Remainder

The premise behind this book is one you might think you’ve encountered before: its main character (who narrates in the first person, and I think remains unnamed otherwise) begins by explaining that he’s recently been struck on the head in an industrial accident of some sort, and it’s caused him some memory loss.  I think that’s more or less also how Fifty First Dates gets off the ground.  There are some other surface-level similarities actually.

The book starts off as a straightforward allusion to Ulysses.  It’s strange that with both of these two books (Remiander and C) there’s been this very deliberate sense of intentionally derivative thematic content.  In chapter one, the protagonist’s apartment is taken over by his visiting friend.  In chapter two, he goes to his lawyer’s office, where he gets paid an enormous settlement and then also receives some unsolicited advice about what to do with that money, a la Stephen’s professor Deasy (there’s also a soccer game taking place in the background at some point).  Chapter three involves some extended introverted stream-of-consciousness while the protagonist walks the streets of London, and in the last line, the word “usurper” is conspicuously used (the same thing happens at the end of the “Proteus” episode).

Where the book goes from there, though, is best described as an abrupt left turn.  If there’s any sort of Joycean tie-in, it’s that the narrator begins to pursue what Stephen Deadalus terms “the reality of experience,” but in a most unusual way.  Having received a settlement of 8.5 million pounds (the book is set in London) for various reasons, the narrator becomes obsessed with the notion of “reenacting” experiences he’s been through before.  This starts when he’s at a party one night, and in the bathroom, he sees a crack above the mirror that transfixes him with a spinal tingling and an unshakable sense of deja vu.  He says it reminds him of a time when he felt very comfortable, not conscious or contemplative about his actions, but just able to act authentically.  The obvious connection I drew was to Proust’s “madeleine” moment (I think a crack on the sidewalk is what stirs M. to action in Volume 7, but I don’t remember for sure), and in a way, the rest of the book is the attempt to recreate moments like this, but instead of through impressionistic self-conscious prose, music, sex, and the other means M. pursues those moments, we get this weirdly corporate take on all this, like, an exploration of how M.’s novel would have gone if he had millions of dollars at his disposal and a society that had been streamlined to appeal to everyone’s preferences, regardless of their merit or relative level of strangeness.  Another way to see this is – the project he undertakes is not all that different than the project of obsessive reconstruction of the city of Dublin in June 16, 1904 that Ulysses as a whole represents.

The narrator retains an agent who works for a firm that arranges things for rich people, usually more like appointments, press conferences, airport pickups and that sort of thing.  Instead of all this, the narrator hires this agent to help him secure the necessary resources to “re-enact” (though it’s not clear such a thing was ever “enacted” in the first place) a whole situation the narrator has a dim sense that he’s previously lived.  This involves an apartment building with an apartment and the aforementioned crack, but also two downstairs neighbors, one of whom cooks liver that you can smell through the windows all the time, and the other who is a piano teacher and performer who obsessively practices Rachmaninoff, often making mistakes and starting over.  There are also a set of other people and cats that can be seen on the roof.  They spend weeks engaging actors, painting rooms and getting this apartment building they’ve purchased for 3 million pounds to look just as the narrator wants it.

After this, he begins to revel in the experience of being able to live just as he’d like within this apartment building, walking to and from different parts of it, having casual conversations with the actors, smelling the liver, and whatever else he wants to do.  It is a sort of reverse Truman Show – it’s a fake world the narrator has willingly, even obsessively, encased himself in.  He turns the apartment building “on” and “off” by letting his agent know when he’d like the actors to perform, and when he’d like them to stand down.  Sometimes these “re-enactments” succeed, and sometimes they fail to generate the spinal tingling sensation he remembers from the first time he saw the crack above the mirror.

Through the course of the novel, he ends up building a few other elaborate re-enactments, including a customer service experience at a tire (sorry, “tyre”) shop, and then a shooting that took place on the streets near his house weeks before.  He places himself in the center of the action, actually wanting to be the one who gets shot.  This eventually reaches such a level that they stage a bank robbery at a mock bank they’ve built in an empty warehouse near Heathrow Airport, and then ultimately, “for real”, in the sense that they use a real bank to “reenact” a robbery.  The bank employees don’t know about the intention behind the “reenactment” though, and things go wrong when one of the most obsessively re-created portions of the robbery – one of the robbers half-tripping over the carpet – fails because in the “real” bank, there’s no carpet to trip over.  Someone is accidentally shot, and things end in disaster as he and his agent flee to a private jet they had previously arranged to “reenact” escape on, and the novel ends with the plane repeatedly driving back and forth between the gate and the runway as they “pretend” to hijack the plane, and the narrator seems pleased with the continual turning around of the plane, and the slight spilling of coffee it causes each time it turns.

Suffice it say that’s just not what I expect to find in a book when I pick it up to read it.  What to take from it?

One thing that recurs in the book a few times is something that I think most of us do.  He goes to visit a “Seattle-themed coffee chain” that has a loyalty program involving a card you get punched every time you purchase a coffee.  The first time he’s there (this is London, so it’s somewhat believable that at this point in his life, this is the first time he’s done this) he’s fascinated by the mechanistic and repeatable nature of the interaction you have when you’re there.  You place your order, someone repeats it, then then it’s repeated a third time when you pick up your coffee at the bar.  We can also add to this the punching of the loyalty card.  He ends up returning over and over again to different franchises, and ultimately, it’s just because he wants the loyalty card punched, to get a free drink but (more importantly, to him anyway) to get another loyalty card and start the process over again.

This I found a very realistic and identifiable sort of thing that happens to me a lot, whether consciousness or not.  It stands in a metaphorical relationship to the obviously absurd content of the rest of the book.  Yes, we could imagine the rest of the events happening, in the sense that if someone had enough money, they could hire people, buy an apartment building and spend their day intentionally running into their fake downstairs neighbor and having a casual conversation over and over again.  That could happen, but it’s obviously a novelistic conceit.  The Seattle-themed coffee bar visit though, and the pleasure taken in getting one’s loyalty card punched, hits a little closer to home.

What the Seattle-themed coffee bar motif does, for me anyway, is show me that really, the rest of life in our world is not that much different from this obsessive trauma victim’s.  It’s almost as though the trauma-victim thing is just an elaborate red herring, a way to get you to keep reading while you experience his life as somehow radically other, because, presumably, something is seriously wrong with him.  There are some strange scenes where he apparently loses consciousness during these reenactments, gets so engrossed in them that he loses his sense of reality, and awakens after having passed out.  Sometimes there is a doctor there, but the outlines of the doctor’s character are only vaguely drawn, and nothing is ever said conclusively about his condition.  There’s also a scene where he talks to a local city councilman, one who begins asking him if he’s an artist.  But ultimately, there’s on real resolution offered that depends on his status as a trauma victim.  It just slowly dawns on you that you are sort of like this too.

Probably the most haunting part of the book is that actually, for the most part anyway, no one questions his desire to construct these elaborate scenarios, scenarios which, by the end, require the hiring of more than one hundred people and may result in their murder.  His agent never even utters a word of protest, only ever asking exactly what is wanted, and how it might be executed.  The doctor and the politicians are both marginal presences, and I don’t think that’s coincidental at all.  There is never any sort of explanation offered for the obsessive desire to reenact these mundane scenarios.  The instrumental reasoning of the agent’s logistics becomes all-consuming and self-justifying, medicine, politics, law or ethics be damned.

Maybe this will seem obvious but – what the Seattle-themed coffee scenario’s actual (as opposed to staged) reenactment demonstrates is – at the heart of consumer culture is an obsessive desire to conduct just these sorts of reenactments.  We want everything to “feel” like something we vaguely sense has come before.  Think about all the false nostalgia that surrounds the construction of new baseball stadiums, for example, or the way that certain tourist areas are designed to be “authentic” reconstructions of things long gone.  There’s a way in which the narrator of the story is trying to construct his own Colonial Williamsburg out of his own life, and since he has the resources to do so, actually gets pretty far along in that project.

But then – isn’t that our world?  Even in the early 90’s The Truman Show or The Matrix still felt shocking – like, we would have wanted to know if someone had created such a fake world around us, and led us to believe it was real.  I’m not so sure that this would resonate as a theme today.  I think we might even make a reality show out of someone like the narrator, who wants this life for himself and his family.  We would even valorize that desire, and see in its single-mindedness some sort of heroism.  We go to our own Seattle-themed coffee establishments and punch our own loyalty cards, and get really frustrated when the “guest experience” (this is how corporate America talks about it more and more) doesn’t go as planned.  And no one asks why.  Our preferences are beyond reproach, beyond even naming.  Whether they correspond with anything real has, in many instances, ceased to matter.

Again – just like with C – this might sound like a trite conclusion, but there is something fundamentally unnerving about the way this book raises it.  The Matrix doesn’t really force its way into your consciousness; you’re clear where you stand the whole time, within your reality.  But with Remainder especially, it’s deployed using a style that is at once surreal but also totally mundane, and again, that seems to be Tom McCarthy’s best trick.

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