Remainder – Tom McCarthy: A Review

Date Finished: May 24th 2017

After something – he can’t remember what – falls from the sky leaving him in a coma and in need of rehabilitation, Remainder’s unnamed protagonist receives an eight-and-a-half million pound settlement. Feeling disconnected from the world around him after the accident, he begins to spend his money on reenacting half-remembered memories; simple feelings, images and sounds. But as these fail to make him feel any more complete, he begins to construct more violent and aberrant events.

McCarthy’s prose is precise, almost pedantic, yet readable. He portrays the protagonist’s disconnect from reality well, and allows the thought processes of an irrevocably damaged man to wash over us in a way that is simultaneously natural and disconcerting. Many of our narrator’s idiosyncrasies are relatable observations on the inauthenticity of reality and how we construct identity, but he takes these ideas just a little too far over the boundaries of acceptability, building a subtle sense of dread. It’s a dangerous game: write it too subtly and you end up writing something boring, too blatantly and it becomes perverse. To begin with, McCarthy walks this line well.


As our narrator begins to live in a simulation of his own garbled memories, Remainder takes our self-centralisation to its logical extreme, demonstrating the mindset of the man or woman who chooses to live inside himself, sacrificing interaction with the world around him to become a feedback loop of his own experience. The protagonist begins to take on the hallmarks of depression and holding oneself back, but his extraordinary wealth, idiosyncratic behaviour and self-imposed isolation means no one will help him.

It’s a dazzling thought-experiment which undertakes its main conceit with an impressive single-mindedness. However, Remainder attempts to be a transcendent work, and ultimately suffers from the limitations of the form as well as, without wanting to sound offensive, the author. McCarthy has a powerful vision, but Remainder can’t reach the giddy heights he wants it to because he’s human. As our narrator spirals into madness, it becomes less and less possible to relate to him, to the point that dialogue is the only respite from his insipid internal monologue. A good 70 of the novel’s 270 pages are surplus to requirements, circling around the same point long after the reader has caught on.

Remainder is never bad, but it does outstay its welcome. Largely, this is because it dwells on themes of repetition and duplication. The trouble with that is that it threatens to become boring and irritating, and it would take a genius to render such a subject interesting. McCarthy isn’t a genius. He puts me in mind of other contemporary authors who have taken on concepts bigger than themselves. Their ambition is laudable, but they are unable to execute the work in the right way due to their own limitations.

Remainder is a metaphor for itself; a meta-metaphor. This means that nothing in the novel is wrong or superfluous, but that doesn’t necessarily make what it is enjoyable. The novel’s scope and vision are admirable, original, even interesting. But it can’t hold together for the duration, and the narrow focus ultimately obviates the deeper exploration that such a work could take on. It’s an exercise in omphaloskepsis, too tied up in its own superficial concept to get into the machinations behind that idea. When it does try to comment on its own events, it comes to the rookie conclusions I had already come to at the halfway point. There is merit in this sort of experiment, but ultimately it falls short, largely because, its too sophistic to have conclusions. It can only carry itself out, repetitiously. In short, it’s not a novel I’ll read again.


Related Reading

The Circle – Dave Eggers


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