To say that Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is a philosophical novel, or that it’s philosophy disguised as a novel, is misleading. For one, there’s very little over philosophizing in it, as you might find in a novel by Milan Kundera or Iris Murdoch. The characters here never discuss Neo-Platanism or Nietzsche or anyone like that. Instead, the philosophy is so ingrained into the texture that, for much of the novel, you’ll hardly notice it’s there at all.
The book begins in a lurch, with the narrator explaining that he’d recently been involved in a horrific accident that he has little or no memory of. From what he understands, he was an innocent bystander, someone in the wrong place in the wrong time. His whole system has been so throttled by the incident that he has to relearn much of what it means to be a human. Walking, for example, becomes a conscious chore. The problem is, he doesn’t quite relearn everything.
In the first chapter, the narrator is given 8.4 million pounds by the people who are responsible for the incident, the hitch being that he cannot press further charges or in any way incriminate them any further. If this sounds like a Faustian arrangement, it is. With the large sum of money (in US dollars I think it comes out to something like $13,766,760) he can do everything, especially because, with his mind off the track, it barely registers to him that he should save some of it.
Where most people in this situation would buy a mansion or sportscars, he, on a night like any other, suddenly gets it in his head that it’s imperative he recreates a place that exists in his memory. What’s interesting is, the memory is disconnected–it’s like a floater in your eye you try to catch. The place is an apartment building, but the significance is unknown to him. He says it’s not anywhere he has lived, but it may have been a place he passed through. So with his huge bundle of cash, he not only decides to remodel an existing apartment to resemble the memory, but populate the apartment with people who will pretend to be the people who lived there before.
I’ll try not to give away any more of the plot, but if you’re worried about spoilers, you might as well stop reading where you are.
To say that Remainder is influenced by other books is hardly a put-down. It’s not derivative, but I can guess at what some of the sources were. All books have sources, so let’s not go pointing fingers about who’s stealing whose ideas. Martin Amis’ earlier novel Other People comes to mind, as that’s also about a character inexplicably bereft of memories (although with Amis’ heroine, she’s lost much of her personality, like an amnesiac). Starting a novel with such a character provides the author a way to examine the world as if it were new, without relying overmuch on cliches. Samuel Beckett’s novels often contain such a perspective, but without the concept of memory loss. Don Delillo is another whose characters frequently look at things as if they’ve never seen them before, and I’d guess that Delillo is a considerable influence on Tom McCarthy (but then, countless contemporary authors are quick to claim they cut their teeth on Delillo’s books).
The philosophical aspect of the story I’d say comes from, or at least reflects upon, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. So much of what goes on in the novel can only occur because society has become a simulacrum. Logic and immemorial ideals no longer hold sway because they’ve been rendered irrelevant by the distancing from reality–the schism, in effect–caused by our times.* Money has become such a portentous symbol that the narrator is able to have people completely disregard logic for a large sum of cash. He is able to pay people to spend hours and hours doing the same exact inane act over and over, simply so he can try to reproduce his memory.
Within the simulacrum, it is possible for the real to reassert itself. Similar to the early work of Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49 and the short story Entropy in particular) entropy plays a large role in the development in the plot. Entropy is the scientific notion (often correlated to literature and film) that everything, eventually, falls into chaos. This is sometimes called a “heat-death,” a good example would be a lightbulb. A lightbulb might seem to us to work perfectly for a long time, then burn out all of a sudden, but what’s closer to reality is that the tungsten (or whatever is used now) filament is sort of accumulating heat until it burns out. In literature and film, what entropy usually involves is a story where a strange phenomenon is introduced at the beginning, then the occurence of chaotic events escalates until it seems reality itself is coming apart at the seams and, more often that, the story capitulates into a violent act (more about this in a minute).
In literature some examples of this would be the early novels of Thomas Pynchon, as mentioned before; V. and The Crying of Lot 49 begin ordinarily enough, V. with some sailors getting tipsy at a bar, and The Crying of Lot 49 with the main character attending a Tupperware party, but then, their stories take them on wild and unpredictable quests, involving shooting crocodiles in sewers and investigating symbols drawn on bathroom stalls. Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick is another example; it begins with a man casually filling his days by filling in crossword puzzles, then it’s suggested to him that everything he knows of his banal reality is a facade.
In film, the work of David Lynch comes to mind, specifically Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. For example, with Twin Peaks, when the killer of Laura Palmer is soon to be revealed, the first storyline has neared its heat-death, and reality is coming apart, explaining why the hotel is suddenly full of sailors who look like they’re from the 40s. Another example would be the excellent Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard, where one of the early scenes that sets things in motion is the burial of a monkey, then the story ends in madness and murder.
Through violence, the real reasserts itself. Violence itself is a form of communication; it’s a language, but unlike spoken language, it doesn’t bother itself with symbols but with the real–the real being the matter that composes us. The violent act then is something that’s perpetrated by the character who can no longer stand the new symbolic order, and chooses to do something that is real only because it is irrevocable. In the words of Cool Hand Luke (another entropic story by the way) it looks like we have ourselves a failure to communicate (verbally).
I realize now the last couple paragraphs were a horrendous and ungainly tangent, but what I mean to point out is that Remainder is a striking and original novel for its ability to represent such terrifying concepts as the simulacra and entropy while not dwelling on philosophical jargon that will deter so many from learning these ideas at all.
Remainder, as I said before, is more than philosophy. Some portions are very funny, other sections are notably well-written (if you’re into that dry, Don Delillo style) and the book contains at its core a mystery that will keep you reading.
If you do like this book, it’s possible you will also enjoy:
Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
and The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer
Also one of my stories from my book The Madness of Art called Little Crescents contains a some what entropic plot, and is set in the tropics too.
*Simulacra and Simulation is, in short, a theory about how symbolic orders can and have replaced the real. The theory is too large to possibly sum up in a short space, so I’d recommend at least reading Baudrillard’s essay The Precession of Simulacra.