A man is put into a coma by a falling object. He goes on to receive an 8 million pound settlement and with his newfound wealth obsessively tries to recreate a scene that he may have once witnessed. This is the premise for Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, possibly one of the most imaginative novels to come out of the UK in the last few years. It’s also a mesmerizing story of one man’s struggle to come to terms with reality and also his struggle to cope with a nearly fatal trauma. McCarthy’s novel also dissects the way we think, act and perceive the world around us but does so with so much literary style that the work never devolves into an intellectual swamp.
We chatted with the whip-smart Tom McCarthy over e-mail about his work, the perils of publishing and his art project the International Necronautical Society
Remainder is an older novel first rejected by the big publishing houses in 2002, if you were an American novelist I’d hazard a guess that it was influenced by 9/11 but in your case what was the spark that led to the novel?
I finished it in 2001, just before September 11th. In fact when 9/11 happened I was thinking: You bastards, you stole my ending! The spark that led to the novel was being at a party, seeing a crack in the bathroom wall and having an intense moment of deja-vu, just like the hero does. I remembered having been in a similar building, with cats slinking around on the facing roofs, piano music, the smell of liver frying, and how it had been very pleasant. I thought: ‘If I had all the money in the world, I could have the space rebuilt and hire people to play the piano, fry liver and put cats out on the facing roofs,’ and it kind of escalated from there. Where would the re-enactment zone end? Would it end at all?
Can you talk a bit about the International Necronautical Society? It feels like some of the society’s activities, like the large amount of logistics and organization, informed your novel?
The INS is a construct, a cultural fiction that takes on a kind of reality when it’s played out. It started because I was interested in the early twentieth century avant-gardes: their authoritarian structures and procedures – committees, proclamations, denunciations and so on – that mirrored revolutionary, not to mention Stalinist, political processes. And I was particularly interested in the art-manifesto as a literary form – a dead literary form. And I loved Kafka, Conrad, Burroughs, Pynchon – all these writers in whose work you find similarly menacing bureaucratic situations. And I was reading lots of continental philosophers whose work turns around notions of death: Heidegger, Blanchot, Derrida, people like that. So I wrote this playful manifesto of death, complete with a list of committee members, handed it out at an art fair, and galleries and institutions kept inviting my ‘organisation’ to come and do stuff. So we’d hold ‘Hearings’ to which we’d summon big-name artists and writers, hold them in front of the press, publish ‘Reports’ and so on, and it took off from there. It became a playful framework within which to play out serious concerns around art, politics and the symbolic order in general. And yes, some of the concerns I’ve used the INS to work through are definitely present in Remainder.
How does it feel now that your novel has been getting all of this attention and success when for a long time it looked like the public was never going to read it?
It’s good, I’m happy. Success in itself is transient and meaningless, and anyway as Beckett said failure is a more authentic mode for the writer to experience – but literature is about being in a communication situation, and if no one’s going to read it you may as well just lie in bed and think it! It’s been fascinating hearing and reading people’s takes on Remainder, and dialoguing with reading groups and audiences at talks: I’m genuinely interested in what they say, and their interventions make me understand things about the book’s themes and contexts that I hadn’t before. Books don’t end when they’ve been written: that’s just the beginning.
Remainder is such an original and compelling work but obviously you don’t write in a vacuum, who are some of your influences, literary or otherwise?
I’m always surprised when people say it’s not like anything else, as it seems to me that Remainder has a huge literary back-history. From twentieth century works in which trauma and re-enactment play a large role such as Ballard’s Crash or Beckett’s Happy Days to nineteenth century parables of artifice and simulation such as Huysmans’s Against Nature, back to Renaissance works such as Don Quixote, whose hero keeps replaying imaginary scenes which he’s idealised, and never quite getting it right. Even Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has the players who visit the court re-enact his father’s death scene. I love the repetition loops and obsessive attention to detail you get in the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, always set against a backdrop of psychosis: he was a big influence. Then the whole question of estrangement and self-consciousness you get in Thomas Mann: Tonio Kroger’s a big presence in my book. From a philosophy point of view, Georges Bataille’s notions of violence and base matter were very much in my mind too and, even more, Maurice Blanchot’s amazing tract The Writing of the Disaster, about repetition, impossibility, abjection – all the stuff that Remainder turns around.
Can you talk a bit aboutTintin and the Secret of Literature, your other published book?
I must have learnt about 70% of what I know about plot from Herge’s Tintin books: how to set up a narrative arc, how to mirror it in sub-plots, how to split, double, send the reader the wrong way and so on. Herge’s a genius, and his work is even more interesting from a literary point of view as, despite having brilliant characterisation and symbolic complexity, it’s not quite literature. What does that tell us about what literature ‘is’? I didn’t know, so when Granta asked me if I’d like to write a book on Derrida or Freud or Barthes or someone I said: ‘No: I’d like to write a book on Herge – and Freud-Derrida-Barthes, but always via Herge.’ It was great fun to write. Herge’s also obsessed with repetition, and with simulation: fake buildings, fake money, fake art…
Tom McCarthy joins a roundtable discussion with Caroline Adderson, Eden Robinson and Timothy Taylor on Thursday, Oct. 26 7pm. He also reads with Clifford Chase, Patrick McCabe and Ralph Steadman on Friday Oct. 27 8pm.Call 416-973-4000 for tickets or go to the IFOA site for more info.