An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing. Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?
In the end what is impressive about Netherland is how precisely it knows the fears and weaknesses of its readers. What is disappointing is how much it indulges them. Out of a familiar love, like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, though it well knows they are empty. In its final saccharine image (Hans and his family, reunited on the mandala of the London Eye Ferris wheel), Netherland demonstrates its sly ability to have its metaphysical cake and eat it, too:
A self-evident and prefabricated symbolism attaches itself to this slow climb to the zenith, and we are not so foolishly ironic, or confident, as to miss the opportunity to glimpse significantly into the eyes of the other and share the thought that occurs to all at this summit, which is, of course, that they have made it thus far, to a point where they can see horizons previously unseen, and the old earth reveals itself newly.
And this epiphany naturally reminds Hans of another, that occurred years earlier as the Staten Island Ferry approached New York, and the sky colored like a “Caran d’Ache box” of pencils, purples fading into blues:
Concentrat[ing] most glamorously of all, it goes without saying, in the lilac acres of two amazingly high towers going up above all others, on one of which, as the boat drew us nearer, the sun began to make a brilliant yellow mess. To speculate about the meaning of such a moment would be a stained, suspect business; but there is, I think, no need to speculate. Factual assertions can be made. I can state that I wasn’t the only person on that ferry who’d seen a pink watery sunset in his time, and I can state that I wasn’t the only one of us to make out and accept an extraordinary promise in what we saw—the tall approaching cape, a people risen in light.
There was the chance to let the towers be what they were: towers. But they were covered in literary language when they fell, and they continue to be here.
If Netherland is a novel only partially aware of the ideas that underpin it, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is fully conscious of its own. But how to write about it? Immediately an obstacle presents itself. When we write about lyrical Realism our great tool is the quote, so richly patterned. But Remainder is not filled with pretty quotes; it works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event. It plays a long, meticulous game, opening with a deadpan paragraph of comic simplicity:
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 not that I’m being shy. It’s just that—well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been—or, more precisely, being about to be—hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed.
This is our protagonist, though that’s a word from another kind of novel. Better to use Enactor. This is our Enactor. He has no name, he lives in Brixton, and recently he has been hit on the head by some kind of enormous thing. For a long time he was in a coma, his mind “still asleep but getting restless and inventing spaces for me to inhabit…cricket grounds with white crease and boundary lines painted on the grass.” After a time, he recovers, though he has to learn to move and walk again. But there is a remainder: it appears that the “parties, institutions, organizations—let’s call them the bodies—responsible for what happened” are offering him a settlement on the condition of his silence (though he can’t remember what happened). His lawyer phones to tell him the amount. It is £8.5 million. The Enactor takes his hand from the wall it is on and turns suddenly to the window, accidentally pulling the phone out of the wall:
The connection had been cut. I stood there for some time, I don’t know how long, holding the dead receiver in my hand and looking down at what the wall had spilt. It looked kind of disgusting, like something that’s come out of something.
For the first fifty pages or so, this is Remainder‘s game, a kind of anti-literature hoax, a wind-up (which is, however, impeccably written). Meticulously it works through the things we expect of a novel, gleefully taking them apart, brick by brick. Hearing of the settlement he “felt neutral…. I looked around me at the sky: it was neutral too—a neutral spring day, sunny but not bright, neither cold nor warm.” It’s a huge sum of money, but he doesn’t like clothes or shoes or cars or yachts. A series of narrative epiphany McGuffins follow. He goes to the pub with a half-hearted love interest and his best friend. The girl thinks he should use the money to build an African village; the friend thinks he should use it to snort coke off the bodily surfaces of girls. Altruism and hedonism prove equally empty.
We hear of his physiotherapy—the part of his brain that controls motor function is damaged and needs to be rerouted: “To cut and lay the new circuits [in the brain], what they do is make you visualize things. Simple things, like lifting a carrot to your mouth.” You have to visualize every component of this action, over and over, and yet, he finds, when they finally put a real carrot in your hand, “gnarled, dirty and irregular in ways your imaginary carrot never was,” it short-circuits the visualization. He has to start from the top, integrating these new factors.
All this is recounted in a straightforward first person which reminds us that most avant-garde challenges to Realism concentrate on voice, on where this “I” is coming from, this mysterious third person. Spirals of interiority are the result (think of David Foster Wallace’s classic short story “The Depressed Person” in which a first-person consciousness is rendered in an obsessive third person, speaking to itself). Remainder, by contrast, empties out interiority entirely: the narrator finds all his own gestures to be completely inauthentic and everyone else’s too. Only while watching Mean Streets at the Brixton Ritzy does he have a sense of human fluidity, of manufactured truth—the way De Niro opens a fridge door, the way he lights a cigarette. So natural! But the Enactor finds he can’t be natural like De Niro, he isn’t fluid. He’s only good at completing cycles and series, reenacting actions. For example, he gets a certain tingling pleasure (this is literal, he gets it in his body) from having his reward card stamped in a certain “themed Seattle coffee bar,” on the corner of Frith Street and Old Compton. Ten stamps, ten cappuccinos, a new card, start the series again. He sits at the window people-watching. He sees inauthenticity everywhere:
Media types…their bodies and faces buzzed with glee, exhilaration—a jubilant awareness that for once, just now, at this particular right-angled intersection, they didn’t have to sit in a cinema or living room in front of a TV and watch other beautiful people laughing and hanging out: they could be the beautiful young people themselves. See? Just like me: completely second-hand.
The clubbers, the scene gays, the old boys heading to their drinking clubs—all formatted. Then suddenly he notices a group of homeless people, the way they take messages up and down the street to each other, with a sense of purpose, really seeming to own the street, interacting with it genuinely. He makes contact with one of them. He takes him to a local restaurant, buys him a meal. He wants to ask the boy something but he can’t get it out. Then the wine spills:
The waiter came back over. He was…She was young, with large, dark glasses, an Italian woman. Large breasts. Small.
“What do you want to know?” my homeless person asked.
“I want to know…” I started, but the waiter leant across me as he took the tablecloth away. She took the table away too. There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up—the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins—but I didn’t go across to him.
Because, in fact, the homeless are just like everyone else:
They had a point to prove: that they were one with the street; that they and only they spoke its true language; that they really owned the space around them. Crap: total crap…. And then their swaggering, their arrogance: a cover. Usurpers. Frauds.
Large breasts. Small. The narrative has a nervous breakdown. It’s the final McGuffin, the end of the beginning, as if the novel were saying: Satisfied? Can I write this novel my way now? Remainder‘s way turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism—it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel. A few days after the fake homeless epiphany, at a party, while in the host’s bathroom, the Enactor sees a crack in the plaster in the wall. It reminds him of another crack, in the wall of “his” apartment in a very specific six-story building he has as yet no memory of ever living in or seeing. In this building many people lived doing many things—cooking liver, playing the piano, fixing a bike. And there were cats on the roof! It all comes back to him, though it was never there in the first place.
And now Remainder really begins, in the mission to rebuild this building, to place re-enactors in it re-enacting those actions he wants them to enact (cooking liver, playing the piano, fixing a bike), doing them over and over till it feels real, while he, in his apartment, fluidly closes and reopens a fridge door, just like De Niro. Eight and a half a million quid should cover this, especially as he has entrusted his money to a man much like Hans van der Broek—a stock trader—who makes money for the Re-enactor (for that’s what he is now) almost as quickly as he can spend it.