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The latest event in the history of the novel.

Remainder, of course.


NOW AND THEN, a novel appears which challenges and changes our understanding of the genre. In the last century, examples included works by Proust, Joyce, and Beckett. A more recent example was Georges Perec’s 1978 French novel La vie mode d’emploi, translated as Life A User’s Manual. I would like to suggest that Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder represents the next step in this progression, and one building particularly, whether or not consciously, upon Perec’s novel.

These books are not only novels but contributions to the theory of the novel. Picking up where Perec left off, McCarthy investigates the nature of the novel for the young 21st century.

Mikhail Bakhtin argued that the novel is not “novel” because it was new in the 17th century, but rather because it is always new, the genre which, unlike poetry and drama, is always questioning, renewing, and reinventing itself. The great Italian novelist and critic Italo Calvino wrote that Life A User’s Manual was “the last real ‘event’ in the history of the novel so far.” A generation later, The New York Times called Remainder “a work of novelistic philosophy.” These books are not only novels but contributions to the theory of the novel. Picking up where Perec left off, McCarthy investigates the nature of the novel for the young twenty-first century. He picks up upon themes, ideas, and approaches already familiar to us from 20th-century fiction, and then stretches these notions to new lengths, or in new directions, for contemporary readers. Several of the themes in Remainder build upon concepts which came to prominence between the writing of Perec’s and McCarthy’s novels.

In Perec’s novel, a vastly wealthy man named Percival Bartlebooth spends his fortune on a half-century-long self-cancelling project. He travels the world painting pictures which he reconstructs as jigsaw puzzles and then plans to ultimately destroy, and he pays a string of employees to facilitate the process. His fortune enables him, a pictorial artist, to control the lives of these employees, much as his creator Perec, a verbal artist, controls the lives of Bartlebooth and the novel’s other characters.

A similar relationship exists between the vastly wealthy, unnamed narrator of Remainder and his creator McCarthy. All four men are the gods of their created realms and can make their minions do just about anything, even devoting or abandoning their lives for the creator’s project. The characters’ money, in its own way, stands in for the writers’ literary skills.

Remainder takes us closer than ever to the elimination of the distinction between fiction and authorial reality.

At one point, McCarthy’s narrator tries to reconstruct, in his mind, the concierge of his apartment building: “I could picture her body now: it was middle-aged and pudgy. Her face was still blank.” Like Bartlebooth, the narrator seems to be putting together a jigsaw puzzle, gradually filling in the empty areas while some remain “blank.” While Bartlebooth was just an analogue of Perec, however, McCarthy’s narrator is actually filling in the characters and setting of Remainder itself. McCarthy has taken a crucial additional step, making himself and his fictional narrator collaborators in the novel-making process. Remainder takes us closer than ever to the elimination of the distinction between fiction and authorial reality.

After the catastrophic accident which touches off the novel’s events, the hospitalized protagonist must painstakingly learn how to do the simplest actions, such as picking up an object and walking. One might think that he is relearning them, but he points out that this is wrong: “In the normal run of things you never learn to walk like you learn swimming, French or tennis. You just do it without thinking how you do it: you stumble into it, literally.” This is essentially the difference between the way in which we do everyday things and the way in which a novelist must put those actions into words. It’s part of the reason that practically all of us are perfectly competent walkers, while so few can write effective fiction. McCarthy foregrounds this difference, helping us to recognize a part of the nature of fiction writing which we are liable to overlook.

Just three years after Perec’s novel, Jean Baudrillard published a book called Simulacra and Simulation, building upon Plato and other thinkers to state in its full form his concept of the simulacrum, which he saw as a kind of copy without an original. Our world today, as Baudrillard saw it, has become completely artificial and unnatural, like the golden bird of Yeats’ “Byzantium”, and we mistake and accept the simulations—modified foods, synthetic fabrics, edited recorded music, “reality” television programs, faith-based “alternatives” to scientifically demonstrable facts—for reality. By the time McCarthy wrote Remainder, some twenty years later, this concept had become pervasive in postmodern thought. In an interview, McCarthy acknowledged that his narrator’s “re-enactments tend more towards the status of simulacra.”

Remainder embodies this concept, demonstrating its relevance to the writing of fiction. Even before beginning his re-enactments, the narrator watches people on the street who “reminded me of an ad—not a particular one, but just some ad with beautiful young people in it having fun.” Ultimately, the participants in the novel’s climactic bank heist say that “the whole thing had been real and not a re-enactment.” The narrator corrects them: “But it was a re-enactment. That’s the beauty of it. It became real while it was going on.”

“It was,” for example, “a re-enactment” of the practice re-enactment which they had performed at a warehouse. Robber Re-enactor Four is shot while they are in the bank. After the heist, the narrator shoots Robber Re-enactor Two, in part because Two was “standing there in Four’s position” when Four had been shot in the bank. The narrator re-enacts the role of Two as Two re-enacts the role of Four, so that, so to speak, Two plus Two make Four. Not only an epistemological, but an ontological line has been crossed, leaving the mise-en-abîme, that infinite repetition that you see when standing between two mirrors: endless re-enactments without an enactment, a perfect simulacrum, much as novels recreate in words events which have never happened.

This concept of the mise-en-abîme received its first thorough treatment for literature in Lucien Dällenbach’s The Mirror in the Text, published when Perec had nearly finished writing Life. A few years later, Baudrillard specifically associated the mise-en-abîme with the remainder in his essay on “The Remainder.” Though the literary mise-en-abîme had been noted and discussed earlier by André Gide and others, it really came under serious consideration in the late twentieth century, and it then found a definitive embodiment in McCarthy’s Remainder, where, for example, Naz and the narrator conclude that they will need back-up re-enactors, and then back-ups for them, and so on forever. The logical fulfillment of the narrator’s plans would require the whole world and all of its inhabitants.

Another staple of early-twentieth-century Modernist fiction was the unreliable narrator, who left the reader unable to trust any account of the novel’s events. This is pushed to new levels in Remainder. The narrator spills wine in a restaurant:

The tablecloth was white; the wine stained it deep red. The waiter came back over. He was . . . She was young, with large dark glasses, an Italian woman. Large breasts. Small.

The unreliability of this narrator seems to exceed anything we’re used to. He seems to be making it up as he goes along, while leaving in the rejected false starts. On the other hand, perhaps even this impression of unreliability is unreliable. When he says “an Italian woman. Large breasts. Small,” perhaps “Small” refers to the woman rather than to her breasts. In that case, the momentary gender confusion would be the only misstep, and that could be an understandable lapse, considering the disorientation and embarrassment of the situation. Except for the fact that, almost two pages earlier, we had read: “I ordered a bottle of expensive white wine. . . ,” which couldn’t have stained the cloth “deep red.”

For obvious reasons, memory has always been a preoccupation of novelists, and, after all these years, McCarthy has found a new way of considering it.

For obvious reasons, memory has always been a preoccupation of novelists, and, after all these years, McCarthy has found a new way of considering it. Some of the central achievements of Modernist fiction build upon the narrators’ precise and detailed memories. Proust’s narrator, for example, builds his story out of such memories. He bites into a madeleine, a kind of cookie which he hadn’t eaten since his childhood, and enough memories come flooding back to fill his vast, 4,000-page novel. Similarly, much of Ulysses is built from the expatriate Joyce’s memories of Dublin. Some unreliable narrators, on the other hand, fail to remember, or inaccurately remember, important things. The situation in Remainder is neither of these.

McCarthy sounds at first as if he is continuing the Proustian detailed-memory tradition, but then overturns it. Though his narrator, upon his revelatory vision of the building, claims “a sudden sense of déjà vu” and says, “I remembered all this clearly—crystal-clear, as clear as in a vision,” he then confesses “I couldn’t place this vision at all.” He seems to remember it, but he doesn’t know where it was.

Then there are gaps in his memory: He can’t “remember,” or envision, the face of the concierge, “the pattern in the floors,” the words of the liver lady. He comes to accept that this was not a straight memory. It was more complex.

Maybe it was various things all rolled together: memories, imaginings, films, I don’t know. But that bit’s not important. What’s important is that I remembered it, and it was crystal-clear.

What he remembers is not all memory. This is a new perspective.

Even the age-old art of character naming receives a new twist here. Obviously, names have meanings and connotations, and the good writer won’t squander this opportunity by choosing names at random from the phone book. Bartlebooth, for example, carries elements of both Herman Melville’s stubborn Bartleby and another wealthy traveler in Valery Larbaud’s novel The Diary of A.O. Barnabooth.

McCarthy takes this a step further by naming a key character Naz. The only words in common use by English speakers starting with “naz” are “Nazareth” or its form “Nazarene,” and “Nazi.” The name “Naz” almost inevitably reminds alert readers of both of these. The profound ambiguity of the name encapsulates the complexity of the character, a man who serves as the narrator’s savior, realizing his every wish, but who also brings about the deaths of a great many innocent people by, as Nazi leaders said at their postwar trials, “just following orders.”

One of the re-enactors asks the narrator what he means when he says that he “might want to capture” an event. The narrator thinks: “It wasn’t his business to make me explain what I meant by ‘capture’. It meant whatever I wanted it to mean.” This reflects the kind of reality by fiat that came to prominence just one year earlier when a senior adviser to President George W. Bush contemptuously dismissed what he called “the reality-based community.” He said:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

As politics brings power, so does money, and so does a writer’s imagination. Authorship means authority. Novelists had, of course, played with this notion before. Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt, for example, includes a female hæmophiliac character, and Beckett supplies a footnote explaining that “Hæmophilia is, like enlargement of the prostate, an exclusively male disorder. But not in this work.” That brief note reminded readers of the novelist’s Godlike role, but Remainder now explores it at length.

The narrator considers multiple irrational methods for arranging his search for the building he needs, including blindly sticking pins in a map, following things of a particular color, walking erratically, and “following a numerical” or an alphabetical system. This is reminiscent of the system Perec chose to structure his novel: following the path of a chess knight, with its erratic two-and-one movement, until it hits every point on a hundred-square grid. Indeed, once Perec had used this method to arrange the chapters of his novel, he then assigned, through a mathematical scheme, numerous characteristics to each chapter, including colors, numbers, objects, and so on. The result was similar to Joyce’s two Ulysses schemata, though more complex and less arbitrary.

Some might consider this passage of Remainder to be derivative of Joyce’s and Perec’s earlier methods, but, considering that replaying is Remainder’s central subject, it makes more sense to think of it as a re-enactment. A central concept of postmodern literary theory is intertextuality: a recognition of the highly complex relationships among literary works. One could consider Remainder to be the emblematic novel of the age of intertextuality. Furthermore, after considering these procedures, McCarthy’s narrator abandons them in favor of just walking “with no plan at all in mind.” Considering the London setting, his seemingly random but consciously chosen movements might remind English readers of the popular radio comedy game “Mornington Crescent”, in which the participants arbitrarily move among London tube stations and other landmarks.

None of these ideas or procedures is unprecedented, but all are pushed ahead into new territory in Remainder, revealing new facets and shedding new light on the nature and possibilities of the novel genre. There may be some truth in the cliché that “there are no new stories,” but both Perec and McCarthy managed to tell substantially new stories by doing new things with the novelist’s tools. Remainder paves the way for the next “‘event’ in the history of the novel.”

Paul Cohen, Distiguished Professor Emeritus of English at Texas State University, has written compulsively on literature, art, music, film, computing, pedagogy, and, for The Fortnightly Review, on ‘Pataphysics and Remy de Gourmont.


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