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  • Written by Tom McCarthy
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Written by Tom McCarthyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tom McCarthy

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On Sale: February 13, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-27968-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A man is severely injured in a mysterious accident, receives an outrageous sum in legal compensation, and has no idea what to do with it.

Then, one night, an ordinary sight sets off a series of bizarre visions he can’t quite place.

How he goes about bringing his visions to life–and what happens afterward–makes for one of the most riveting, complex, and unusual novels in recent memory.

Remainder is about the secret world each of us harbors within, and what might happen if we were granted the power to make it real.

Excerpt

1

about the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.

It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that—well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been—or, more precisely, being about to be—hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed. But who’s to say that these are genuine memories? Who’s to say my traumatized mind didn’t just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap—the crater—that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.

And then there’s the Requirement. The Clause. The terms of the Settlement drawn up between my lawyer and the parties, institutions, organizations—let’s call them the bodies—responsible for what happened to me prohibit me from discussing, in any public or recordable format (I know this bit by heart), the nature and/or details of the incident, on pain of forfeiting all financial reparations made to me, plus any surplus these might have accrued (a good word that, “accrued”) while in my custody—and forfeiting quite possibly, my lawyer told me in a solemn voice, a whole lot more besides. Closing the loop, so to speak.

The Settlement. That word: Settlement. Set-l-ment. As I lay abject, supine, tractioned and trussed up, all sorts of tubes and wires pumping one thing into my body and sucking another out, electronic metronomes and bellows making this speed up and that slow down, their beeping and rasping playing me, running through my useless flesh and organs like sea water through a sponge—during the months I spent in hospital, this word planted itself in me and grew. Settlement. It wormed its way into my coma: Greg must have talked about it to me when he came round to gawk at what the accident had left. As the no-space of complete oblivion stretched and contracted itself into gritty shapes and scenes in my unconscious head—sports stadiums mainly, running tracks and cricket pitches—over which a commentator’s voice was playing, inviting me to commentate along with him, the word entered the commentary: we’d discuss the Settlement, though neither of us knew what it entailed. Weeks later, after I’d emerged from coma, come off the drip-feed and been put onto mushy solids, I’d think of the word’s middle bit, the -l-, each time I tried to swallow. The Settlement made me gag before it gagged me: that’s for sure.

Later still, during the weeks I sat in bed able to think and talk but not yet to remember anything about myself, the Settlement was held up to me as a future strong enough to counterbalance my no-past, a moment that would make me better, whole, complete. When most of my past had eventually returned, in instalments, like back episodes of some mundane soap opera, but I still couldn’t walk, the nurses said the Settlement would put me back on my feet. Marc Daubenay would visit and brief me about our progress towards Settlement while I sat in plaster waiting for my bones to set. After he’d left I’d sit and think of sets—six games in tennis or how- ever many matching cups and plates, the scenery in theatres, patterns. I’d think of remote settlements in ancient times, village outposts crouching beneath hostile skies. I’d think of people—dancers, maybe, or soldiers—crouching, set, waiting for some event to start.

Later, much later, the Settlement came through. I’d been out of hospital for four months, out of physiotherapy for one. I was living on my own on the edge of Brixton, in a one-bedroom flat. I wasn’t working. The company I’d been with up until the accident, a market-research outfit, had said they’d give me paid sick leave until May. It was April. I didn’t feel like going back to work. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I wasn’t doing anything. I passed my days in the most routine of activities: getting up and washing, walking to the shops and back again, reading the papers, sitting in my flat. Sometimes I watched TV, but not much; even that seemed too proactive. Occasionally I’d take the tube up to Angel, to Marc Daubenay’s office. Mostly I just sat in my flat, doing nothing. I was thirty years old.

On the day the Settlement came through, I did have something to do: I had to go and meet a friend at Heathrow Airport. An old friend. She was flying in from Africa. I was just about to leave my flat when the phone rang. It was Daubenay’s secretary. I picked the phone up and her voice said:

“Olanger and Daubenay. Marc Daubenay’s office. Putting you through.”

“Sorry?” I said.

“Putting you through,” she said again.

I remember feeling dizzy. Things I don’t understand make me feel dizzy. I’ve learnt to do things slowly since the accident, understanding every move, each part of what I’m doing. I didn’t choose to do things like this: it’s the only way I can do them. If I don’t understand words, I have one of my staff look them up. That day back in April when Daubenay’s secretary phoned, I didn’t have staff, and anyway they wouldn’t have helped in that instance. I didn’t know who the you was she was putting through—Daubenay or me. A trivial distinction, you might say, but the uncertainty still made me dizzy. I placed my hand against my living-room wall.

Daubenay’s voice came on the line after a few seconds:

“Hello?” it said.

“Hello,” I said back.

“It’s come through,” said Daubenay.

“Yes, it’s me,” I answered. “That was just your secretary putting us through. Now it’s me.”

“Listen,” said Daubenay. His voice was excited; he hadn’t taken in what I’d just said. “Listen: they’ve capitulated.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Who? Them! The other side. They’ve caved in.”

“Oh,” I said. I stood there with my hand against the wall. The wall was yellow, I remember.

“They’ve approached us,” Daubenay continued, “with a deal whose terms are very strong each way.”

“What are the terms?” I asked.

“For your part,” he told me, “you can’t discuss the accident in any public arena or in any recordable format. To all intents and purposes, you must forget it ever happened.”

“I’ve already forgotten,” I said. “I never had any memory of it in the first place.”

This was true, as I mentioned earlier. The last clear memory I have is of being buffeted by wind twenty or so minutes before I was hit.

“They don’t care about that,” Daubenay said. “That’s not what they mean. What they mean is that you must accept that, in law, it ceases to be actionable.”

I thought about that for a while until I understood it. Then I asked him:

“How much are they paying me?”

“Eight and a half million,” Daubenay said.

“Pounds?” I asked.

“Pounds,” Daubenay repeated. “Eight and a half million pounds.”

It took another second or so for me to take in just how much money that was. When I had, I took my hand off the wall and turned suddenly around, towards the window. The movement was so forceful that it pulled the phone wire with it, yanked it right out of the wall. The whole connection came out: the wire, the flat-headed bit that you plug in and the casing of the hole that that plugs into too. It even brought some of the internal wiring that runs through the wall out with it, all dotted and flecked with crumbly, fleshy bits of plaster.

“Hello?” I said.

It was no good: the connection had been cut. I stood there for some time, I don’t know how long, holding the dead receiver in my hand and looking down at what the wall had spilt. It looked kind of disgusting, like something that’s come out of something.

The horn of a passing car made me snap to. I left my flat and hurried down to a phone box to call Marc Daubenay back. The nearest one was just round the corner, on Coldharbour Lane. As I crossed my road and walked down the one lying perpendicular to it, I thought about the sum: eight and a half million. I pictured it in my mind, its shape. The eight was perfect, neat: a curved figure infinitely turning back into itself. But then the half. Why had they added the half? It seemed to me so messy, this half: a leftover fragment, a shard of detritus. When my knee-cap had set after being shattered in the accident, one tiny splinter had stayed loose. The doctors hadn’t managed to fish it out, so it just floated around beside the ball, redundant, surplus to requirements; sometimes it got jammed between the ball and its socket and messed up the whole joint, locking it, inflaming nerves and muscles. I remember picturing the sum’s leftover fraction, the half, as I walked down the street that day, picturing it as the splinter in my knee, and frowning, thinking: Eight alone would have been better.

Other than that, I felt neutral. I’d been told the Settlement would put me back together, kick-start my new life, but I didn’t feel any different, fundamentally, from when before Marc Daubenay’s secretary had phoned. I looked around me at the sky: it was neutral too—a neutral spring day, sunny but not bright, neither cold nor warm. I passed my Fiesta, which was parked halfway down the street, and looked at its dented left rear side. Someone had crashed into me in Peckham and then driven off, a month or so before the accident. I’d meant to get it fixed, but since coming out of hospital it had seemed irrelevant, like most other things, so the bodywork behind its left rear wheel had stayed dented and crinkled.

At the end of the road perpendicular to mine I turned right, crossing the street. Beside me was a house that, ten or so months previously, two months before the accident, the police had swooped on with a firearms team. They’d been looking for someone and had got a tip-off, I suppose. They’d laid siege to this house, cordoning off the road on either side while marksmen stood in bullet-proof vests behind vans and lampposts, pointing rifles at the windows. It was as I passed across the stretch of road they’d made into a no man’s land for that short while that I realized that I didn’t have Marc Daubenay’s number on me.

I stopped right in the middle of the road. There was no traffic. Before heading back towards my flat to get the number I paused for a while, I don’t know how long, and stood in what had been the marksmen’s sightlines. I turned the palms of my hands outwards, closed my eyes and thought about that memory of just before the accident, being buffeted by wind. Remembering it sent a tingling from the top of my legs to my shoulders and right up into my neck. It lasted for just a moment—but while it did I felt not-neutral. I felt different, intense: both intense and serene at the same time. I remember feeling this way very well: standing there, passive, with my palms turned outwards, feeling intense and serene.
Tom McCarthy|Author Q&A

About Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy - Remainder

Photo © Erinn Hartman

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.

Author Q&A

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.

Praise

Praise

“Hypnotically creepy . . . McCarthy’s portrait of the pursuit of total control is arresting, and he is alert to the bland amorality that underlies it.” —The New Yorker

“What fun it is when a crafty writer plays cat and mouse with your mind, when you can never anticipate his next move and when, in any case, he knows all the exits to the maze and has already blocked them. . . . McCarthy’s superb stylistic control and uncanny imagination transport this novel beyond the borders of science fiction. His bleak humor, hauntingly affectless narrator and methodical expansion on his theme make Remainder more than an entertaining brain-teaser: it’s a work of novelistic philosophy, as disturbing as it is funny.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A chillingly clever novel of patterns that fools you into thinking it’s a novel about plot . . . [McCarthy] is a new author who’s ambitious and intelligent.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Fresh, funny, and deeply disturbing.” —New York Magazine

“A novel of astonishing genius. . . . . It demands to be read in one sitting. So deftly does McCarthy absorb you into the mind of his hero that you quickly feel you are living with him inside his head. . . . The book caught me in such a delirious spin toward fragmentation and left me feeling every detail of the matter of life more keenly.” —Sarah Cook, The Believer

“Addictively strange.” —Details

“Tom McCarthy is shockingly talented. . . . Remainder is one of those novels that you finish and turn immediately back to the beginning, to fill in the gaps you may have missed the first time around. It leaves you feeling sort of shaken and very impressed.” —Gawker.com

“Nihilistically modern and classically structured. . . . Tightly knit, suspenseful . . . [Remainder] pursues an authenticity with the monomaniacal focus of Francis Ford Coppola circa Apocalypse Now. . . . McCarthy tells his tale calmly, as if taking long, yogic breaths.” —Bookforum

“Captivating and challenging. . . . Remainder isn't a mystery novel—there's no villain here apart from time and space—so if its core ripples with ambiguity, all the better for the reader, as this is a book to be read and then reread, rich as it is with its insights, daring as it is with its contradictions.” —Los Angeles Times

“The nameless narrator in this eerie debut is a Londoner severely injured in an accident. Months later, he received an £8.5 million settlement on the condition that he never speak about the payout or the incident again—not a problem, since he doesn’t remember it. Our hero then begins to wholly recreate and re-enact portions of his old life with a salaried cast of extras, set designers, and stuntmen. In taut and chilly prose, McCarthy describes how this mission becomes a disturbing obsession; the horrifying conclusion is visible 30 pages off, but it’s no less shocking when it arrives.” —Entertainment Weekly, A-

“Tom McCarthy’s first novel offers a vivid, subtle portrait of creeping madness.” —Time Out New York

“A quick and gritty novel that begs, thanks largely to a cinematic plot, to be read in one sitting.” —BookSlut

“A stunningly strange book about the rarest of fictional subjects, happiness.” —Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude

Remainder is a beautifully strange and chilly book. Very smart and unlike anything else you're likely to read.” —Scott Smith, author of The Ruins

“Tom McCarthy has a singularity, a precision, a surreal logic and a sly wit that is all his own. It will be a long time before you read a stranger book—or a truer one.” —Rupert Thomson, author of Divided Kingdom

“It will remain with you long after you have felt compelled to re-read it.” —Time Out London

“An assured work of existential horror. . . . Perfectly disturbing.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Strangely gripping. . . . Remainder should be read (and, of course, reread) for its intelligence and humour.”
The Times Literary Supplement (London)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A stunningly strange book about the rarest of fictional subjects, happiness.”
—Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Remainder, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant and unsettling first novel. In this mesmerizing and quietly shocking debut, Tom McCarthy takes as his premise an event everyone has dreamed of—sudden and spectacular wealth—and develops it in ways that are both marvelously inventive and deeply disturbing.

About the Guide

When the unnamed narrator of Remainder is given eight and a half million pounds in a settlement for an accident that left him in a coma for several months, he is at first uncertain how to spend the money. The conventional options— charity, self-indulgence, etc.—don’t appeal to him. Because of the brain damage he’s suffered, he has had to relearn even the simplest movements like eating or walking, mastering each of the many separate maneuvers required to perform actions that most people never think about. What he wants most of all is to regain the ease and naturalness that he admires in such movie stars as Robert DeNiro. He becomes obsessed with attaining that kind of naturalness, the feeling of being real, and when he sees a crack in a bathroom wall that reminds him of a house where he felt most real, he decides he must re-create it down to the smallest detail, including each of the inhabitants he remembers: an old woman cooking liver, a man fixing a motorbike in the courtyard, a pianist practicing Rachmaninov in the apartment below him, black cats on the red-tiled roof of the building behind his own. With his nearly unlimited resources and the help of Naz Vyas of a company called Time Control, the narrator buys a building, renovates it to fit his memory, and hires re-enactors to play the roles of the people he remembers. But even this elaborate realization of his fantasy doesn’t satisfy him completely. He wants to re-enact more and more scenes—fixing a tire in a garage, the drug-related murder of a man near his former home, and a bank robbery that has yet to happen. With each re-enactment, however, his obsession only grows stronger until the lines between fantasy and reality become dangerously blurred.

With a relentless nightmare logic, McCarthy follows his narrator’s obsessions to their unexpected but inevitable conclusion. Along the way, readers are subtly invited to think about some of the most perplexing aspects of the human condition—the urge to relive the past, to control the flow of time, to live in a fantasy world in order to feel more real. Remainder and the remarkable story it tells will remain vividly alive in the reader’s imagination long after the last page has been turned.

About the Author

Tom McCarthy was born in 1969 and lives in London. He is known 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. Remainder is his first novel.

Discussion Guides

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”?

Suggested Readings

John Banville, The Sea; Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot; Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths; André Breton, Nadja; Albert Camus, The Stranger; J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man; Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis; Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.

  • Remainder by Tom McCarthy
  • February 13, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780307278357

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