Patrick Ness finds much to admire in Tom McCarthy’s refreshingly idiosyncratic word-of-mouth hit, Remainder
by Patrick Ness, Guardian, Saturday August 12, 2006
Tom McCarthy’s splendidly odd novel has finally reached bookshop shelves via an unnecessarily protracted route. Unable to get past the sceptical marketing departments of the large UK publishing houses, Remainder was first printed in France last year by underground imprint Metronome in a run of just 750 copies. Savvy literary types in this country sought it out, hailing the book’s originality and voice, and in turn catching the eye of brand-new UK independent publisher Alma Books, which snapped it up as one of its first titles. A deal with US publishing giant Vintage followed, this hardcover version is now out here, and lo, a quirky, word-of-mouth hit is born.
If the ultimate outcome is inspirational, the need for it is depressing. How many other pleasingly off-kilter books are out there, unknown and unpublished? Surely the price of having to put up with Jordan as a “novelist” ought to be that her profits should provide major publishers with the resources to take chances on books intelligent people might actually want to read?
Remainder – hurrah – is one of those books. Its unnamed narrator has suffered a traumatic event. He can’t describe the event – though it involves “something falling from the sky” – both because he can’t remember it happening and because his £8.5m settlement from the company involved prohibits him from discussing it. He has spent months in a coma, then more months relearning how to move his body, losing in the process the art of “just being”. At a loose end, he goes to a party and sees a crack in a wall. Filled with overwhelming déjà vu, he copies the crack on to a piece of paper and takes it home with him, his hands tingling in “a mixture of serene and intense”. He realises that for a brief instant he has “been real – been without first understanding how to try to be”.
The crack triggers memories of a building where he may or may not have lived, and he sets about recreating it in every last detail, including cats on a neighbouring roof lounging in the sun and the woman below him who cooked liver all day. Using his settlement and enlisting the help of a logistics expert, he buys two whole buildings, moves out every tenant, recreates the exact interior design of his memories, and – with the help of an ever-increasing staff – hires actors on 24-hour call to re-enact small, insignificant actions such as the setting down of a rubbish bag.
The re-enactment is a success, giving the narrator a brief but potent connection to reality. So begins a re-enactment addiction, starting with events as banal as a trip to a petrol station through to the recreation of a shooting in his Brixton neighbourhood. He even starts re-enacting the re-enactments. It can only be a matter of time before things veer out of control.
But is all as it seems? The narrator is haunted by the smell of cordite; there are characters who might not be real; and he begins to fall into catatonic trances brought on by the re-enactments. Is this purgatory? Did he in fact die in the traumatic event? McCarthy wisely lets the question remain open, finding instead a marvellous closing image of a plane flying a figure of eight – which, of course, is also the symbol for infinity.
There are some bumps on the way. The randomness of the re-enactments may be philosophically sound, but it drains more momentum than it should. And the final re-enactment of a bank robbery, while asking interesting questions about perceived reality, drifts too far into blunt Chuck Palahniuk territory to be as satisfyingly subtle as what has gone before. Still, this is a refreshingly idiosyncratic, enjoyably intelligent read by a writer with ideas and talent. And even after McCarthy’s non-fiction success this year with Tintin and the Secret of Literature, it’s a novel that could so easily have missed out on being published here. It’s a forgotten axiom that pre-Harry Potter no one was looking for books about boy wizards. One publisher took a chance, et voilà, the biggest success in modern publishing history. Surely the trick lies not in finding yet more Dan Brown or Cecelia Ahern derivatives to shove on us, but in being the one who introduces us to the first Tom McCarthy.
· Patrick Ness’s latest book is Topics About Which I Know Nothing (Harper Perennial)