Tom McCarthy

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.

Tom McCarthy’s fiction quite palpably poses a challenge to entrenched reading habits and subverts conventional literary practice, but its rebellious spirit is usually categorized as modernist rather than postmodernist. Even though most of the qualities found in McCarthy’s work that suggest the influence of modernism equally suggest the influence of postmodernism, and even though specifically the mark of such postmodern writers as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon is readily apparent, discussion of his work has largely focused on McCarthy as a kind of neomodernist.

The most obvious explanation for the way McCarthy’s books have been received, at least in Great Britain, is that British fiction largely skipped over the phase in 20th century fiction generally labeled “postmodern,” instead renewing after World War II the British tradition of social and psychological realism (the latter supplementing the former as the only really lasting legacy of modernism). With a few notable exceptions — B.S. Johnson, arguably the early Ian McEwan, most recently Gabriel Josipovici — postwar British fiction has offered little in the way of “experimental” or “innovative” fiction of the sort associated with postmodernism in the United States (or, in a different way, continental Europe). This fact is what made Zadie Smith’s well-known essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” seem rather curious. In it she praises Tom McCarthy for showing an alternative way forward for contemporary fiction, but her account holds McCarthy up as a singular figure, an experimental writer, almost as if a previous generation of undeniably experimental writers in the U.S. and Europe had not illuminated this path already, going back almost 50 years.

A more charitable reading of Smith’s essay would have it addressing primarily a British audience and proposing to writers and critics that British fiction should move closer to American and continental fiction in becoming more adventurous. Tom McCarthy’s fiction contests reigning assumptions both about the adequacy of realism and about the conventions of storytelling, but the real issue is whether it validates the premise sustaining experimental fiction (modernist or postmodernist) — that the art of fiction must remain open to change and replenishment — and extends the possibilities of literary innovation as least as persuasively as the previous efforts to affirm the spirit of modernism prior to McCarthy’s. I think it does, but it is more appropriate to think of McCarthy as continuing on a path made visible by his postmodern predecessors than blazing a new one on ground never before uncovered. McCarthy’s fiction has much to offer readers receptive to unorthodox methods and a different kind of reading experience, although its achievement is only enhanced and clarified if considered not in isolation, as a reemergence of modernism, but as a distinctive contribution to what can now only be called a tradition of adventurous practices by writers trying continually to renew the vitality of fiction as a literary form.

Remainder, the book that first brought attention to McCarthy as a novelist, certainly seemed more European than British, although the influence of DeLillo also seems especially strong in the extremity of the novel’s subject and the deadpan detachment of its style. Like most of DeLillo’s fiction, Remainder does not so far depart from recognizable reality as to completely strain credulity, edging into the surrealistic or fantastic, but the narrative pushes on the plausibly real hard enough that it takes on the atmosphere of the uncanny. Remainder’s protagonist is in such an extreme state of consciousness that he must reiterate “ordinary” experience obsessively in order to be convinced of its authenticity. He arranges for “reenactments” of that experience, so precisely and insistently detailed that they might embody the real exactly enough (more exactly than reality itself) to satisfy his brain-altered need for order (a malady brought on when, before the present narrative begins, he is struck in the head by an object “falling from the sky”). Although the plot of Remainder could be described as simply the working-out of the narrator-protagonist’s repetition-compulsion, the urgency and determination with which he carries out this compulsion nevertheless makes for fascinating reading.

The protagonist of McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, does not initially show signs of sharing such a compulsion, although as a “corporate anthropologist” he is someone who is trained to observe closely and discern patterns and hidden meaning. Calling himself “U,” he seems to be functioning well enough in his role as member of a team working on “the Project,” identified by name as “Koob-Sassen,” the ultimate details of which remain murky, even if its ambitions are clearly far-reaching and possibly sinister. Yet we also can’t help but note U’s descriptive rigor when recording his observations of the environments he traverses. Upon entering his employer’s offices he finds

Separated from each other by floor-to-ceiling glass partitions on which lower-case letters in the Company’s own distinctive font were stenciled, these compartments ran on one into the next, creating an expansive vista in which, sketches, diagrams, and other such configurations of precious data, lying face-up on curved tabletops, pinned to walls or drawn on whiteboards, or, occasionally (and this made the data seem all the more valuable, fragile even), on the glass itself, seemed to dialogue with one another in a rich and esoteric language, the scene conveying (deliberately, of course) the impression that this was not only a place of business, but, beyond that, a hermetic zone, a zone of alchemy, a crucible in which whole worlds were in the mix. . . .

This perception of reality in its “configurations,” interpreting these configurations as if they expressed a “rich and esoteric language,” is a trait U holds in common with Remainder’s protagonist, although he continues to act more as a dispassionate observer than a fully engaged participant in the active creation of the patterns and relationships that form his experience of the world.

U as well works for a company that itself seeks to assert itself by exploiting patterns and relationships, hence its need for someone like U to study structures and systems, “identifying these, prising them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light,” assisting the Company in its ability “to contextualize and nuance,” to advise its clients, both private and public, “how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies.” Koob-Sassen “involved many hook-ups, interfaces, transpositions . . . It was a project formed of many other projects, linked to many other projects — which renders it well-nigh impossible to say where it began and ended, to discover its ‘content,’ bulk, or outline.” Nevertheless, “there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this.” Satin Island thus differs from Remainder in embedding the story of U’s preoccupation with patterns, grids, and networks in the context of global capitalism and the control of information.

While a critique of neoliberalism and the hegemony of transnational capitalism is certainly implicit in Satin Island, the novel mostly keeps the Company and its workings in the background, aside from the occasional appearances of the “boss,” Peyman, the Company’s “public face and poster boy,” whose aphorisms act as the clearest indication of what Koob-Sassen likely entails: “What are objects? Bundles of relations.” “The end point to which [design] strives is a state in which the world is one hundred percent synthetic, made by man for man, according to his desires.” The realities of the new capitalist world order are graphically illustrated in the story U’s current lover tells of the abuse she suffered while participating in a protest at a G-8 summit, although this episode ultimately seems rather heavy-handed, too transparently a departure from the portrayal of the Company as an ominously mysterious entity whose tentacles reach everywhere but whose body remains in the shadows. This portrayal might be derivative of Pynchon and DeLillo, but even granting that the woman’s account is chilling enough, that account sacrifices the subtlety and provocative indeterminacy employed by these writers, making too explicit what might stay implicit in U’s process of self-examination.

While ostensibly U is narrating his attempt to write the “Great Report,” a text that will explain everything about the present era, his story eventually becomes the narrative of U’s disillusionment, not just with the prospect of writing this book, not just the very idea that such a book is actually possible to write, but with his own role in the larger Project, which he comes to see as anti-human. This process comes to its culmination after U has a dream in which he is flying in a helicopter over a gigantic complex that turns out to be a massive trash dump, a “glowing ooze, which hinted at a deeper, almost infinite reserve of yet-more-glowing ooze inside the trash mountain’s main body.” This is Satin Island. Realizing that the name must surely be a dream-filtered reference to New York’s Staten Island, when he finds himself in New York City for a symposium, U ventures to the Staten Island Ferry terminal, where he envisions traveling over to Staten Island, imagining it as “some other place where everything, even our crimes, has been composted down, mulched over, transformed into moss, pasture, and wetland for the ducks and coots to build their nests in. Maybe I could somehow nest there too. . . .” He does not get on the ferry, suddenly realizing that to do so would be “profoundly meaningless,” although not going “was, of course, profoundly meaningless as well.”

Finally Satin Island could be called the story of its protagonist’s psychological shift, from an initial state of reluctance to examine his commitment to “meaning” as a coherent concept whose fulfillment is possible to a willing acknowledgement of the essential meaninglessness of human activity, no matter how many patterns, connections, and orderly arrangements we think we see. It might be called a story about the loss of innocence, and as such the novel is finally not very formally adventurous. But McCarthy’s innovations are not at the level of narrative structure (events in his novels happen sequentially, however bizarre they might appear to be at times), but instead in the way he represents interior states not through conventional strategies of psychological realism (free indirect discourse, stream-of-consciousness) but by in effect exteriorizing state of mind in his first-person narrators’ preoccupation with spatial constructs and sensory configurations, as if they are projecting onto the world their irresistible need for perceptible reality to cohere, for things to add up.

This preoccupation is registered directly in the narrators’ language, their minute observations and often intricate descriptions. McCarthy’s prose style may be his most original achievement, its expository and descriptive powers compelling attention while also challenging common notions of “poetic” prose:

Staten Island was no longer grey, and it had grown: the sun was right behind it now, haloing it, transmuting it into a brilliant orange pool that spread across the harbour like a second mass of water, ones set on a slightly different plane that spilled across the first one when the two planes intersected. This pool of light was spreading right towards the ferry, swallowing it up, dismantling it, pixel by orange pixel. Its haze spread even further, past the boat’s still-discernible stern, turning the ferry’s wake, and those of other vessels, a metallic, silvery shade. There were scores of wakes, crossing each other in irregular and tangled patterns.

The essentially geometric figurations in U’s evocation of New York Harbor as he prepares to leave the terminal — superimposed planes, intersecting patterns — captures U’s way of apprehending the world while also providing us with an alternative perspective on what could be just another lyrically rendered scene. At the same time, immediately following U’s notation of the “irregular and tangled patterns,” he adds further: “Networks of kinship: the phrase flashed across my mind; I snorted in derision.” That the patterns now appear irregular and tangled, that he now dismisses his previous belief in “networks,” suggests that U has had a revelation of sorts, even if it is the revelation that the overarching explanation he seeks will not be revealed. In this way, the protagonist of Satin Island, unlike the protagonist of Remainder, is allowed to abandon his illusions. Whether this represents an advance in McCarthy’s art or a retreat to a more familiar sort of narrative device perhaps remains to be seen.


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