Remainder: Lessons at the Limits

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooner, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like having an apple; there is no intermediate remainder” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick


There was a time when it seemed that that essay by Zadie Smith – ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ – was more known and read than Remainder itself. But now, McCarthy is one of the most notable and talented British novelists writing today, and two Booker nominations go to show for it. A Booker nomination can be a mystifying accolade though, and what would this ‘avant-garde’ novelist, eschewing the reliable and persisting, lyrical realism Smith riles against , make of being nominated for such a mainstream, literary prize? Clearly his work is not antithetical nor rejecting the culture at large.

This is one of the many paradoxes central to McCarthy’s work;  Remainder is a novel that plays with the redundancy of language so it becomes a novel that has plenty to say but doesn’t say anything and more directly, a novel that has had so much said about it, it is a wonder what to say next; what it is made up of, it rejects. Smith uses James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to elucidate the issue when she says:“The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegan’s Wake did not fundamentally disturb realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry a trace of the real”

Let’s look at how it carries this trace of the real.


It’s not necessary to do a point by point summary of the plot of Remainder, and instead point toward Smith’s essay and the text itself. However, what is making this task even more subservient, is that the edition that I’m using comes with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, which will be divulged later.  We know however, that our nameless narrator (or Enactor as Smith calls him) is bequeathed a large amount of settlement money after an accident. About the accident he says “I can say very little” and  this is no journey of discovery or reconciliation. With his money, instead of any hedonistic or philanthropic impulse (as Smith notes, both feel as inauthentic as the other), he decides to reconstruct a moment, that arrives through Deja vu, or a memory that he cannot locate in any time but feels that is inherently his. The reenactments multiply, becoming reenactments of reenactments, before culminating in a bank heist in a real, working bank.

Now, A film adaptation of McCarthy’s Remainder, directed by Omer Fast, has just been released and is coincidentally the impetus for writing about the book here. Putting it into the context of a film adaptation, Remainder shows itself to be the remarkable work that it is. This question of language that was highlighted at the start becomes even more complicated in this new context. Would Jacques Ranciere confidently have written this if he had read Remainder when he wrote in The Intervals of Cinema: “Cinema has been asked to fill the dream of a century of literature…Literature has been able to carry that dream because its discourse on things and their intensities stayed written in the double game of words, which hide from the eye the palpable richness which shimmers in the mind. Cinema just shows what it shows.” Remainder is a novel that just shows what it shows and seems to ask if we’re all anxious about what is real, and if we’re even worried that subjectivity is inauthentic, why divulge and express it with more inauthentic language?

Fundamentally it is grappling with what is real in the image culture, a very classically postmodern issue. And as we witness the narrator become obsessed with dissecting and slowing each moment in his reenactments, watching him only try to grasp at this thing we call real, all that is revealed is more space and vacuity; as Smith says Remainder “makes you preternaturally aware of space” as you read it.  Look at the narrator’s continual references to cricket. Smith uses this as one of the cruxes of comparison between Remainder and the ‘other direction for the novel’ Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. But McCarthy is not trying to wedge in any postcolonial metaphor, but is instead trying to understand the sport’s relationship with space and the image. Think of the different types of images that cricket gives to its viewer; the different types of replays; not just slow motion, but super-slow-motion, along with inventions like Hawkeye and Hotspot. These images don’t change the fundamentals of the game but they transform the viewing experience of it, and now, through a referral system, can alter decisions. A replay in effect, can now change the outcome of a game, and has become part of the game, rather than just the viewing experience.

Cricket: ‘Hotspot’ showing subtle edges and marks left by the ball.

What is the real experience with the image anymore then? Let’s remind ourselves how this starts – through a moment of Deja vu – an image, or a ‘memory’, that we feel that we have already inhabited before it has happened. The narrator says that “I’d been in a space like this before, a place like this” before he recounts the moment of being in that bathroom and looking at a crack in the wall. And unlike Deja vu dissipating, it instead persists. But Deja vu is the remembrance of a thing that hasn’t happened ultimately, of the brain working before itself, or the feeling of a memory that is not located in a particular space; or is not triangulated within the schema of our linearity of past, present, or future? It is as if working on all three,  suspended above them all, working on the memory – the arbiter of the past; experience – the recognition passing of the present into the future; and desire –  the wish for something to occur. What makes it such a striking experience though is that it is deeply personal. And like a replay, like all the reenactments, it feels like it has happened before, within reality,  like the moment a batsman watches his decision overturned and is now considered out and his innings over.

The narrator is trying to understand before experiencing. This is entirely possible: look how after the accident, the narrator receives physiotherapy and begins relearning the basic motor functions that occur automatically in a process called ‘rerouting’. Here is the essential predicament summed up when he says: “[rerouting is to]cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualise things. Simple things like lifting a carrot to your mouth…Understanding this, and picturing yourself lifting the carrot to your mouth, again and again and again, cuts circuits through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. That’s the idea (my emphasis)”. He then goes on to detail all the minute possibilities that are encased within the act of putting a carrot to your mouth – twenty seven separate manoeuvres – and the thousands of imaginary carrots that he has successfully consumed. But when it comes to the actual physical carrot itself, he cannot get it to his mouth. It’s by repetition that he thinks he can understand it, reinforce it and in doing so, make it a real, manifested, repetitive action.

That’s the idea, that’s all it is, and the obsession of ideas permeates in all the reenactments.  But the transitions from an idea to the actual, physical completion of something are in different parts of the brain, and might as well be in different worlds. His world, both inside and out, is one of metaphysics and language, and although we can accept that our inner, thinking world is a foundationless one, to accept that the outer, physical world is as well is an abysmal one. This is the crisis, and it is a novel entrenched in crisis. It is embedded both locally within the novel and globally in the postmodern world. Smith says both Remainder and Netherland are enduring similar crises but playing them out very differently. Everything in Remainder is an idea, reducible to language, and not pretty lyrical language (“even my fantasies were plastic, imperfect, unreal”), a language that, even though it is the last vestige, is still stricken with inauthenticity. The narrator however is wanting and desiring to understand, but at each occasion, he’s greeted by more space that is only filled with more lyrical units.

Most books set out to answer why, or resolve, or at least through the dialectical process of reading, allow the reader to resolve. A book’s creation starts with just that though – the desire to create – and the narrator of Remainder at his core is a creator. This is where Smith and Wark converge. Remainder is typically self-conscious for its time and is effectively a creator creating a creation, but through the guise of an affable, naïve sounding narrator (McCarthy seems to have the ability to develop these effectively neurotic narrators that are implausibly limited, but at the same time affable and likeable). Wark addresses this more directly though when he says: “Creation once had a particularly exalted range of meaning. It is what God does. Remaining has more lowly connotations. Those not chosen come Judgement Day remain behind…” before adding that they become “unwanted books sold at knockdown prices are Remainders.” He says therefore that the questions that Remainder asks are: who gets to create? And when something is created, what remains, or is left behind? Furthermore, even if it is in the real physical world, is it real?

It is easy to look at this through the lens of postmodernity and ideology. This is a person who has an excessive amount of money and is investing it in these meaningless endeavours in an attempt to create meaning. The result is more surplus, debris, excess, indeed – remainders. But since the turn of modernity, we believe that we have the will to power, not a divine, invested power through a God. This sense of creation and being a creator is continually criticised, but what’s more, a criticism of critique is underway. The dispensation and availability of different theories to apply to the Remainder and the novel in general  is further adding to this sense that all is beneath us is more theory, or more language (McCarthy takes this even further in his latest novel Satin Island). Marxist, Feminist, Poststructuralist, Freudian, or even Theologically, there is no way one to understand, but there’s only one way to do it.

What does feel real however is the sense of anxiety (you may ground this in psychoanalytic interpretation) and as Smith talks of Netherland, even though there is a real anxiety there, it eventually reminds us of our ‘beautiful plenitude’, where Remainder resolves nothing and instead aspires to be more debris, or even, junk. Here is where the naivety of the narrator comes in: if it is a novel that is self-conscious, it doesn’t understand itself as a novel, and the creator doesn’t understand himself as a creator. Yet there is a palpable anxiety, because there is a desire withheld, which we may call creation and accept all of that words umbrage, from artistic to Freudian connotations.  What adds to it, is that he is not fully conscious of this anxiety, yet the reader is and feels it right till the very end and beyond. There is, as said nearer the start, no realisation or completion and although the creator produces a text, he doesn’t realise it. He is back to the problem of understanding and doing; he is doing and writing a novel, not understanding the implications of doing so, resulting in a novel that is not, by modern realist standards, necessarily a good one.

This is of course purposefully done by the real creator, Tom McCarthy. But where people like McCarthy and David Foster Wallace began diverging from the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, is that they stop-short of there being some kind of fictive Other on which to project, regardless of the aesthetic of that Other. Think of the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in DeLillo’s White Noise or the Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero mail systems (one fact, one fiction) in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: we know that they are ironic fictions, but there is something there and somewhere to project all this anxiety onto. Whether this is the grounding or not for the obsessive reenactments, but repetition is  born out of a desire and an anxiety to understand, in the same way writing a novel is born out of a desire to understand the self and the world. The anxiety acknowledged becomes intensified, even if the narrator doesn’t recognise it as so. Early modernity at least allowed there to be a private self but Remainder doesn’t; what isn’t private is unconscious.

Where it may become more a matter of ideology might be illuminated by some of the work Wark has done on the Situationists International (SI), mainly in his books ‘The Beach Beneath The Street’ (2011: a Situationist slogan, ironically used as an epitaph in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice) and ‘The Spectacle of Disintegration’ (which i’m going from here). The SI were a Marxist organisation that tried to counter the fact that capitalism had become so advanced that it had venerated not just labor and production, but every aspect of life and culture. But where Marx may have grounded his critique of society in philosophy, Guy Debord, the figurehead of the SI, ground his in culture. In his manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle (1968) Debord wrote, “the spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living”. There is clear influence from the likes of Lefebvre and consequently on people like Baudrillard, but capitalism had become so dominant and pervasive that culture had become commodified. Or rather, life, or the experience of it has. Remainder is at least aware that it is mixed up within the garble of slogans and commodification.


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

And yet, with all these remainders and reminders the novel is centred on the fact that there is no remainder for him after the accident and the fleeting moment he initially has in the bathroom is without substance. Watch how the final scene shows how we need no precedent for there to be experience, or for that matter, a remainder. In the rehearsal for the bank heist there is a kink in the carpet that the actor repeatedly trips over, but when it comes to the actual heist, the kink is not there, which still causes the actor to fall and ruin the heist. The narrator in his perennial naivety says:“But it was a re-enactment. That’s the beauty of it. It became real while it was going on. Thanks to the ghost kink, mainly – the kink the other kink left when we took it away”.  Remainder is like a Mobius strip, and even though there’s no definitive starting point, everything has an idea and a desire, and as a result, a remainder. This is why this ‘avant-garde’ novel is so central to late, postmodern culture, because like Warhol’s Soup Cans, it is so eminently made up of it. All the stuff of it.

But there is something real that comes from this; there are real traces and remainders out there to remind us of all our creations. Wark opens his account of the legacy of the Situationists International, The Spectacle of Disintegration  with a description of the Great Pacific garbage patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is nothing more than a great mass of dispensed litter. Feeling related in some ethereal way, McCarthy warns in the acknowledgements to his latest novel Satin Island (2015) that all his books are regurgitated ideas and theories. There is some fun to be had in finding the traces in Satin Island. 

This is perhaps a real, reluctant lesson to be taken from Remainder.  After all, there is an experience of it. Experience is unique in that it is formed by our past, present and future, and sometimes they’re like kinks in a carpet, can only happen before we understand what it means. But understanding just means more language and relativity. Experience cannot simply be transformed into words: that is a reluctant, real, transcendent matter.

Remainder directed by Omer Fast, and starring Tom Sturridge is out now. A new edition of Remainder (originally published in 2005) by Tom McCarthy, with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, has just been published by Alma.

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy is published by Vintage.

McKenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration (2013) is published by Verso.


Review: The Tower – Alessandro Gallenzi.

The ‘well researched’ novel, sounds a serious, humorless thing. Alessandro Gallenzi, clearly draws on inspiration from his time in publishing, like he did in his previous novel Bestseller, and also on some meticulous research of a time gone by for his new novel, The Tower.

Principally, it is the late fifteen hundreds. Giordano Bruno, revolutionary thinker, inspired by the Copernican revolution thinking about the world and the Universe outside the  dominant paradigm of creationism, is being pursued for being a heretic. Alternating between the seven years of Giordano’s trial, and the present day story of Peter Simm’s and assistant Giulia Ripetti, they search for one of Giordano’s missing documents in Amman, Jordan.

Not that the two narrative arcs mirror each other completely, but mirroring the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in the 1590’s , is that of the ‘The Tower’ in the present day. It is going to be the tallest building in the world and Gallenzi describes it’s come to existence as “it [money] flowed from banks, from hedge funds, from private equities and from shareholders’ pockets all over the globe. That was the invisible sap pushing up this rootless, preposterous tree in the middle of the desert.” Here, a vast digitization project is being undertaken, where they plan to scan every text in the world in a digital library. Although, Google is referenced once as a potential rival, it sounds a lot like Google, but with a conspicuous sounding name (Biblia).

One of Bruno’s texts goes missing, along with priest sent by the Vatican to study them, and Peter and Giulia are plunged into this mystery. It sounds slightly Dan Brown, and even more Dan Brown, when Giulia finds a conspiratorial ‘message’ left in her Bible
“There was a dead earthworm cut in half. Either side of it, the words BOOK and WORM were scrawled in what appeared to be blood.” A literary illuminati.

But the book, thankfully is not Dan Brown, although Peter and Giulia’s relationship is at times an underdeveloped cliché. If anything, it’s a satire of the Dan Brown inflicted publishing world, marketed (maybe jokingly) as a thriller, because that would be to undermine it. What the two towers represent, if anything, is the imposing ideologies of the two worlds Peter, and Giordano represent. For Giordano, it’s obviously religion. But for the present world, although slightly insinuative that religion has a part to play in it, it is the wealth, the internet, the mega-corporations. So it would be crass to call it all Orwellian, but the present day scenario Gallenzi constructs certainly is. It is essentially ludicrous, but that is some of the beauty of it, “Our ambition is to have all the world’s books, magazines, newspapers, manuscripts digitized by the year 2020.” Implausible sounding but all too real, and sounded off by a mawkish American, Gallenzi uses the tower to make visible what we cannot see – the invisible, operating in cyberspace, or the deep bowels of government to keep information free from access.

It is a grand caricature. It might be slightly thrilling for you, in this world of metaphor. Giordano’s great theory is built on this idea of pictures and images “he simply thought that human language is weak limited. He believed in the power of images.” Bruno, the great mnemonic sounding early Wittgenstein. Because, although it might not necessarily be a thriller, Gallenzi does have a tendency to unnecessarily kill the pace. There are the paragraphs of rhetorical questioning, some pushing a page, that become as frustrating as they do stultifying. For the two narrative arcs as well, due to the length, they feel slightly undercooked (it has to be noted that there is a twelve page historical end note which cuts the fiction off at 299 pages). But as a suspected terrorist climbs the tower, you’re forced to ask yourself, who is the terrorist. Where are the freedom of information fighters?

There are many different ways you can read the whole novel. I saw it as a satire; a satire of Christianity; a satire of the internet age; a satire of google; a satire of publishing; even a satire of the Dan Brown novel. And as Freud said, a joke is a serious thing, and within The Tower, the well-researched novel, there is a serious message that deserves to be read.

The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi (311 pp.) is published by Alma Books and is out now (£12.99 rrp.). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Men of Mountains: Buddhaland Brooklyn, a review.

 Our world may appear more accessible an open, thanks to the lens of a T.V camera projecting us into cultures, in the safety of our homes, but we are arguably still as divided and ignorant as we once were. Building on the success and themes of his first book, The One Hundred Foot Journey, in Richard C.Morais fish out of water tale, from eastern recluse (to the western reader at least) to the  hubbub of the western world.

Unlike Morais’ first book though where food was the central metaphor, its scarcity and abundance, it is religion in Buddhaland. Reverend Oda (not Reverend yet, but to save confusion we’ll refer to him as Reverend Oda throughout) is surrounded by nature and the flowing of the Kappa-Gawa river. The whole first paragraph is a watery metaphor ‘it suggests there are times when we float lightly along life’s surface, bobbing from one languid, long pool to another’ and also immediately alluding to the Buddhist way of life.

Life is basic: living in the elements which all seem to be at conflict with one another; earth, wind, water and eventually fire. Along with  this, and the young Oda’s growing understanding of Buddhism, Morais uses his first chapter, which is almost embryonic – In a Bildungsroman fashion, Morais first introduces Oda to the west in the fashion of tourists,
“Buried deep into the world view she passed onto her children – unfathomable considering the nature of the family business – was a particular visceral disgust for Americans, those bumbling barbarians who somehow defeated Japan. She would rail about how they had ruined our beloved ancient culture, about the evils of their modern technology and the way they introduced twentieth century consumerism”.
There irony is of course that it is inevitable Oda will have to go to America, despite him expressing this level of xenophobia. Growing up with his family in the rural, mountainous  town of Katsaurao,
Morais obliges Oda with the metaphorical breaking of the ties of his family when they are killed in a fire. With the amount of water on display in the first chapter, the fire attacks the fragile structures of the homes to shocking effect, setting up Oda for his eventual alienation.

Orphaned, Oda moves to live in the local priesthood, where he immerses himself in the Buddhist teachings under the tutelage of the senior acolytes and on the provision of his painting skills and the prospect of residing permanently in the head temple at Mount Nagata goes to Tokyo University of Arts. The fish is slowly leaving the water and his predispositions to western culture are challenged again as ‘the european students were bovine at best…but it was through living in extremely close quarters with loud and drunk english students” Interestingly, whilst seeing the worst of western academia, he see’s some of the best, being introduced to the romantic poets of Keats, and Byron. Ironically deployed again, as Oda, on one of the few occassion’s experiences what he believes to be love is nothing but a fallacy and he recoils back into the purity of Buddhism, away from the seemingly western, commercialised creation. The love of his home and family seems be the only viable definition of love. 

After a slightly implausible jump in years, Oda is informed that he is to go to America to supervise the building of a Buddhist temple in Brooklyn, which comes after a timely earthquake. The world is gradually becoming more commercial and nationalised to Oda though. Before he leaves, his superiors driver round in ‘flashy German cars’ and not in the Toyota’s which would have course been native to Japan. In the developing style of the novel from, to use that word again, embryonic in the sense of its recluse, it could be determined that Oda’s gradually growing conscience is opening his eyes to this materialism. Oda’s departure is immediately consumed and in foreign territory ‘I moved to raise my hand in return, but before it was fully up the taxi was swallowed by the dark wet woods of the west’.

Morais has set Reverend Oda’s transmission from the secluded east to the busy west. The world he depicts when he arrives is immediate and Reverend Oda feels isolated in this busy world and where the river ran through his old town, in America this is a train line.
“After the long stillness of my life at the temple of everlasting prayer , Brooklyn appeared through the haze of my jet lag as a singularly beligerent attack on my central nervous system. It was the noise of smells of New York that in particular so overwhelmed me, and I found myself wincing or jumping nervously each time a train rattled by the window, or the upstairs neighbour came thumping down the stairs or the pipes in the building began to clang loudly.”
Reverend Oda’s, or even Morais’, America is one of many, different people, but it is one full of individuals, each caring for their own goals and achievements. This is most successfully evident with the construction of the temple, as the architecture of America imposes itself on the conscience of Reverend Oda ‘it hurt my neck to bend back like that and I felt quite alone in the world. The buildings looked to me like monsters striding across the earth; I was little more than a tiny insignificant animal scurrying around in their dark shadows’. If the temple was to be personified like that of the buildings already there in America, (the architecture and skyline of New York and Manhattan is recognisable to most people) then it is the small temple trying to build its reputation and structure like Reverend Oda himself. Reverend Oda is continually tackling bureaucracy, either from the government or from other members of the Buddhist’ sect in Brooklyn, determined to see the temple done in their way rather than Oda’s. Morais successfully depicts this western world of individualism. The over abundance of wealth and food, as Reverend Oda is continually put into scenes of over excessiveness andthe over examination of social situations involving a slightly implausible but comedic scene (one trepidates calling it postmodern) where he attends a fashion show in the company of the press.

Sometimes Morais, pleasing, if adjective abundant prose is Dickenesian, in its scope of Brooklyn and its characters and inhabitants, but then it can border on the clunky on banal. For instance, at the start of chapter 9, the end of the summer season is nigh, and the freedom of the lights and heat that the summer brings, as he juxtaposes a paragraph describing children playing in a fire hydrant with ‘But it was all coming to an end. The US stock markets fell’, and with that there is no implication of what this means for Reverend Oda, or the construction of the temple, and doesn’t add to the social context. He is also prone to continually starting a paragraph or sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ that comes across as lazy rather than stylistic

The first person narrative is quite restrictive in that the other characters that Morais’ creates are not fleshed out. They seem to be ushered in and out of Reverend Oda’s scenery to present problems to him when Morais needs to give him a moral dilemma. The biggest injustice to character is Michael who is eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic, and leads on from Morais misconstrued understanding of mental health in the first chapter. Morais gives too little time to this complex issue, and would have profited from devoting it as the main story,or leaving it out altogether. I believe there is definitely something to be said about religion and mental health and the way it is understood and treated in different cultures, but here was not.

Still, there is a lot to be gained from the novel. Morais has a good turn of phrase, and it avoids being a nauseating Buddhist self help book, even satirizing it. Besides this it is a good steady piece of contemporary fiction that boasts that summer read feel, and who knows, maybe beyond.

Buddhaland Brooklyn (282pp) is published by Alma Books for £12.99 and is out now. Thank you to them for their review copy.