Obsession, Obsessively Told: A Review of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

February 26, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 3 min read

coverWhat if… What if you were an anonymous urbanite, going about your daily routine in, say, London, when some indescribable airborne object falls through the nothingness and crash-lands on your head, forever altering your somethingness…

What if that happened, and then it’s months later. You’ve doubled back from the abyss and there you are, at home, relearning everything. Physically you’re fine, but there’s a gaping hole where your sense of connection used to be. A piece of the puzzle is missing and with it your own sense of reality. You wish you could piece together some sense of your previous self because only then, you think, you’d be complete. Occasionally you brush up against that reality – a scrap of paper, a passing word – something to tease you, to trigger the connection with your past, with your self.

And then the money. You learn that your bank balance has shot through the stratosphere, the result of a settlement from the perpetrators of your condition. And now, as they say, money is no object.

You think long and hard and you decide that the best use for your magical millions is to attempt to regain your reality – to rebuild, in every way, and by any means necessary, your vaguely-remembered life. This is the ultra-high concept of Tom McCarthy’s meticulously plotted and crafted Remainder.

A rational search through memory doesn’t work so our hero opts for the irrational. A memory shake-up. Everything in his past would have left a mark of some sort – some kind of footprint. So he sets out to trigger these marks randomly. Though consciously implementing a random search cancels out its randomness.

Eventually, he plots the few vague or triggered memories that he has and tries to rebuild his surroundings around them so that every step within this recreated environment would trigger his sense of whole. So he buys an apartment building that resembles the one in his memory, and then the surrounding buildings, alters them to match the half-remembered images in his mind. Then he auditions actors to populate his new/old world. These players would be there for him around the clock to repeatedly enact the triggered memories.

You’d think all of this would be implausible, but the rendering is so painstakingly detailed that every time you think, “but what about…?”, you find that McCarthy is one step ahead of you. He’s already worked out the logical leaps. And once you wrap your mind around the notion that money can buy any service, somehow the improbable becomes possible.

Our hero isn’t the most likable of heroes, and more than once I became frustrated with his obsessive, often cruel, perfectionism. But then I remember that every supporting character is on his payroll. Everyone – his long-suffering facilitators, his “actors” – they all knew what they were getting into, at first at least, and are handsomely compensated.

And just how perfect does his recreated environment need to be? Partial success is abject failure. The point for him is to capture the connection, not merely an acceptable re-enactment. And once captured, it must be repeated. Realness is a state, not an isolated action. To experience it, our narrator must return to it again and again. It is only in the constant repetition of a remembered action that he finds the connection that he seeks.

And until when? As the story progresses, you realize that our hero needs to do more than just re-enact his environment over and over again. He reaches a point in his obsession where he must merge with his action, slow down the motion and be one with his environment, with the increasingly hyper-real experiences that he’s manufacturing. Only then will he feel complete.

Along with memory gaps, words and concepts have disappeared from our narrator’s verbal toolbox. And so we also get a complete sense of narrative process. Like the Tourette’s-affected hero of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, we’re privy to the machinations and linguistic somersaults that our narrator goes through to make himself understood.

A story of obsession, then, obsessively told. A meticulously rendered tale of meticulousness itself. It’s hard not to feel simultaneously irritated at both the action and the narrator, and yet utterly compelled to see his obsession through.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.

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