Thursday, September 09, 2010
Tom McCarthy, Remainder
I read a description the other week of a discussion at a books festival (of the marquees + Sunday newspaper sponsorship + Joanna Trollope and Melvyn Bragg kind) at which that tenured half-wit, John Carey, expressed regret that the 2005 Booker Prize went to John Banville rather than purveyor-in-chief to Mondeo man of a ready supply of the most cultural thing you can do with a tenner in an airport departure lounge, Norf London geezer Nick Hornby. Which prompts me by some circuitous route or other to write about Tom McCarthy’s novel – no not the new one, but, slightly behind the times that I am, the one before that, Remainder. I was predisposed to like it, since anything that makes the Careys of this tight little island squeal as though they’re being slipped one up the wazoo (and McCarthy does have this effect on some people) is already pulling in brownie points from me, and like it I did. It’s odd, though, how affinities with the nouveau roman can turn McCarthy’s style, in those same quarters, into a ‘period piece’ or curiosity, while the continuing triumphal dance of the nineteenth-century novel down the cultural highways of merry middle England strikes no one as odd. But enough griping preliminaries. The theme is repetition, and the protagonist a man who would in Wallace Stevens’ words be ‘of repetition (...) most master’. He has suffered major trauma and been rewarded by an insurance payout of eight and a half million pounds. He then decides to spend it on a series of bizarrely detailed, epic even, re-enactments of tableaux vivants, devoting vast amounts of time and money to recreating an apartment block that must have a woman constantly cooking liver, a man repairing his motorbike in the courtyard, an error-prone piano player... He coaches the re-enacters carefully, deriving an Aspergery sense of calm and rightness from the spontaneous (viz. scripted and contrived) actions he is overlaying on some never exactly explained or elaborated memory from before his trauma.
He moves on to other random events that take his fancy, such as being sprayed with goo when he brings his car to the garage for a tyre-change, a scene he then has staged and repeated hundreds of times in a replica garage built specially. But when he latches onto a series of gangland killings we know the stakes will be raised, as they duly are in a re-enacted bank heist the protagonist decides to convert to a real raid by moving the location to an actual bank without telling the ‘actors’. Something goes wrong and a participant is shot, fatally. Rather than snapping out of his trance-like state, our protagonist goes one step further and shoots another re-enacter himself. He has already made provision for disposing of any information ‘leakage’ among his huge cast of helpers, in a scheme that involves an exploding airplane. He himself makes his escape on a second jet, but after (presumably) news reaches the pilot of the other plane’s fate, the protagonist is told they’re turning back, which prompts him to produce a weapon (it is a privately chartered plane so he hasn’t passed through any security). He announces they will do no such thing, but keep on turning instead, looping and banking endlessly in the air. And on this note the novel ends.
Consider the trajectory of the re-enactments. Any suspicion that the novel will lead us back to the moment of buried trauma in the past is abandoned pretty early on. As the protagonist becomes obsessed with the gangland killings, the time lag between event and re-enactment begins to contract until it makes perfect sense for the latter to pull ahead and start setting the pace. But during the bank robbing that goes wrong, the protagonist still refers to what is happening as a ‘re-enactment’. Why? Because, if my plot summary is at risk of sounding like Baudrillard for Tiny Tots, the twist here is not the usual post-modern epiphany that there never was an original event and that all is simulacra, endlessly. If anything, it is the opposite. The protagonist has entered the impossible eternal present of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, 6.4311: ‘Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.’ It is not just that the event repeats itself endlessly, but that it is doing so after, during and before itself; it is its own repetition; it is temporality folded in upon itself; it is a condition of pure and perfect joy; and it is also a condition of complete psychosis.
Affectlessness is a very common nouveau roman theme, if I can speak from my twenty-something year old memory of L’année dernière à Marienbad and all those Alain Robbe-Grillet novels I read, once upon a time. And while I did indeed enjoy Remainder, very much, I regret that its crowning moment should be an apotheosis of affectlessness, as if forms of acting-out that fall short of blowing up planes don’t represent an artistic challenge too or the potential for moments of apocalyptically perfect peace and understanding. That would make an interesting writing exercise for McCarthy, though not one (to judge from the reviews I’ve read) he’s followed in C. But which, nevertheless, I will now go and read.
Has any wag had the bright idea of staging a joint reading for this Tom McCarthy and Cork poet Thomas McCarthy, I wonder? Please do so, someone.