My favorite used bookstore is Easton’s Books in Mt. Vernon, WA. Not only is it the most organized and well stocked used book stores I’ve ever seen, it also happens to be owned by my aunt and brilliant uncle (uncle by marriage, so unfortunately none of those brains could have found their way to me). So when my uncle handed me Remainder by Tom McCarthy and told me it was the best book he had read in a long time, I became worried. I knew I had to read it – I just hoped I could understand it.
The story begins when the unnamed narrator wakes up in the hospital from a terrible accident of which he has no memory. He does learn that he has won an enormous settlement however, and spends a few weeks figuring out how to use all of this money.
On evening at a party he sees a simple crack in the wall.
I was standing by the sink looking at this crack in the plaster when I had a sudden sense of deja vu….I’d been in a space like this before, a place just like this, looking at the crack, a crack that had jutted and meandered in the same way as the one beside the mirror….Out of the window there’d been roofs with cats on them. Red roofs, black cats. It had been high up, much higher than I was now: the fifth or sixth or maybe even seventh floor of an old tenement-style building, a large block…….
Believing that this is a memory from his childhood, he has a brilliant idea. Instead of investing his newly acquired fortune feeding poor people or openening schools in thirld world countries, he will re-create this particular memory to relive at any time he pleases. He constructs this scene to the minute detail: the perfect building, the cats to put on the red roof, the piano player that makes mistakes, the woman frying liver. The actors then are ordered to practice over and over until he feels the memory is exactly correct. At one point during this re-enactment, he is surprised by a tingling sensation in his spine. This tingle is the key to all future re-enactments.
Once in a while the narrator travels outside his re-enactment and discovers other scenes that he wants to re-create. These aren’t memories, he just feels at the moment when he sees them that he would like to re-create them for his own pleasure. Again, he painstakingly uses any means necessary to have every small detail at his disposal.
Finally, he is so jazzed by one re-enactment that he doesn’t want it to be fake anymore. He wants it to be real-life. This is when my spine tingled – I couldn’t put the book down at this point (but honestly, it was near the end). And then the story ends without a real conclusion.
This novel was a bit strange to me. I felt like I was reading an episode of The Twighlight Zone.
The narrator creates these re-enactments to make himself feel “real” he never feels anything until his spine tingles at certain moments during these re-creations. My guess is that these sensations may have something to do with being a trauma victim – not an area that I’m familiar with.
I did enjoy this book for a couple reasons. First, although this narrator drives me crazy with his Ground Hog Day- like repetetiveness, it was fun to read because Mr. McCarthy is English and uses all sorts of English terminology and phrasing. I heard the accent while I read.
Second, I find myself still thinking about it which doesn’t happen with every book I read. What if I suddenly lost my memory? What would life be like if it was just a series of controlled re-enactments and only at some unknown point I feld “real?” And what makes us feel “real”?
Even though I wouldn’t have chosen Remainder on my own, it’s one of those books that forced me to think outside of the box. And once in a while, that’s a good thing.
After writing this I learned BGB reviewed it in the past. I’m glad Tim liked it because I would classify Remainder as a guy’s book so definitely check out Tim’s review too.