A Look Into Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

Tom McCarthy’s novel, Remainder, begins with a husk of a man searching for his lost sense of purpose away after a near-death experience.  The narrator at first longs for his forgotten sense of human drive and looks to recapture it.  He envies culture for their ability to live life in a natural and uncalculated way.  There’s a shift though, and he soon abandons this endeavor to instead begin a search for his new definition of human authenticity.  Instead of attempting to recapture the ability to live seemingly effortlessly in society’s structures, he creates his own structures.  These replications of his past are highly organized constructions that he uses to capture true authenticity, which he sees in accidents and hiccups.  He transitions from thinking authenticity is perfectly following life’s script to thinking that the only time one may gain true authenticity is when that script is interrupted.

Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, states that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element.  Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”  By this definition, the narrator is chasing an intangible authenticity through his first creations.  Many of these creations are designed for these moments in which the norm, the plan, societal structures as a whole experience a glitch or hiccup.  If we look at these two ideas together, then he’s only recreating a structure in which a mistake is part of the plan. His conscious pursuit of authenticity prevents him from ever possibly achieving it.  However hard the narrator tries to disrupt worldly structures, he ultimately reinvents a similar structure that are no more authentic.  He ultimately realizes this predicament and chooses instead to give other, unsuspecting people the gift of authentic moments.  McCarthy uses the narrator’s ideas to present two different ideas of what’s perfectly authentic: a natural and flawless one or one that’s driven by mistakes and disaster.  He attempts to disrupt as many lives as possible, and even in his death give others the same authenticity he experienced in his accident.  In this way, the narrator is attempting to fuse together the flawless and the disastrous.

The narrator’s initial issue is the feeling that he’s been living his life in an unnatural way ever since his injury.  Despite the fact that his definition of authenticity later evolves, the scenes in which he envies people who live “naturally” tie in to the problem of his consciousness in the novel.  The first example of his longing to move through life seamlessly is seen when he’s discussing Robert De Niro on page 24.  “Opening fridge doors, lighting cigarettes.  He doesn’t have to think about them, or understand them first.  He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one.  Perfect.  Real.  My movements are all fake.  Second-hand.”  The narrator, in a sense, has been “woken up” by the accident, and he can’t force himself not to think about everything he does.  It’s like when someone can’t fall asleep.  The more they think about how they can’t fall asleep, the harder it is to do so.  The narrator’s problem lies in his inability to recapture whatever it was that drove him through life pre-accident.  He has essentially separated his physical body and his consciousness at this point.  He says that his movements are “second-hand”, insinuating that his physical body and mind have an extreme disconnect.  This is important when analyzing his issues with his new-and-improved definition of authenticity.

His first idea of authenticity is soon after altered.  The shift comes in the scene where he’s concocted an imaginary conversation with a homeless man as he watches other homeless people across the street. Before this change, he believes the homeless to be truly authentic.  “After a while I started thinking that these people, finally, were genuine” (58).  This belief leads him to fantasize about a conversation with one of these gentlemen as he watches them from across the street.  The reader believes the conversation to be genuine at first, but after he knocks over a wine glass the fantasy dissipates.  This is where his idea of authenticity shifts in the novel.  Just a couple of pages before he believed that the homeless were among the most authentic of humans, but after the glass is knocked over this thought drastically changes.  “They had a point to prove: that they were one with the street; that they and only they spoke its true language; that they really owned the space around them.  Crap: total crap” (60).  This dramatic shift in his view stemmed from the crash of the wine glass.  It isn’t that this is one of the only actions in between the two assessments of the homeless—it’s that he imagined it.  While he was having this conversation with a total figment of his imagination, his subconscious added an accident.  This is when it’s first apparent that these accidents are such an important factor in the life of the narrator now.  This wine spill acts as a trigger that begins the narrator’s hungry search for wrinkles in the plan, his idea of true authenticity.  This leads him to systematically recreate mechanized replications of these odd and unexpected moments in life.

The uses of mechanization in Remainder are representative of man-made norms and systems.  Machines are intricately designed to perform their task repeatedly without fail.  If at the beginning of the novel the piece of technology had done what it was programmed to do, it would have never fallen from the sky and struck him.  This indicates why he’s so engaged in the idea that the only real moments in life are when the design is shattered.  He fails, however, when he believes he can create structures that are designed with the intention of producing mistakes.  If they are destined for failure, these mechanizations aren’t flawed, they’re functioning like they’re supposed to.  The use of these engineered replicas shows the narrator’s views on authenticity evolving.  When he creates the apartment complex and the faux car shop, he’s attempting to gain a personal feeling of authenticity.  At first, he gets a genuine feeling of euphoria as the replications take place, “the mixed sensation grew still stronger, and I was riveted to my spot on the platform” (178). He grows bored with these projects, however, and whatever feeling of accomplishment he gained was fleeting.  He eventually forgets that these actors are still replicating this experiences all day every day.  The impossibility of creating a machine destined for failure force the narrator’s plans to evolve.

It appears that the narrator has realized the same idea that Walter Benjamin addresses in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.  The fact that these actions have taken place before completely strips them of any real ability to produce authenticity.  He’s lost interest in his replications because they can never truly achieve the feeling that he’s look for.  It first appears that he’s moving on from these by instead re-enacting something that he hasn’t personally experienced.  In this sense, the faux bank heists make sense in the progression of the story.  It’s believable that this narrator would move from replicating something he’s seen first-hand to an event that he hasn’t. It’s fairly obvious in the actual heist, however, that he’s not trying to create these wrinkles for himself.  Even in the replications he’s feeding off the experiences of his fellow actors.  His true prize comes with the actually robbery, though, where he cherishes the authentic and horrifying reactions of everyone else.  When his fellow robbers realize that the heist is legitimate, the narrator thinks, “The tingling really burst its banks now; it flowed outwards from my spine’s base and flowed all around my body” (293).  This was no surprise to him, but a surprise to his companions.  He has realized that he can’t create a wrinkle in his own story, but can give others what was given to him in the form of the accident.

The narrator becomes a calculated, machine-like orchestrator who is intent on bringing as many wrinkles into the world as possible.  In his mind, he’s doing society a favor by bringing mayhem into their story.  Naz eventually tells the narrator that they’ll have to kill all of the re-enactors in order to cover their tracks.  He responds enthusiastically, and frames the idea like he’s in some way elevating these victims.  “As I watched steam drifting off the water and up past the crack, I pictured all my people lifted up, abstracted, framed like saints in churches’ stained-glass windows, each eternally performing their own action” (276-277).  He’s realized that it’s impossible to create a wrinkle for himself, so he’s more than happy to create accidents for other people.  He sees them as lucky, just as he sees the man who was killed on the bicycle.  His intent is to manufacture the largest possible interruption of the “script” as possible.  Those killed in the plane crash aren’t the only ones he wants to affect.  He’s creating a wrinkle for the police who will investigate, the victim’s families, the witnesses of the crime, the people who see two planes crashing on the news, and even those who first see his plane making a figure 8 in the sky.  Since he can’t create a wrinkle in his own plan, he chooses to create for others what’s happened to himself.  He’s bringing his story to a close the same way that it began, with a piece of human technology crashing down to the earth, drastically changing lives.  He wants his creation to be viewed by the world as a perfect disaster worthy of immortalization.

In Remainder, Tom McCarthy illustrates two views that are seen as conflicting attempted to be fused together.  Through the use of the narrator’s ideological evolution, he first gives a perspective of these two views of authenticity.  While initially he believes the authentic is encompassed in flawlessness, he later decides it’s encompassed by flaws.  In the end, McCarthy has the narrator create something authentic to everyone but himself, begging the question of whether or not the art is always genuine to everyone but the creator.  Additionally, in his mind, he flawlessly manufactures a great flaw in the script that society has written out.

Interested readers can pick the book up at https://www.amazon.com/Remainder-Tom-McCarthy/dp/0307278352

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