Sunday, January 28, 2007

Room to Live (Remainder by Tom McCarthy)

I've finally got round to reading the much lauded "Remainder" by Tom McCarthy, (Alma Books). After an accident, its narrator wins 8 and a half million pounds compensation; yet this narrow premise is really just a jumping off point for what comes next. The book is one packed with detail, often mundane, as we see the recreation of episode upon episode. In many ways, the book could have been called Deja Vu, since its this physical recreation of past (and not so past) scenes that creates the narrative. I had my own sense of deja vu, in parts, since its set in almost the exact same locale, Brixton, as my London novel, and this mundane sense of place gives an extra dimension to what is otherwise in every sense rootless. You always got the sense that the existential writings of Beckett, Camus and others was at least partly a response to the diaspora of post-war Europe, where everything from country borders to national identity had been ripped up - it seems that a new generation of writers (McCarthy is under 40), are faced with a world that is so unknowable, that the fictional response to it can only be through this kind of fascinated ennui. Whereas McEwan and Amis might use their London backdrops as credible settings for high drama, McCarthy is surely writing a more grounded and at the same time a more elevated kind of fiction. The writing is both taut, and unshowy, and it will be interesting to see if that "style" is just that of his coma-victim narrator or a constant for him. The flat, plainness will appeal to fans of Magnus Mills (of which I'm one), almost obsessively non-showy writing, yet you get the sense that McCarthy is holding in or holding back. When he releases his "bombs" they are never predictable even if you have half guessed what is coming. I read the book slowly, since I think the slow build up of non-events can be a little difficult to digest, even boring, and it might be this "ennui" rather than the forward tension of the latter quarter of the novel which kept it away from the prizes - yet its far better at doing this than Ishiguro's misfiring "Never Let you go." There's a modernity to the cultural references that is both thrillingly now, and, a bit like Mills, slightly off centre. You kind of think that McCarthy might be using "remembered" experiences rather than anything more real. The Dogstar, a Brixton institution; Psion organisers; "History Repeating" by the Propellorheads, speak of a gestation period that goes back to the last century - and, indeed the crash post-millennium also is an important plot point, that is there from the moment the narrator puts his money in the speculative area of "technology" shares. Precedents for the book must include John Fowles' iconic "The Collector" where a similarly ordinary man comes into money and uses it for less than orthodox purpose, or the re-staged car crashes of Ballard's "Crash". Here, as in "The Collector", we are drawn in by our unreliable narrator. He prods us - we like him - his fictional precedents will go back as far as Knut Hamsun's early modernist classic "Hunger". Yet, the subject matter here is far from any "brutalist" or "new puritan" manifesto. The things that our narrator wants are the stuff of reality tv shows; of "through the keyhole"; of "the Truman show". It is almost all men who have praised this novel, and I can see why in some way. The novel is about an extreme form of Obesessive Compulsiveness. There is a short ride from the narrator's obsessive recreations to the listmaking tendency of a certain kind of male; or even all the way back to the mad wall-hangings of John Nash in "A Brilliant Mind." At some point, he complains about how all his actions - even those before the accident - seem inauthentic or learnt. I don't think many women would recognise that awkwardness, but it seems almost endemic in the modern male psyche. The female characters are nearly non-existent, useless cutouts, there for only formulaic purpose. It is the men - the old friend who thinks he should spend his money on hookers; the various faceless professionals - lawyer, broker, logistics specialist, doctor, bankrobber - he calls in at various points, who are complicit in the "game" that he is involved in. Here it almost fits into that "greed literature" genre that gave us "Money" and "Bonfire of the Vanities", but it seems to only do this in fits and starts. We are in a recognisable world, which is rendered ever more mundanely, but in doing so becomes a more frightening plot. He is not creating Frankenstein's monster so much as Gatsby recreation of a dream. I'm reminded of when Gatsby's parties end, when the house is no longer anything other than an empty stage where these things were once put on. Inevitably, the book gets darker; it would not survive its own ennui, if McCarthy wasn't willing to draw us further in. Yet he does not seem particularly interested in a logically drawing back into his characters' past; more in an exploration of what horrors we are capable of when so single-mindedly following a pyrrhic objective. Like Saramago's wonderful "Blindness", allegory can only go so far; "Remainder" has to survive according to its own internal logic. That it does this, is its triumph. I'm not sure whether it has the wider canvas required to be a masterpiece; but as a first novel of a driven, if circumscribed, ambition, it succeeds admirably.

I read it bookending a weekend in London, where, despite now having an Oyster card, the travel still takes its toll. Everywhere was so busy! I remember a few years ago how empty London sometimes seemed in January, but not any more it seemed. My once favoured bookshop, in Balham, was overpriced and understocked - I fear for its health - and fear that the internet may have added interesting secondhand bookshops to its list of approved kills. Never mind; its always a little reassuring to know that London's both still there, and, at the same time, so impossible (house prices, the tube, the tired faces).

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