Lest We Forget


by Tom McCarthy
Vintage, 308 pp., $13.95 (paper)


by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Modern Library, 298 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The day came, finally. Then again, perhaps it didn’t.

—Tom McCarthy, Remainder


Like the future, amnesia has become a crowded literary terrain. Rare in life, amnesia abounds in contemporary literature and in the most stylish contemporary movies (see Christopher Nolan’s ingeniously contrived Memento, in which a man suffering from amnesia is forced to write notes to his “future” self to enable him to “remember”). The attraction of waking not to the usual flood of memories and associations like dirty dishwater but to a tabula rasa of infinite possibility is obvious, especially in a debased political/cultural era: amnesia is “a floating metaphor,” as Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia, “very much in the air.”

What might be called the amnesiac fantasy holds irresistible attractions for both writer and reader since it seems to replicate the mysterious and seductive adventure of the yet-unwritten/ yet-unread text. No living mind can be a true tabula rasa, but the yet-unknown text emulates that blankness, a promise that excites both anticipation and anxiety. The amnesiac hero frequently wakes up utterly baffled by who he is, where he is, why he has been brought to so purely existential a state:

About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know…. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole.

(Tom McCarthy, Remainder)

I had no idea who or where I was. This was no sudden revelation, no big shock. The thought…didn’t bring with it any big horror or fear…. It isn’t all coming back to me. I don’t know any of this at all.

(Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts)

The reader ideally identifies with the condition of not-knowing and must willingly suspend “disbelief” in the anticipation of what is to come. Out of catastrophic blankness, an entire world is to be constructed in which nothing will be out of place or unintended, and the initial mystery of who, where, why will be explained, or at least assigned a meaning, if only an affirmation of nothingness.

Unlike amnesiacs in life, whose fugues of pathological forgetfulness are likely to be caused by strokes, brain tumors, alcoholism, malnutrition, severe trauma to the head, and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, literary and cinematic amnesiacs have usually suffered psychological traumas, to be revealed in flashbacks; or, if they have suffered actual brain damage, like the private detective hero of Peter Abraham’s elaborately constructed mystery-suspense novel Oblivion (2005), who has “glioblastoma multiform” (a kind of brain cancer), these injuries are likely to be surmounted by an effort of will. Protagonists of amnesiac romances are not so much handicapped by their neurological defects as empowered by them to embark upon heroic quests of regaining identity, or, better yet, forging new identities.

As suffering the loss of one’s home and possessions in a fire may be romantically viewed, by those who have not had the experience, as symbolically “cleansing” and “restorative,” so too the amnesiac quest usually prefigures a radical rebirth. The amnesiac undertakes a spiritual voyage both in the world (where, like a detective investigating his own, former self, he discovers the “truth” about his family and background) and in the soul (where he discovers the truth of who he is). Through the strategies of art, what might be a grim neurological deficit becomes a perverse sort of visionary experience, and the amnesiac is a seer unencumbered by most of the minutiae of daily life that, more than censors, or hostile reviewers, is the artist’s arch enemy. This is the “nondescript cotton wool” of “non-being” noted by Virginia Woolf in “A Sketch of the Past”:

Every day includes much more non-being than being…. Although (yesterday) was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously…. As a child…my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St. Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life.1

The amnesiac hero of such books as The Raw Shark Texts and Remainder has been jolted out of the cocoon of ordinary nonbeing to live, unlike the rest of us, in a radically foreshortened present tense in which the world must be anxiously scrutinized for clues; this world is no longer nondescript, or merely background, but holds the key to the amnesiac’s identity, which is the “meaning” of his life. The amnesiac’s quest resembles the artist’s quest for inspiration; the artist must be alert to “messages” beneath the seeming disorder of the world, leaving himself open to disponibilité—availability, or chance. For it is likely to be a “chance” image or encounter that will unleash a flood of memories, and allow the amnesiac to reclaim the narrative of his life.

The wraithlike figures who drift through W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic, elegiac novels (The Emigrants, 1996; The Rings of Saturn, 1999; Austerlitz, 2001) are embarked upon quests of far more than merely personal identity. The tension in Sebald’s elaborately formal, purposefully belabored prose between what is allowed to be “known” and what has been, in Austerlitz’s words, “obliterated” gives to Sebald’s slow-moving narratives an uncanny power, for Sebald isn’t employing Kafkaesque techniques of evasion in the service of metafictional storytelling, like Jorge Luis Borges, but in the service of dredging the collective buried memories of post-Holocaust Europe.

In the harrowing tour de force Austerlitz, in which thickets of grudgingly paragraphed prose have the effect of keeping the reader at more than arm’s length, it is acknowledged by the mysteriously wounded Austerlitz that “no one can explain exactly what happens with us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are thrown open.” Though Sebald was born in 1944, in Germany, and would die in an auto accident not long after the publication of Austerlitz in 2001, it is likely to be irresistible for most readers to assume that Austerlitz is Sebald, or Sebald Austerlitz: the adopted child of a glumly reticent Welsh minister and his wife who took him in as a German Jewish child-refugee in 1939, who has been told nothing of his tragic background. As an adult, as Austerlitz’s formidable intellectual defenses begin to fail, he is forced to confront the void at the core of his (invented) personality:

It was as if an illness that had been latent in me for a long time were now threatening to erupt, as if some soul-destroying and inexorable force had fastened upon me and would gradually paralyze my entire system. I already felt in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds the disintegration of the personality, I sensed that in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from myself and the world.

Yet it isn’t for another one hundred pages of Sebald’s elegantly obfuscatory prose that the horrific vision is granted to Austerlitz, as to the reader: a fleeting memory of the Kindertransport of 1939, a glimpse of “a twin brother” seated beside him in the compartment, staring out into the dark; an unnamed twin who did not survive the long journey but “died of consumption and was stowed in the baggage net with the rest of our belongings.” Following this revelation, an overwhelming flood of memories sweeps over the awakened amnesiac, conjoined with fanatically detailed descriptions of the Theresienstadt death camp. The effect of Sebald’s obsessive lyricism is akin to making one’s way stumblingly through the artifacts of European civilization—immense, gloomy old “state” buildings, museum archives, rubble—without end. For Sebald’s amnesiacs, waking from a trance of decades will not bring a superficial “closure” but a deeper and more profound melancholy in the vision of a “chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate.”

In W.G. Sebald the amnesiac quest has its great tragic poet, yet there have been, in recent decades, in this dubious subgenre—long the province of suspense-noir films2 and plot-driven commercial fiction—any number of works of originality and distinction by such writers as Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy, In the Country of Last Things), Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans), Martin Amis (Other People: A Mystery Story), Haruki Murakami (The Elephant Vanishes, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), and more recently Steve Erickson (Amnesiascope), Thomas Palmer (Dream Science), Douglas Cooper (Amnesia), Jonathan Lethem (The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, Amnesia Moon), Karen Joy Fowler (Sarah Canary), Alan Lightman (The Diagnosis), and Nicole Krauss (Man Walks into a Room), Jeff Walter (The Zero). An amnesiac sense of disorientation characterizes the fiction of J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, and Denis Johnson.

In his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology, Jonathan Lethem suggests that “literary amnesia has European grandfathers: Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett,” but surely such “sci-fi” visionaries as George Orwell, Stanislaw Lem, and Philip K. Dick, among others, would have been writing their characteristic work in any case. One can argue that Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and the centuries-old tradition of Gothic fiction have had an equal, perhaps a greater, influence over all than Kafka and Beckett. And there is, not to be discounted, the tradition of the medical case study from Sigmund Freud to Oliver Sacks and his contemporaries, converting psychopathology into literature.


Both Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder are high-concept novels that take their amnesiac narrators on fabulist quests of identity: in Hall’s buoyant fantasy, which reads as if it were concocted by a team of media-savvy undergraduates flinging together chunks of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, Jaws, The Matrix, Memento, Harry Potter, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, and Stephen King, as well as Carl Jung, triumphant; in McCarthy’s mordant post-existential parable, less so. Both are first works of fiction by young British writers (Hall was born in 1975, McCarthy in 1969) with backgrounds in art: Hall studied art at Sheffield Hallum University and McCarthy has been associated with conceptual and performance art in London, having established the parody avant-garde International Necronautical Society3 as a sort of twenty-first century Collège de Pataphysique.

In The Raw Shark Texts, graphics and typography are an essential part of the text, which includes a thirty-eight-page flipbook of an approaching shark whose cartoon form is made up of tiny words (“memories and regrets and wishes and sadness and happiness and dreams”; see illustration on page 47). In McCarthy’s more cerebral, theory-driven Remainder, the unnamed amnesiac protagonist becomes fatally obsessed with staging “re-enactments”—a documentary trend in contemporary art (as in, for example, The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a performance piece in which Turner Prize–winning artist Jeremy Deller reprised a bloody battle between striking coal miners and police that took place in 1984 in South Yorkshire). The Raw Shark Texts ends not with a text but with a clichéd image: Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in a tender moment in Casablanca (1942), as if to suggest that, though memory-devouring sharks abound in the depths of human consciousness, the most superficial notions of “romantic love” will prevail. In the final scene of Remainder, the amnesiac protagonist has become a “re-enactor” of his own life and (imminent) death, a deranged mystic-artist for whom performances following “the same pattern,” an aesthetic gesture in the face of oblivion, are all that matters.

The Raw Shark Texts is essentially a graphic novel in prose, if not a fantasy-quest video game, in which the amnesiac narrator must piece together his past while also evading a surreal predator, a shark that chases him, even on dry land, trying to devour his memories. But the novel is also, to its very core, ingratiatingly literary: Hall pays homage to writers whom he admires, including Borges, Murakami, Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, Raymond Carver, and Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club; he has named his amnesiac protagonist’s female sidekick “Scout” in honor of the narrator of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; and by naming a monstrous villain of Victorian times Mycroft Ward (“a creature with one enormous mind inhabiting hundreds of bodies”), Hall would seem to be alluding to Mycroft Holmes, the elder, obese genius-brother of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Hall slips in the adjective “slipstream” in a swirl of watery italics in the wake of the memory-devouring shark (“The slipstream under-pull of something huge and fast suddenly drags the page down, twisting and corkscrewing it into a pulpy knot of fragments…”) to suggest a kinship with cutting-edge UK–American “slipstream” fiction, a kind of literary sci-fi or surreal fiction; the term has been applied to the work of such writers as Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, and William Burroughs, among many others. Behind the marauding shark, as a Dürer woodcut of a mouse might be said to be behind the figure of Mickey Mouse, is Melville’s Moby-Dick, another devourer of human memories; and Hall recreates, at the climax of his lengthy novel, the plot lines and climax of Peter Benchley’s Jaws.

The influence of the film Memento is most evident in early sections of The Raw Shark Texts in which the amnesiac, whose driver’s license tells him that he is “Eric Sanderson,” receives letters from the “First Eric Sanderson,” just as the amnesiac protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento writes messages to himself. But where this desperate action seems plausible in Memento, it veers into comic-book excess in The Raw Shark Texts:

New letters from the First Eric Sanderson arrived almost every day. Almost every lunchtime I would take each one and put it into a cupboard in the kitchen, unopened. Some letters were thick and fat, some fully-fledged parcels, others so small and so thin they could have only contained a single folded sheet….

Eric Sanderson’s psychiatrist, Dr. Randle (“a large clashing event of a woman”), tells him that he is suffering from “dissociative amnesia” and has had ten other episodes of it since the death of his girlfriend several years ago. But letters from the “First Eric Sanderson” warn him not to trust Dr. Randle.

Nominally an adult of approximately Steven Hall’s age, in his early thirties, Eric Sanderson behaves, through the action-adventure saga of The Raw Shark Texts, like a prepubescent Harry Potter, except not so clever and resourceful as J.K. Rowling’s boy-hero. It’s a feature of romance that boy-heroes have no financial worries, for such worries are the exclusive property of adults:

There was enough money in the bank account to pay for [an idle life] for two and a half years, maybe three. I didn’t have anything to do with bills either—everything had its date, its direct debit. Nothing at all needed to be done. I was free.

Hall’s amnesiac is a curiously stunted, sexless-seeming person despite his recollection of having “had sex” with a woman named Clio Aames, who Dr. Randle tells him was his girlfriend, three years before, on the eve of Clio’s death by drowning while snorkeling off a Greek island. His relationship with the abrasive Clio is that of a mild-mannered child to an overbearing older sister, or a mother, who insults him continuously in the guise of teasing him, calling him a “wanker,” a “geeky loser,” a “philistine,” “regional,” and “childish.” Though Clio dies, The Raw Shark Texts is the sort of novel in which the dead reappear, to engage in dialogue with the living; and, eventually, Clio returns to her amnesiac lover in the form of the mysterious Scout who is sent by an organization called the “Un-Space Exploration Committee” to be his guide in his quest to fight the memory shark and figure out who he is. Scout condescends to the amnesiac as well, calling him “stupid.”

The Raw Shark Texts presents a world in which individuals frequently exclaim “Wow!” to one another, and in which, in times of crisis, the narrator uses grisly metaphors worthy of Stephen King: “My insides felt like offal splattering down a rabbit hole.” And: “My insides were hanging slack and wet and loose under my ribs and down into my hips. My head felt even worse.” There is a vomiting scene that waits to be fully realized in cinematic special effects:

I heaved again and this time I really was sick; bile and matter and juices and oils, jellies and snots of thick green slime reeked and splattered out of me all over the black and white tiled floor.

The existential plight of Eric Sanderson can be attributed to cultural shell-shock: an overexposure to “maths,” which has led him, for instance, to track the movement of the shadow of a telegraph pole and use it to calculate the distance any given object travels in the course of the earth’s rotation. This leads to contemplation of the kind of paradox that fascinates bright, troubled adolescents:

Yesterday’s here is not today’s here…. We can never wake up in the same place we went to sleep in. Our place in the universe, the universe itself, it all changes faster and faster by the second. Every one of us standing on this planet, we’re all moving forwards and we’re never ever coming back. The truth is, stillness is an idea, a dream. It’s the thought of friendly, welcoming lights still shining in all the places we’ve been forced to abandon.

Heartfelt, lyrical, unabashedly sentimental, such passages collide awkwardly with what might be called the Stephen King franchise underlying The Raw Shark Texts: the goofy-monster shark that, for some inexplicable reason, is relentlessly stalking Eric Sanderson, first erupting out of his television set:

A violent something slammed into the far end of the sofa shunting everything sideways with a hard, wrenching pressure lurch…. The idea of the floor, the carpet, the concept, feel, shape of the words in my head all broke apart on impact with a splash of sensations and textures and pattern memories and letters and phonetic sounds spraying out from my splashdown. I went under, deep.

As in King’s novels of assault by demonic forces, effort is made on the writer’s part to evoke such assaults at length, and not glibly; though the situation might be comically far-fetched, it is rendered with the precise attentiveness to psychological states of mind worthy of a hyperventilating James Joyce:

Coming up for air and coughing out: shark. The word coming in a tangle-breathed shudder and then me screaming: help. Shark. Help me. Me screaming: oh God oh God oh God and kicking and thrashing and thrashing and screaming. And then, somehow, tumbling from the back of my desperate spark-spraying thought train, a memory….

And then it was raining, a heavy downpour of letters, words, images, snatches of events, faces, places—a forest, a late-night city—the sea around me mixing in and confusing with so much falling everything else. And me lost in there somewhere and everywhere in it all, sinking away, diffusing, losing all mind and thoughts and consciousness.

Repeatedly, Hall provides signposts, as if sensing that his readership will be both vast and young and not likely to be patient with literary subtlety. In one of his letters, the “First Eric Sanderson” helpfully explains to Eric Sanderson exactly—or almost exactly—what is stalking him, and, by extension, all of us. “The animal hunting you,” he writes, “is a Ludovician”—the word used throughout for the menacing creature.

It is an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect. This may sound like madness, but it isn’t…. I don’t know exactly how the thought fish came to be in the world, but in the wide, warm pools of society and culture, millions of words and ideas and concepts are constantly evolving…. The Ludovician is a predator, a shark. It feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self. Ludovicians are solitary, fiercely territorial and methodical hunters. A Ludovician might select an individual human being as its prey animal and pursue and feed on that individual over the course of years, until that victim’s memory and identity have been completely consumed.

Hundreds of pages of Hall’s often overwrought prose must pass before Eric Sanderson confronts his stalker-shark, at which point, literally at sea, he must “play Ahab” with his Jungian-archetype helpers: the sexy sidekick Scout (his Anima) and eccentric but benign Dr. Trey Fidorous, a “crypto-conceptual oceanologist” (Old Wise Man as played by Robin Williams) in a battered old fishing boat called the Orpheus, resembling something painted by Andrew Wyeth:

If you were to say shark-hunting boat to almost anybody in the western world they’ll visualise this exact same boat. This,” [Dr. Fidorous] rubbed a hand against a very ordinary and very real railing, “is the current collective idea of what a shark-hunting boat should be.”

My favorite of Hall’s Jungian archetypes is his “animal guide”—a wonderfully cranky old “big ginger tomcat” named Ian, who accompanies his master on the Orpheus, survives a shark attack, and is last seen headed for shore in his “carrier-inflatable dinghy.” The Raw Shark Texts is that most good-hearted of dark fantasies: one in which cranky old cats at sea in tiny dinghies will make it safely to shore, whatever the fate of their masters. (For possibly Eric Sanderson has drowned, as a news item seems to indicate, and the hundreds of pages we have endured on his account have been but a flashing of his life before his eyes.) Hall has written a parable to appeal to those readers, especially of college age, who may feel themselves both defined and possessed by the electronic technology that governs their lives and has increasingly become a repository for “memory.”


After the buoyant, boyish energies of The Raw Shark Texts, it is something of a relief to take up the minimalist, corrosively ironic Remainder. McCarthy’s amnesiac narrator, thirty years old, is said to have been a market research analyst in his pre-amnesiac life, but little is made of his employment, and, though by degrees he recovers some of his memory during the course of post-trauma therapy, nothing is made of his family or his background. For Remainder is not a psychologically intimate novel about a person, but an allegory of a contemporary Everyman whose personal background, and his personality itself, is irrelevant to his story. The details of the accident that nearly kills him—“something falling from the sky”—the narrator never learns, and what fleeting memories he experiences he has come to doubt:

Who’s to say my traumatized mind didn’t just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap—the crater—that the accident had blown?

What the amnesiac has lost is his sense of autonomy, authenticity, self; an arduous physiotherapy can “reroute” the damaged circuits of the brain, but the afflicted man has become something close to a robot: “I still had to think about each movement I made, had to understand it. No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed me that for ever, an eternal detour.” The mysterious accident has also resulted in a phenomenal financial settlement of eight and a half million pounds. For Remainder is a variant of that cruel fairy tale in which the most fantastic of wishes-come-true soon turn deadly.

By degrees the reader comes to see that McCarthy’s amnesiac figure is a “remainder”—something that has been left over, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s term de trop, something that has got “in the way” (see the climactic episode of Nausea, seemingly an influence on McCarthy). The fragmented and depressingly banal world he laboriously reconstructs out of a fleeting sensation of déjà vu is a mere remainder of a formerly living, vital world. (Just as the text McCarthy constructs out of his robotic Everyman is itself a “remainder-to-be”—“remainder” being the publishing term for the unglamorous fate of most books, a final stage in which their price is drastically reduced before pulping. McCarthy’s original title for the novel was Desastre,4 but Remainder is more inspired.)

Unlike The Raw Shark Texts, which is written according to an action-adventure formula, Remainder frequently moves with maddening slowness, as if to evoke for the reader something of the malaise and ennui of the narrator, who is unable to feel any genuine interest in a woman with whom he has been casually involved, or, indeed, in anyone or anything:

I’d spent the days…pondering what to do with the money. I’d run through all the options: world travel, setting up a business of my own, founding a charitable trust, splurging it all. None of them appealed to me in the least. What kind of charitable trust would I have founded? I didn’t feel strongly about any issues…. I wasn’t interested in art, or clothes, or drugs…. I’d tried foie gras once, in Paris: it had made me sick. No: I’d picked up all the options, held each one like a child holding a cheap and crappy toy for a few seconds…. So I was bored—by people, ideas, the world: everything.

Dissociated from the world, the amnesiac becomes a voyeur wondering, as he watches other people, “which of them was the least formatted, the least unreal.” Ironically, it is a film performance that strikes him as “authentic,” that of Robert DeNiro in Scorsese’s Mean Streets:

…how perfect DeNiro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless…. He seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

So slow-moving and seemingly aimless is Remainder in its opening chapters that readers may be discouraged from continuing, a risk for a writer bent upon being faithful to the stupefying boredom of his Everyman’s life. Finally, the amnesiac is jolted out of his numbness by a sudden experience of déjà vu: “the most significant [experience] of my whole life.” Fittingly, the déjà vu vision is triggered by the most banal of images, a meandering crack in a plaster bathroom wall, bringing with it a flood of memory: the vivid recollection of a view from an apartment window in another city, but no recollection of which city this was, or when or why he was there. This “most significant” memory fragment is so potent that the amnesiac enters a trancelike state analogous, though in a positive way, to the famous scene in Sartre’s Nausea in which the disillusioned French historian Roquentin experiences, staring at the tangled roots of a chestnut tree, “the key to Existence, the key to my Nauseas, to my own life…, this fundamental absurdity.”

For the remainder of McCarthy’s novel, which coincides with the remainder of the narrator’s life, he becomes obsessed with staging “re-enactments” of incidents, with fanatical attention to detail, on which, like a deranged filmmaker, he spends exorbitant sums of money from his settlement, paying people to perform for him. At first the reenactments are ordinary scenes from the amnesiac’s pre-amnesiac life, of no significance to anyone but him, fragments of banal memories that require dozens of assistants engaged in routine and repeated acts devoid of meaning: “Because I liked the process, liked the sense of pattern.” Initially, the projects evoke the sense of mission and community of an amateur theater company:

We hired an architect. We hired an interior designer. We hired a landscape gardener…. We hired contractors, who hired builders, electricians and plumbers. There were site managers and sub-site managers, delivery coordinators and coordination supervisors. We took on performers, props and wardrobe people, hair and make-up artists. We hired security guards….

That the reenactments are so colossally boring, so devoid of aesthetic value, suggests the pathos of the amnesiac’s condition. His life is so empty of meaning that he can experience only a contrived “authenticity”; his neurological impairment—or his Everyman condition, in a politically debased, media-hypnotized culture—has made it impossible for him to experience life at first hand. He has become a performance artist with no interest in art or in preserving his laborious reconstructions on film; he has no interest in sharing his “vision” with another person. McCarthy evokes with chilling empathy the amnesiac’s obsessive-compulsive trance:

I was feeling very nervous. I hadn’t been sleeping well all week. I’d lie awake for half the night, running in my imagination through the events and actions that we were to go through in reality when the time came. I could run through them in a way that made them all work really well, or in a way that made them all mess up and be an abject failure. Sometimes I’d run the failure scenario and then the good one, to cancel the bad one out…. This went on every night for a whole week: me, lying awake in my bed, sweating, nervously rehearsing in my mind re-enactments of events that hadn’t happened yet but which…were on the verge of being repeated.

The amnesiac’s reenactments sometimes yield for him a mystical sort of vision, or sensation—“Again I felt the sense of gliding, of light density”—but such moments quickly fade.

Remainder kicks into a higher-voltage, Quentin Tarrantinoesque mode once the amnesiac loses interest in restaging his own memories and decides to reenact scenes of violence (a drug-related assassination in a London street, a bank robbery), replicating his culture’s dependency upon violence as art and as entertainment. Here, McCarthy is clearly indebted to that most luridly inventive of twentieth-century British novels, J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973), in which a narrator named James Ballard becomes involved with a doctor named Robert Vaughn whose erotic obsession is the restaging of automobile accidents, predominantly those in which celebrities (James Dean, Jayne Mansfield) have died. McCarthy wisely makes no effort to evoke Ballard’s unique style, in which the clinical and the sensuous and sordid continually fuse. In Remainder, the inevitable collision between what is “staged” and what is “real” brings with it death and, for the amnesiac, a vision indistinguishable from insanity:

I was an astronaut suspended, slowly turning, among galaxies of coloured matter. I closed my eyes and felt the movement, the rotation—then opened them again and was overwhelmed by sunlight. It was streaming from the sun’s chest….

In a scene that is itself something of a reenactment of the famous scene in Camus’s The Stranger in which a heat- and-sunlight-befuddled Meursault shoots and kills an Arab for no apparent reason, McCarthy’s befuddled narrator, armed with a loaded shotgun from the bank-robbery staging, shoots and kills an actor-assistant when the reenactment goes wrong: “Essentially, it was the movements, the positions and the tingling [of his nerves] that made me do it—nothing more.”

Like his existentialist-hero predecessors Meursault and Roquentin, McCarthy’s nameless hero, or antihero, achieves a final mystical vision that makes him “really happy”—except he is insane, and has brought about his own imminent death. Remainder is a novel that may appeal primarily to readers with interests in philosophy and the world of contemporary art, but McCarthy has written an inspired airborne ending, to be only hinted at here:

I felt really happy. We passed through a small cloud. The cloud, seen from inside like this, was gritty, like spilled earth or dust flakes in a stairwell. Eventually the sun would set for ever—burn out, pop, extinguish—and the universe would run down like a Fisher Price toy whose spring has unwound to its very end. Then there’d be no more music, no more loops. Or maybe, before that, we’d just run out of fuel.

  1. 1

    See “A Sketch of the Past” from Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, edited by Jeanne Schulkind (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

  2. 2

    Among classic “amnesiac” films are Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1954), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchu-rian Candidate (1962), Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964), and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984). Among the plethora of more recent “amnesiac” films of sharply varying degrees of merit are: David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past (2003), Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002), Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), John Woo’s Paycheck (2003), based upon a novella by Philip K. Dick, and, among the most admired, Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000).

  3. 3

    In an interview McCarthy explains: “I became an artist by accident…. The art thing started when I got interested in the early twentieth century art manifesto as a literary form and wrote a close pastiche of Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, but substituting his fetishisation of technology with a fetishisation of death. (I was reading a lot of Blanchot and Derrida and stuff like that at the time.)…I handed out my International Necronautical Society or INS manifestos, and pretty soon all these galleries were going: ‘This is conceptual art; have an exhibition.’ So I set up a huge bureaucracy, with INS committees and sub-committees of philosophers and writers and artists, and got them to present reports in public session, and we’d arraign other artists in front of INS hearings that very self-consciously reprised the format of Soviet show-trials or Un-American Activities Hearings…. What I was doing, in effect, was using art as an arena to play out the fictions of Kafka, Conrad, Burroughs….” See the interview with Mark Thwaite at www.readysteadybook.com, December 18, 2005.

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    Acknowledging his considerable debt to Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, McCarthy notes that he had not much of a sense of its meaning but read it “like poetry”: all these lyrical invocations of a “patience that is the passivity of dying whereby an I that is no longer I answers to the limitless of the disaster, to that which no present remembers” and of “repetition, the ultimate over and over….” All the repetition in Remainder, those scenes in which he does nothing, or at least nothing active, but just passively delivers himself over to some process, to the ripples of an event—that’s very Blanchot. As for the whole trauma premise, the accident he can never name which “involved something falling from the sky”: as Blanchot pointed out, the word “disaster” comes from des astre, “from the stars.” See the interview at www.readysteadybook.com.