Tandem Reading: J.G. Ballard and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder


Remainder by Tom McCarthy can only lazily be compared to Kafka or Murakami, Ionesco or Calvino. Really, there is an English dryness about it that is more like Graham Greene having a surrealist fit. Or Iris Murdoch as edited by Raymond Carver.

But the most apt comparison might be to J.G. Ballard.

Both Ballard and McCarthy map the maze of post-industrial civilization and isolate moments of transcendence, no matter how irrational such transcendence appears. For Ballard, absurdity begins in the casual, harsh contrasts that the average citizen confronts in his day to day life: a car wreck beneath a billboard advertising dishwasher detergent or a freeway overpass crawling with monkeys and parrots. Burnished landmarks of civilization can, in the wink of an eye, become ruins overrun by society’s castaways.

For McCarthy, a similar absurdity exists in the mind’s propensity to be blinded to matter, to the sheer superfluousness of it. And also to be, as he demonstrates so poetically, blinded by it. The sheer quantity of things makes any distinction between reason and madness perfectly arbitrary. Both authors pose a fundamental question: to paraphrase Krishnamurti, is it irrational to be unadapted to a profoundly irrational society? (“Profoundly sick” was Krishnamurti’s phrase.)

Based on some very fine praise given to it by Zadie Smith, I read Remainder two months ago and can’t stop thinking about it. Even dreaming about it.

Maybe because it’s a book about three things that I especially obsess over: matter, memory and happiness. And how these three “things” manage to exist in a minefield of negation and conflict which, in fact, is life itself. (I’ve never before encountered a book that renders concrete what is fundamentally abstract about our human experience.)

We all obsess about happiness but I do it in ways that I know are whimsical and impractical, just like the novel’s “protagonist.” My self-awareness tells me that my ideas of happiness fly in the face of the order of things. To persevere in my rebellion I have to be monomaniacal. Or make compromises and sacrifices.

Either way I’m constantly negotiating significance on a chaotic, overcrowded landscape littered with what is mostly insignificant.

The way of the former, the monomaniac is the harder path. It is easier to make drastic cuts to your vision than to go with it whole-hog and no holds barred. In this sense, money and resources helps, as well as similarly-obsessed conspirators. Remainder details a well-funded experiment in sustained monomania that any artist would envy.

Remainder is also about the way the mind, operating at a feverish level of awareness, sees in vertiginous detail all the pixels of reality for what they are: pixels, points, dots. No rhyme, no reason. You can connect them any way you choose and they’ll always be ones left over, or burnt out, or inoperable.

But this is also, paradoxically, the way of freedom: the freedom to create meaning out of fragments and work assiduously to make meanings cohere. Thus you have an object and a mission and, in this dance of invented purpose, an onus to find happiness. Viktor Frankl said as much in his masterpiece, Man’s Search For Meaning.

It’s a game that can have exhilarating or dire consequences depending on how you react to it. More often than not, connections will not be made, matter and time and energy will be wasted.

Remainder is an ode to nonchalance in the service of finely-wrought philosophical fiction. It builds like a joke, escalates into a densely-layered fable, and then blossoms into hysterical nightmare. But despite the mayhem it doesn’t lose its composure. Everything makes sense in Remainder, even what is often preposterous. You won’t think the same way again about deep fried liver or Starbucks or windshield wiper fluid or cats on a roof. If you want a physical text that authoritatively invades your subconscious and rewires your most precious preconceptions read Remainder right now.

I would recommend reading it in tandem with J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, an arguably darker, more obsessed dispatch from the far side of post-industrial madness. Or even Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company or Crash would be fine accompaniments. With Ballard you are always in the terrain of the infrastructure overcome by its Id; mankind’s attempt to impose order on matter results in an excess that nobody ever suspected.

(Throw in a little Beckett or Lydia Davis afterward and you’ll have a metaphysical soul-wound more gaping than James Woods’ chest in Videodrome.)

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →