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Tom McCarthy: Remainder

The subject of this novel is quite unusual and that alone makes it a fascinating read. Our unnamed hero/narrator has been struck by something from the sky and badly injured. He is not sure what hit him or how but he has had to spend some time in hospital as a result. His lawyer is in negotiation with somebody – insurance company or perpetrators, it is not clear which – and he ends up getting an eight and half million pounds settlement. He lives on his own and does not seem to have any close family. He has a couple of friends. The first is a woman called Catherine whom he had met on a business trip to Paris before his accident and they had had a brief affair. She is now coming to London to stay with him but though they briefly continue their relationship, he is clearly bored with her, as he is with his male friends. He had always felt what he calls inauthentic, i.e. fake, not real. However, his accident has not only enhanced this feeling, it has also played tricks with his memory. While Catherine is in England but spending the weekend in Oxford, he goes to a party given by a not very close friend who has just acquired a new flat. He is bored with the party. However, when he goes to the toilet, he sees a crack in he wall and this triggers a memory. It may be a genuine memory, it may be a mixture of memories, including memories of not only his life but films he has seen or it may be a false memory. Whatever the memory, he remembers the crack in a bathroom but also a whole lot more. He remembers he was living in a flat in a six- or seven-storey building. The flat was on the second top storey. There were cats on the roof opposite, a man practising the piano badly in a flat below, a woman cooking liver, whom he bumps into on the stairs taking out her rubbish, a man noisily repairing his motorbike outside, a faceless concierge and a few other details. While the other party-goers are crossing their legs outside the toilet, he sketches the long bathroom crack onto paper and then leaves the party.

He wants this experience again, exactly as he remembered it but does not know how to get it. It is his lawyer who puts him in touch with one of those firms that cater to meeting the whims of the rich, which he now is, and he is put in touch with Naz Ram Vyas, whose job it is to help in these cases (for a large fee, of course). He explains his situation and Naz agrees to help, without asking the reasons why. Naz and his team, with the help of our hero, map out a plan of action, identifying possible areas to find a suitable building and scouring those areas. While there are a few possibilities, there is nothing really suitable. Eventually, our hero realises that he will have to find the building, as he alone knows what he is looking for and, on a walk through Brixton, he does indeed find a suitable building. Naz arranges to buy the building, pay off the tenants no longer needed and do the necessary work to the building. Naz also hires the people for the various roles – the pianist, the liver lady (as she is now known), the motorcycle man, even the cats (who, unfortunately, have a high death rate). Of course, setting up the exact scenario our hero wants does have its complications. He has, in his mind’s eye, exactly what he wants but, naturally, the actors (or re-enactors, as he calls them) do not necessarily share his view. Some of them even cheat, with the pianist recording his pieces and then going off elsewhere. There are rehearsals and more rehearsals, at which glitches are smoothed out till everything is, more or less, to his liking. Of course, he even changes a few minor things which are more pleasing. He is happy lying in his bath for hours, listening to the piano and the motorcycle repairs and smelling the liver, great mountains of which are cooked.

He finally does go out and notices that his old car, parked nearby, has a puncture. He changes the tyre and then takes it to a nearby tyre repair shop. A couple of things happen there and he wants to re-enact that. Next day, the road is blocked because there has been a shooting. He wants to re-enact that. And so on. What is his real motivation? Part of it is, of course, control. Even the richest person in the world cannot completely control every tiny aspect of his environment, primarily because the people he interacts with will behave in unpredictable ways, even if it is something totally trivial. What our hero wants to do is totally control his environment. Lying in his bath, he knows that he will hear the piano practised badly (he even determines which piece), he will hear the motorcycle being loudly repaired, he will smell the liver cooking. But there is something else going on, partially, but only partially, relating to his injuries. He wants to firm up his memories, create an authentic environment, one that he knows is real and genuine, instead of this vague, inauthentic one he has been living in since his injuries, but also before. As he says he did it to be real – to become fluent, natural, to cut out the detour that sweeps us around what’s fundamental to events, preventing us from touching their core: the detour that makes us all second-hand and second-rate.

Of course, it does go terribly wrong but, by this time, it is clear that our hero is clearly unable to distinguish the real from the false, the authentic from the inauthentic. The ending is weak but the basic theme of McCarthy’s is very cleverly thought out and very well executed. It truly is a very original novel and one well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Alma Books