Excerpted from Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Copyright © 2007 by Tom McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Tom McCarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. He is known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. His previous books are Remainder and Tintin and the Secret of Literature.
Q. In France and England, REMAINDER was a success story for smaller publishers. What do you think about the book being published by a large company in the US?
A. I think things are different in the US. In the UK, the corporate presses have gone so dumbed-down that if you’re a new writer doing anything vaguely ‘literary’ rather than middle-brow you more or less have to publish with an independent. Remainder first came out in English with Metronome Press, a Paris-based art outfit; then new UK independent Alma Books took it—at which point it was getting good reviews and the corporate houses who’d knocked it back two years previously were trying to ‘gazump’ them; now Hachette Littératures are about to do it in French, so it’s come full circle back to Paris. The great thing about Vintage’s US edition is that it came about because Marty Asher, Vintage’s Editor-in-Chief, read the book when it was in its original Metronome Press edition, tracked the publishers down (which wasn’t easy) and offered for it off his own bat—it was never submitted to him. That—and the fact that big publishers in the US bring out serious authors like David Foster Wallace— gives me a lot of hope.
Q. The film rights to the book have already been bought. What do you think the relationship is between REMAINDER’s re-enactments and the cinema?
A. The relationship is strong—so strong, in fact, that I had to remove all cinematic paraphernalia from the book (the hero has an antipathy to cameras) in order to prevent it from becoming an allegory of cinema itself; although he does fetishise de Niro’s seamless ease in Mean Streets. But cinema is a technology of repetition, and that’s what my hero is obsessed by: repetition. He himself becomes like cinema, in as much as he becomes a repetition machine. At the same time, repetition existed before cinema: it’s a classical trope, repetition. . .
Q. REMAINDER has been called “the best French novel ever written in English by an Englishman.” How do you think American readers might respond differently to the book?
A. Twentieth century French and American literature are not so far apart: both took part in the great adventure of Modernism, while England looked on from the sidelines. Eliot, for example, spent part of his early career writing in French; Burroughs, a little later, was completely immersed in the Paris scene, and so on. Remainder owes a lot to French writers, but also to American ones: landscapes of trauma and repetition are as much a part of Faulkner’s work (in Absalom! Absalom! for example) or Pynchon’s (in Gravity’s Rainbow) as they are of Claude Simon’s or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s. And it seems to me that the whole question of ‘authenticity’, which is central to Remainder, is a pertinent one for contemporary experience in America. America is where Baudrillard finds most of his examples of the ‘hyperreal’, after all . . .
Q. Are the re-enactments in REMAINDER based on real places and events? Can we visit the tenement in London?
A. The tenement is based on a real building beside a real caged sports pitch-and-track in South London, but I’ve modified it (just like the hero does), so it doesn’t actually look like the real thing. The street shootout that the hero re-enacts is based on a shoot-out that took place exactly where it does in the book. Weirdly—although not unsurprisingly given the part of town—I recently visited that spot with two journalists who were doing a feature on Remainder, and there was a new police sign there saying: ‘Fatal Shooting, Call for Witnesses etc.’
Q. REMAINDER is full of obsession, conspiracy, and the threat of violence. Were you thinking about terrorism at all when you wrote it?
A. I finished the book in July 2001, two months before September 11th, so ‘terrorism’ had a different meaning then than it does now. The figure of the terrorist has always fascinated me. I recently did an art-project based on Martial Bourdin’s attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, which Conrad based The Secret Agent on; and some years ago I wrote a long, rambling piece about Patty Hearst and the SLA which an art press in the US is bringing out next year. There are conventional terrorists lurking round the edges of Remainder, but terror in that book is more of a metaphysical condition: the hero is a victim of ‘something falling from the sky.’ It could be a piece of fuselage from a blown-up plane, sure, but it could equally be fate, time, gravity, being born in the first place. As his grand project gathers pace, becoming more and more psychotic, terror takes on an aesthetic dimension: he looks at the world reflected in the pools of blood that flow from his victims’ chests and finds it beautiful. He’s like the protagonist of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, who says: ‘Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.’
Q. Your narrator’s ideas come to him in flashes and moments of déjà vu. Is this how the ideas for REMAINDER came to you?
A. The idea came to me exactly as it comes to him: I was at a friend-of-a-friend’s party, in the bathroom, looking at a crack on the wall, and had an intense moment of déjà-vu. I ‘remembered’ an identical crack, similar building, cats lounging on the facing roofs, the smell of liver wafting up from downstairs, a pianist practicing in another apartment, and thought: wouldn’t it be good to recreate this? Within minutes the whole novel had taken shape in my head.
Q. You’re involved in the literary world and the art world. Are you a writer first and foremost?
A.Yes, absolutely. I’ve always been into literature, and always thought I’d be a writer. In my early twenties, though, I discovered art and realized that artists were onto something which literature was also looking for. Brion Gysin said that painting was a hundred years ahead of writing; I think he was being too generous to painting, but he had a point. Most of my friends are visual artists, not writers. Having spent time among UK publishing people and art people, I can say without any doubt that art people are the more literate. Not only have they all read people like Beckett, Kafka and Bataille—people who the publishing crowd have barely even heard of—but they’re also doing projects based on their work: visual art projects, or performance ones, or text-based ones. In the current UK climate, art has become the arena where literature is creatively debated and transformed, not mainstream publishing. It’s paradoxical, but interesting.
Q. Your semi-fictitious avant-garde society, the International Necronautical Society, has been active in England, France and Germany. Will it be expanding into the US?
A. The INS is a parasitical, viral organization. Like the short, pale guy in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, we go where we are invited.
Q. Who are your favorite contemporary writers and artists?
A. Most of the contemporary practitioners who float my boat are artists, for the reasons I outlined a moment ago. I’m very interested, for obvious reasons, in artists who use re-enactment as a medium. In the UK, Rod Dickinson has had Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority’ experiment and Jim Jones’s sermons, with their ‘miracle cures’, re-enacted: both events which in their original form were already ‘fake,’ completely laden with artifice. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard do elaborate and precise re-enactments of famous rock gigs such as Ziggy Stardust’s last concert or the Cramps’ notorious Napa Mental Health Institute set—again, highly orchestrated ur-events re-orchestrated. I love the Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a ‘lifestyle’ film-piece about airline hijackings. I like the German photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg’s long-exposure images of stains and puddles, for their immersion in surface and texture—something very important to Remainder’s hero. I like older artists like Ed Ruscha for the sense of event-space, disaster and its aftermath, that they convey. And, of course, Warhol, for every reason possible. I know he’s dead, but he’s so important that he’ll always be contemporary . . .
Q. When you read REMAINDER, you get right inside the narrator’s mind. After so much time with him, do you share his obsessions with authenticity, little bits of matter, the subway, or any of the others?
A. All of them. The thing about Remainder’s hero is that he’s not some completely different type of person: he’s an Everyman—that’s why he doesn’t have a name. He is, as his friend Greg points out, a normal person who is more normal than everyone else, and has eight and a half million pounds at his disposal to indulge his sensibility, impose it on the world. But all his ticks and preoccupations are ones shared in low-level, everyday ways by almost everyone, which he spins out to their most extreme—extreme in every sense—conclusion.
Q. Those who have gotten ahold of the book in the US frequently struggle to describe it— either to explain the plot or to compare it to other novels. What other books would you compare it to? When you were writing it and people asked what your book was about, what did you say?
A. Depending on who I was talking to, I’d say it was about trauma and repetition, or about memory, or architecture, or fascism, or beauty, or economics, or authenticity, or ‘the event,’ or death, or whatever. Jonathan Lethem says it’s about happiness, which is a very good summary. In terms of comparisons, I think it has a huge back-history—in strict ‘literary’ terms, it’s very conventional. Think of all the re-enactments of stylized, violent moments in Ballard’s Crash; or Beckett’s characters replaying their own experience in Waiting for Godot, Happy Days or Krapp’s Last Tape; or Joyce’s quasi-repetition cycles in Finnegans Wake; or Yeats’s ‘gyres’ of history. Going further back: Don Quixote, like Remainder’s hero, is a guy who feels he needs to overcome his alienation by re-enacting events he thinks are more ‘authentic’—and never quite gets them right. Shakespeare’s Hamlet sits around doing nothing, envying the court actors for the ‘real-ness’ of their emotion just like my hero envies de Niro—then he gets them to re-enact his father’s death scene, just like my guy does. Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Conrad’s Lord Jim—there are loads of novels in which being and acting ‘real’ as opposed to inauthentically is the central issue. And then Proust and his madeleine memories in the Recherche, Queneau and his hundred-odd repetitions of a mundane moment in Exercises in Style . . . there are a million books you could compare Remainder to. But Remainder’s very simple: it’s just about some bloke repeating stuff.
Q. In addition to REMAINDER, you’ve also published a nonfiction title, Tintin and the Secret of Literature. What are you working on now?
A. Alma Books are publishing the novel I wrote before Remainder next spring, so I’m editing the manuscript. It’s called Men in Space and it’s set in Prague in the early nineties. It revolves around a stolen artwork which is copied, and the copy itself is copied and so on—so also about artifice and repetition. I hope it’ll come out in the US soon. I’m working on a new novel too, about technology, mourning and incestuous family structures. It’s set in the early twentieth century, when radio was coming into its own, millions were dying in World War One and the tombs of incest-practicing pharaohs were capturing the imagination of the West in unprecedented ways. It’s called C (because it’s all about cauls, crypts, carbon, cocaine, cyanide and ‘calling’) and I hope to finish it by the end of 2007.
Q. What would you do with 8.5 million pounds?
A. Exactly what Remainder’s hero does.
Q. So, come on, tell us what the accident was. We won’t tell anyone, we promise.
A. The accident is the unnameable, the blind spot, the interval between repetitions: it’s the remainder.
1. Why might McCarthy have chosen the word “remainder” for his title? What particular resonance does the word have in the context of the novel’s themes of repetition, re-enactment, and things left over?
2. In the second paragraph of Remainder, the narrator remarks that “Minds are versatile and wily things. Real
chancers” [p. 3]. In what ways does the novel demonstrate the truth of this statement?
3. In what ways is Remainder an unconventional, shocking, and troubling novel? What expectations does it either frustrate or satisfy in unexpected ways?
4. “No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed me that for ever, an eternal detour” [pp. 22–23]. Why does the narrator find this condition so intolerable?
5. In order to create the authentic experience he craves, the narrator realizes that he’d “have to buy a whole building, and fill it with people who’d behave just as I told them to” [p. 69]. How does the use of the artifice and a controlled environment create a feeling of naturalness? What does that paradox reveal?
6. The mysterious “councillor” who appears late in the novel asks what purpose the narrator’s elaborate
re-enactments serve—are they art, or perhaps a kind of magic, or shamanic performances? Dr. Trevellian suggests that the narrator is seeking a condition that will generate the mind’s own opiates. The narrator himself believes that he is trying to feel more “real” [pp. 237–240]. Which of these explanations seems most convincing? Are there other ways of understanding the narrator’s bizarre obsessions?
7. In what ways does the narrator’s obsession with controlling time—reliving the past, creating a self-contained world where he can act as a god over people and events—reflect desires that, to one degree or another, most people feel? Is the need to control an inherent part of the human condition?
8. Remainder is a realistic novel and yet it describes actions that seem impossible. How does McCarthy manage to make the more fantastic elements of the novel believable?
9. How does the relationship between the narrator and Naz change over the course of the novel? Why does Naz end up in a catatonic state?
10. The narrator thinks of the man gunned down on Belinda Road, “he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extent of having no more consciousness of them. He’d stopped being separate, removed, imperfect. Cut out the detour” [pp. 197–198]. Why does the narrator find this “merging” so fascinating? To what extent is this a universal desire?
11. The phrase “Everything must leave some kind of mark” is repeated several times throughout the novel. What is the significance of this statement?
12. The narrator kills Robber Re-enactor Two, he says, “because I wanted to,” and is fascinated by the blood coming from the body: “Wow, look at it. It’s just a . . . thing. A patch. A little bit repeating. . . . Isn’t it beautiful?” [pp. 299–300]. Why isn’t he able to feel any empathy for the man he has just killed? Is the narrator himself, by the end of the novel, beyond the reader’s empathy?
13. The novel ends with the narrator forcing the pilot to keep flying back and forth, creating vapor trail that describes a figure eight in the sky and achieving a state approximating pure stasis. Why does this give the narrator such pleasure? How is this flight likely to end? With a deadly crash or a return to land and incarceration?
14. Can Remainder be read as a kind of parable of the human condition? If so, how?
15. The International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictitious avant-garde network for which Tom McCarthy serves as General Secretary, declares on its Web site (www.necronauts.org) that the origins of art “lie in transgression, death and sacrifice.” In what ways does Remainder explore “transgression, death and sacrifice”?