for legal reasons, he can't describe, but which the reader can infer involved something falling from a plane (I assumed human waste) The accident left him in a coma for some time, and when he awakes he's still psychologically affected. He's given £8.5m as a settlement and considers what do do with this new wealth.

After briefly considering and dismissing philanthropy, he decides to use the money to recreate remembered scenes, using actors, exactly replicating a resonant memory, and replaying it incessantly. His almost unlimited resources enables him to demand perfection in his recreations, to buy buildings and refit them to match his memories. He tries to create 'authentic' moments through artifice, and of course the contradiction in that doesn't occur to him.

As his mania increases, his awareness of reality decreases, and he begins to achieve blissful fadeouts akin to epileptic fits. That state appears to be the manifestation of the perfect moment, although of course it's a symptom of the neurological damage he's suffered.

The exercise is an ultimate expression of solipsism - making the world match one's own perceptions, elevating the personal experience above any one else's considerations. It's also a diversion upon the creative process, of the elusive nature of memory, and how hard it is to grasp again that perfect moment in our past. It's also about wanting to control our environment, to eliminate those aspects with which we cannot relate.

There's a precision to McCarthy's writing appropriate to the narrator - his obsessive repetitions are presented as entirely logical and consistent, while they are patently maniacal. Comparisons have been made to Auster, and he does have a similar cold attention to structure and self-aware intelligence.

The ending is a logical consequence of the narrative, but I found it forced, and the illusion that allows the reader to accept all the actors in the recreation doing so without demur for months doesn't accept the transfer of that to the real situation of the denouement. But McCarthy is witty and engaging, as well as undoubtedly smart. His second novel has just been published.


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