Tye Pemberton: The Last Book I loved, Remainder

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picture-9Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was a bit of a darkhorse darling when it first arrived on the scene, enjoying attention from everyone and their mother, the latter of whom rightly celebrated it and nearly exhausted it, marking it as possibly “one of the great English novels of the past ten years.” I can do nothing much here in the way of aesthetic appreciation but agree, reiterate and repeat, and thus much of the customary cuddling I might do with what the book is I’ll leave to my precursors in the interests of an appreciation of what the book represents—which is, to say the least, promising.

Whether it meant it or not, the tradition of Western art is an apocalyptic one: a statue’s plinth, a painting’s frame, a story’s end. Part of the inherent delight of a work of art is that it ends. Or rather, we can see its boundaries, and in this way art makes us privy to an experience we are not privileged to by our own being: totality. Who can remember his or her birth besides perhaps a suspect Salvador Dalí and an insubstantial Tristram Shandy? And certainly none of us will be able—in this life at least—to look back on our death. We may be free to consider the meaning of individual events in our life, or perhaps even what our life currently means, but no one will quite know what their life meant. These boundaries are part of the essential experience of art—they make an alternative space set aside to life which may be, if not known…achieved. Art may not necessarily give us an outlook on life, but it gives us a vantage from life, however artificial. Art asserts: this is not here, not now, not you, not life. Avid readers may often attest that the value of fiction is that it casts an illumination onto life, but this reflection is somewhat illusory. What art actually does is produce a second actuality to look on from life, and in doing so, provides a space from which it might be possible to look back to life. The relativity of a vantage may be swapped, and for this we are grateful. Because without this we would be fish tragically unaware of water, to paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace.

So it is only natural that we focus on the most novel features of novels—their pregnant beginnings and their definite ends—when we’re trying to make meaning of them. They are the features that have, until now, allowed artistic meaning. In Western fiction, the beginning creates, the end reveals and the middle…well, the middle simply is. The middle grows from the beginning to fill the ending up, informs the novel’s apocalypse, carries the beginning and the reader’s interest along a track towards the final stop where sense and retrospection wait to be quaintly made. If the beginning is our auspicious birth and the end is revelation, the problem with the novel form is that the middle is thus made up of our schlubby goings, our repetitious, unconscious, unprofound farting, our mastications and our mechanical fulfillments of the base requirements to keep going. Reading too many novels in the current vein makes us desperately expectant of something other than life, which is—let’s face it—one big long middle. In this way, novels can’t be said to really be concerned with life at all.

Remainder is beautiful. Remainder is human. Remainder is obsessed with middles in a way that maybe hasn’t happened since Cervantes’ episodic Don Quixote, and in a way I certainly haven’t ever seen in a book with such a modest length. I’ll repeat: despite its emotional and linguistic remove, it is a profoundly human book, perhaps more human than we’ve seen from a novel in I don’t know how long. It represents my favorite collision, the collision of the novel of ideas and the character-based novel which—on the rare occasion that its author has the luck to find a believable synthesis—creates a novel about the nature of being, which is also truly rare. McCarthy damns apocalypse to obscurity in Remainder by ending the protagonist, as we might have known him, off the page and before the book’s beginning (presumably due to falling aircraft debris). The narrator and the novel that emerge in Remainder occur in a kind of afterlife. Their previous existences have already been terminated and tallied-up, exchanged for eight and a half million pounds worth of corporate settlement. And then, in the novel’s first few sentences, we are refused access to that ending:

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.

Instead, since our narrator finds himself suffering from the believable effects of a believable brain-damage, we are treated to an inversion: one in which our neurally re-wired narrator tries to recapture his own authenticity. A pursuit that, since the brain-damage is believable, does not feel inauthentic or ulterior itself. It becomes apparent as our narrator recreates a former residence and reenacts its goings-on, that he is moving backwards through being; rather than turning experience into memory, our narrator is converting memory back into experience. And then moreover, as he reenacts a shooting from police reports, history into experience. He is moving in reverse, away from endings, away from termini in towards the middle. From afterlife back towards life. And because he is amnesiac, retrospection just doesn’t figure into the affair. Remainder quite thwarts the natural limitations of the novel and manages to be a novel that is genuinely about experience. And when our narrator finally abandons reenactment  and decides to merely enact the coded ballet of a bank robbery, he has perhaps found a fleeting prosthesis to replace the natural authenticity we unbraindamaged participants enjoy by default. And these activities, even at their end, are middles. Because what is authenticity but unselfconsciousness? And when are we less self-conscious than when we are, so to speak, in the middle of things?

What I hope my earlier comments about the vantage value of art suggest is that we stand to benefit from having an alternative to anything, really: life, the apocalypse model of art, additionally the apocalypse model of life that Remainder subsequently manages to abate. While an alternative to the latter is not philosophically new, it is noteworthy that it is being fulfilled here against the limitations of a form which courts and presupposes apocalypse, something from which I personally thought it could not escape, but which escape I hoped for nonetheless.

Books must always end , and so there may always be some suggestion of apocalypse in them, the temptation to search for meaning primarily in their completion. What is valuable about Remainder is its emphasis away from its termini, for when the terminus is no longer a revelatory point, we are forced to that middle—the only portion to which we have access in life—and left to withdraw meaning out of the chaff of continuous and largely unremarkable experience. No longer anticipating a summing-up, a tally, we are invited to reassess not only which moments in our life have meaning, but also the very increments by which we measure that meaning, and more so even: time, consciousness, significance itself.


Tye Pemberton is a graduate of USC and an MFA candidate at Columbia University. His nonfiction and short stories have appeared in Watchword, Versal, and the Manifesto issue of We Still Like. More from this author →