Jonathan Lethem’s front cover blurb on the US edition of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is exceptionally misleading. It reads: "A stunningly strange book about the rarest of fictional subjects: happiness." The Kirkus Reviewer on the back cover appears to have read a different book: "An assured work of existential horror....Perfectly disturbing." Which is it, happiness or horror? The Kirkus reviewer is more to the point, but Lethem is not entirely wrong. For Remainder is ultimately a novel about the happiness that comes from committing acts of horror.
When I finished reading Remainder I wanted to say "Wow!" This is that rare thing, a truly great ‘postmodern’ novel. It’s also the best first novel I’ve read in years, and the fact that it was first published in Paris in 2005, had to wait a year for British publication and didn’t appear in the US (as a paperback original, the publishing industry’s version of direct-to-video movies) until 2007 is a situation that should force the British and American publishing industry to hang its collective head in shame. (This will never happen, of course. Bertelsmann AG bought shame and liquidated it a long time ago.) Remainder’s greatest interest lies in the fact that while it touches most of the usual ‘postmodern’ bases (self-consciousness, radical uncertainty, metafiction, simulation, the construction of the self and reality, personality as performance, De Lillo-ish paranoia, Will Selfish satire), it more importantly inscribes the postmodern condition as an affliction that must be overcome to achieve authenticity. The overall form of the narrator’s search for an escape from extreme self-consciousness might be understood as a classic Hegelian triad. The first 100 pages state the thesis: a will to authenticity in a postmodern world. The next hundred pages describe an antithetical drive to dominate other human beings (the narrator becomes a totalitarian child playing with living dolls) that soon turns thanatotic, becoming a desire to annihilate self-consciousness by "re-enacting" his own death. The final third of the novel executes a terrible synthesis, combining the drives to authenticity, domination and death in acts of violence, murder and terrorism, all exquisitely aestheticized in a way that Walter Benjamin identified as typically fascistic. (The novel’s most chilling moment comes when the narrator imagines the beautiful spectacle of passenger planes exploding in midair. September 11 is very close here, and we are reminded that Osama bin Laden, like our narrator, was a man with enough money to turn his fantasies into reality.) In his ultimate, terroristic incarnation, the narrator can finally accept the material world from which he has previously fled, because that world has now become the ‘simulation’ in which he acts. His flight from postmodernism ends in the only way it can, as a full-armed embrace of the always already inauthentic postmodern world.
This is just one possible interpretation--and not an entirely satisfying one. (Like Stephen Dedalus, I don't believe my own theory...) To use the book’s own terms, it leaves a large textual remainder, a troubling residue of matters unaccounted for. (Any interpretation of anything leaves such a remainder, that hermeneutic surplus for which this novel provides an encyclopedia of images.) What are we to make, for example, of the ending of chapter three, where the narrator’s admission of fictionalization places the remainder of Remainder under a cloud of radical uncertainty. Do the subsequent events happen in the novel’s ‘real’ world, or are they too an elaborate narrative fantasy in the narrator’s mind a la the long fantasy sequences in Rushdie's Satanic Verses? The best answer is surely "Both," but with a narrator this utterly unreliable we can be sure of nothing. My own reading tends to demote this moment in importance, since these metafictional leaps are such a hoary postmodern convention by this point that perceptive readers can’t possibly take them seriously. Overuse has fatally ironized metafictional irony. That may be the anti-postmodern point of the episode.
I was also struck by the monkish sexlessness of the narrator (and, for the most part, the novel). This asexuality is a blind spot as gaping as the one in which the exact nature of the narrator’s absurd trauma lies buried. Perhaps his eros has passed entirely into thanatos, revealing itself as an apparently asexual drive to dominate and kill. This would be yet another characteristic of the inescapable postmodernity the narrator exemplifies. And it also suggests a more psychological interpretation of the novel, focusing on that unspeakable trauma and the narrator’s overpowering repetition compulsion...
And there’s also the matter of this novel’s similarity to Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. This seems to be a case of two artists independently and simultaneously arriving at the same central conceit. Kaufman was asked about the similarity in an interview and said this:
"This script, for the record, [was] written before that novel came out. I saw a review of that thing [Remainder]; I was freaked out. I intentionally did not read it. I have not read it. I hadn’t made the movie yet, and I didn’t want to have any kind of influence [from] it. But like I said, this script was written before that came out. I saw it online and I thought, A) oh fuck, and B) this is a book that I would read, normally. This sounds like a cool book. But I won’t. And I haven’t. And I probably at some point I will, but I don’t know…now it might be awful to read it. It might be like, Oh, he had this great idea that I didn’t have and I cant do anything about it." (From Anthem interview with Charlie Kaufman)