The most indispensable element contributing to the aesthetic success of Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder is McCarthy's use of the novel's brain-damaged protagonist as its first-person narrator. Not only is this unnamed narrator's earnest but affectless voice crucial to the novel's cumulatively mesmerizing effect, but none of its other pleasures--its deadpan humor, its wide-eyed fixation on the details of mundane and seemingly trivial activities, its creation of "plot" out of the narrator's own incurable plotting--would be possible if this otherwise undistinguished man who happened to have been hit by "something falling from the sky" and is now trying to cope with the aftermath were not telling his own story.
One review of Remainder (Margot Kaminsky, San Francisco Chronicle) maintains that in reading this story we readers "remain firmly inside the narrator's head." Another (Leonora Todara, Bookforum) has it that McCarthy's intention is to "understand how a traumatized mind might put its broken pieces back together again." But this emphasis on the narrator's "mind" is not quite right, although the seeming disorder of his mind (which, in my reading, at least, is actually an attempt to reassert order) is certainly pushed to the foreground of the novel he is (unwittingly) composing. We are not, as in most conventional "psychological realism," thrust "inside the narrator's head." We are thrust into his words, where we are, undeniably, caught up in the same obsessions and compulsions, the same damaged processing, that he is. But in dramatizing the way "a traumatized mind might put its broken pieces back together again," McCarthy is not ""exploring" his character's thoughts or attempting to track those thoughts in its "stream." He is personifying the character's state of mind through his words (often enough words whose import the narrator only dimly recognizes, if at all) and his seemingly deranged actions.
In effect, McCarthy reverses the conventional approach to "Mind" in fiction as advocated by the likes of James Wood and others. For Wood, fiction itself exists to reveal Mind; this is its raison d'etre, its claim to superiority over other narrative arts that are not as supple in their ability to "get inside" the human head. Psychology uses fiction to render itself more dramatically. McCarthy, on the other hand, uses Mind to render fiction more authentically. Remainder doesn't pretend to anatomize the human mind, translating its ineffable qualities into sensible prose, as so much middling psychological realism post-Joyce and post-Woolf generally settles for. It re-enacts the irresistible impulses and the skewed perspective the narrator's altered mental state is producing, just as the narrator himself re-enacts events that make him feel more at ease in his transformed world, that give him a sense of belonging in an environment that has otherwise become unacceptably alien.
Often the narrator's actions seem wholly devoted to materializing these impulses, although the narrator isn't fully aware of his submission to them:
I was heading down the hallway back towards the main room when I noticed a small room set off the circuit I'd been following up to now; I'd moved round the kitchen each time in a clockwise direction, and round the main room in an anti-clockwise one, door-sofa-window-door. With the short, narrow corridor between the two rooms, my circuit had the pattern of an eight. This extra room seemed to have just popped up beside it like the half had in my Settlement: offset, an extra. I stuck my head inside. It was a bathroom. I stepped in and locked the door behind me. Then it happened: the event that , the accident aside, was the most significant of my whole life.
It isn't so much that the narrator seems to have "lost" his mind. He has lost the part that made his actions seem natural, unpatterned, subservient to his own will, however much they were always already a product of the brain's mechanical operations. Now those operations have been laid bare, the clockwise motions and figure-eights of his damaged brain compelling his movements just as much as his undamaged brain had done, but without that "extra", naturalized patina that allows us to overlook our actual subservience to the brain's creation of patterns. He's lost the "remainder" that makes us feel at home in our reality.
The "event" that proves to be the "most significant" in the narrator's life thus ensues, his account of it typically (and hilariously) straight-faced:
. . .I'd used the toilet and was washing my hands in the sink, looking away from the mirror above it--because I don't like mirrors generally--at this crack that ran down the wall. David Simpson, or perhaps the last owner, had stripped the walls, so there was only plaster on them, plus some daubs of different types of paint where David had been experimenting to see how the room would look in various colors. I was standing by the sink looking at this crack in the plaster when I had a sudden sense of deja vu.
A memory from his pre-accident past has apparently emerged, complete with "a window directly above the taps just like there was in this room," outside of which "there'd been roofs with cats on them." "People had been packed into the building; neighbours beneath me and around me and on the floor above. The smell of liver cooking in a pan had been wafting to me from the floor below--the sound too, the spit and sizzle."
With the help of his large "Settlement" vis-a-vis the accident, the narrator goes about trying to re-create this scene. Much of the novel is devoted to this effort, and it makes for surprisingly compelling reading, the sheer audacity of it (both on the narrator's and McCarthy's part), as well as the unquestioning participation in it of those the narrator enlists to bring it all off, both strangely entertaining and just strange. Eventually other events are re-created as well, as the narrator increasingly becomes dependent on the "tingling" he feels whenever the recreations work especially well.
In her review, Margot Kaminsky asserts that Remainder is a "chillingly clever novel of patterns that fools you into thinking it's a novel about plot." Chilling it certainly is, but I'm not sure "clever" is exactly right. Relentless in its unfolding of the narrator's, and its own, inherent if scary logic is more like it. And I don't really think it's accurate to call it a "novel of patterns" rather than "a novel about plot." McCarthy isn't so much imposing a "pattern" as exposing our human preoccupation with pattern-making (which includes our need for "plot"--the narrator's reenactments are nothing if not precisely crafted stories in which he is the protagonist), a preoccupation that of course extends to and finds culmination in fiction itself, as well as art more generally. One could say that the only thing that really separates the artist from McCarthy's unnamed narrator is that the artist indulges his/her taste for pattern-making in works of imagination that merely echo life. Our narrator tries to make his life conform to patterns, to force it into order and meaning, climaxing in events that only confirm and disastrously reinforce the closed loop his life has become.
Readers who like to have an immediate, transparent "bond" with their first-person narrators may or may not find Remainder a comfortable read. It surely isn't easy at first to like, or even to understand, its narrator-protagonist, and his behavior only becomes more extreme as he figure-eights his way through his story. His narrative voice remains spookily matter-of-fact throughout. On the other hand, it is hard not to summon up some sympathy for this character, since we, too, if befallen by our own "accident," would likely find ourselves confronting a similarly alien world and might respond to it, almost certainly would respond to it, in the best way our addled brains could contrive. Our mental machinery would be exposed as similarly fragile. We would become our own remainder.
But even if you're not sure this kind of character would appeal, you should read Remainder nevertheless. It's not only the most impressive debut novel I've read in a very long time. It's one of the best novels I've read recently, period.