Sunday, October 03, 2010

Remaindered thoughts

Why is it that some of the best books are often the hardest to write about? It must be that flush of first love with a book, the recognition of myself in the other (or is it the other way round?). I'm giddy with emotion, can't articulate much beyond, "I just so LLOOOVVE this book!" — certainly nothing meaningful.

So here I am, a couple months after having read Tom McCarthy's Remainder (of which I'd acquired a remaindered copy); the first flush has subsided, but I still want to say something about it. (Part of me wants to rush downstairs and pull the book off the shelf in my bedroom — it's unusual that I write about a book without having it by my side — but that would feel less authentic. I want this to be true to my recollection of it, not dried up by objective evidence.)

So, it's all about this guy who suffered an accident, the details of which are never made clear, and basically he's left with gaps in his memory, but worse, this leaves him a shell of his former self. Something essential, something you can't quite put your finger on, is out of whack. But, also! He comes into a pile of money because of this accident, and he uses it to recreate (or create, really) scenarios from possibly his past, or maybe his imagination, but the thing is, the scenarios aren't important in themselves (well, they are, but), it's more the feeling they instill, the sense of authenticity, so the details of scenarios are important only insofar as they help further that.

Anyway, it's brilliant! (There's that flush flooding back. Really, what else is there to say about this book.)

You can read about this book all over the place, so I won't bore you with particulars. I first heard of this book through the 2008 Tournament of Books. (Careful what you read there! Some commentary has spoilers.) Interesting also is the publication history of this book, the fact that it was first published by an "art publisher" (so Remainder was recognized as "art" before it was seen as a marketable commodity by "regular" publishers?).

What gets me about this book is not just the obsession of his little hobby, it's the sense of addiction. They go hand in hand, of course; the pursuit of the addiction becomes obsessive, and then the pursuit itself becomes an object of addiction. But I think they're separate things, and McCarthy knows that. Obsessive behaviour is something you do because you have to, you feel you need to, you don't necessarily derive any pleasure from it, quite the opposite often, but addiction is after a particular high. Remainder's main character is in search of authenticity, that feeling of being real, and if you're of the sort of disposition wherein you think about those sorts of things (and I think I am) then you realize that feeling is really pretty rare. It's not about about power and control, strictly speaking; it's what those things can bring you. This became pretty clear to me in the characterization of the manager he hires to direct his affairs. This guy felt a thrill in managing these complex logistics and pulling them off successfully. I mean, I can almost relate to that, when things are crazy at work and you can actually make all the pieces fit together, there's the rush of the busy-ness of it all and immense satisfaction when it all comes together. It's not about being a workaholic, or being obsessive about the details per se; it's not lovng your work, or whatever, exactly; it's knowing you're good at what you do, doing it, and getting off on it. (Umm, I'm probably projecting here; I don't know that any of that's actully in the novel exactly.)

Maybe because I don't have obsessive behaviours, clinically speaking, or addictions of the intrusive-to-one's-daily-functioning variety, much as I enjoy food and alcohol and sex and chocolate, because I'm not consumed by my career and I don't live for the adrenaline rush of a regular physical workout (hah!), maybe because none of those things do it for me, maybe I'm realistic about the thrill of my first love and jumping out of an airplane and as much as I'd like to relive those things, I know I can't, I can't go back, it wouldn't be the same, I'm not compelled to try, maybe because there's nothing else to occupy the position of that which must be pursued at all costs, this idea of going after authenticity, all that is real and true, actually seems pretty reasonable to me. I mean, if you're going to be addicted to something, that's the thing. And that's where it gets pretty fucked up, because the more you pursue it, the more removed from it you actually become.

Anyway, pretty weird, troublesome book. Very, very good.



Stefanie said...

I think this might be buried in my TBr pile. I'm glad to know it is really good. I'll have to do some excavating for it one of these days.

Emily said...

WOW, this sounds excellent! I also like to think about "authenticity" and the paradoxes therein, and the conceit of this novel sounds absolutely fascinating. Love what you say about the details of his scenarios only being important in that they further the goal of FEELING a particular way.

You're really succeeding in putting McCarthy on the list of authors I'm interested in reading.

Anonymous said...

I just finished. Thanks much, Isabella. It was amazing and I couldn't think about anything else much after it. So eerie.