Friday, November 23, 2007

Remainder by Tom McCarthy


From the back cover of Remainder - “McCarthy has a precision, a surreal logic and a sly wit that is all his own. It will be a long time before you come across a stranger book, or a truer one.” Rupert Thomson, The Observer.

Yes, a strange book indeed. I started to read it in August and at first I was interested because it explores the nature of memory, identity, human nature and behaviour. There is very little plot and the main character is a man who, after an accident, is suffering from amnesia and brain damage. We never find out any details of the accident that nearly killed in and left him in a coma and somehow it’s unimportant, because what is important is what happens to him when he recovers. He receives eight and a half million pounds as compensation and embarks on a series of actions in an attempt not only to regain his memory but also to feel natural when he does things.

I think this is fascinating part of the book. The way we perform our actions is spontaneous without thinking how we actually move and do things, but as that part of his brain that controls the motor functions of the right side of the body had been damaged he had to learn how to move by first visualising a movement, then understand how the tendons, muscles and joints work and in what order, before actually performing a movement. What is even more fascinating is that having done this he realised that his actions and movements weren’t seamless and natural – he was having to think each movement through before he could perform them.

I was fine with this and felt the book was going to be really good, but gradually as he goes over and over everything in his mind and tries to reconstruct his former life from fragments of memory it became tedious. Then it moved into realms of fantasy, but dull, banal fantasy in which he hires people to act or rather re-enact time after endless time certain scenes, cats falling off a roof, a woman frying liver and a pianist practising a piece of music etc, etc. It becomes increasingly unreal as he tries to be more real.

McCarthy explained the title in a press release: “The hero, his body and his mind are a remainder, what the accident leaves,” explains McCarthy. “The world he reconstructs is a remainder, made up of fragments left over from his ideal ‘remembered’ world. And I love the provocation of calling a book Remainder.”

I cannot say I enjoyed this book. I found it tedious and disturbing as he descends into what I consider to be madness. I stopped reading it twice and went back to it as I did want to know what happens at the end. The ending is like the rest of the book; it’s madness and endless repetition of the same actions over and over again and then right at the very end – well, there is a completion of sorts.

Would I read it again? No.

6 comments:

Nan - said...

Boy, that was a good review. I really enjoyed reading it, and thought you did a great job of telling about the book and explaining why you felt the way you do about it.

BooksPlease said...

Oh thank you so much, Nan.

Anonymous said...

I have not read the book “Remainder” by Tom McCarthy and possible should not leave a comment. However, as someone who has a rare brain disease, also had a stoke affecting the left side of the body, and is slowly losing memory; I feel he may make some true analogies. It is hard to try to reconstruct memory BUT it can be done to a small degree and recover use of – in my case – the affected area of the stroke. Although in all candor, I do NOT believe I am heading into that lofty abyss of madness.

Edd Hart
jedeharte1861@ftc-i.net

BooksPlease said...

Hi Edd, sorry to hear of your memory loss and stroke. I am sure that the analogies in the book are true and the tedium I felt on reading it must be just a small reflection of what it must be like attempting to regain control and use after damage has been suffered. I do hope you recover use of the affected area of the stroke.

Dorothy W. said...

Interesting. I've heard good things about this book and bad things too -- it does intrigue me. Such mixed reviews do kind of make me want to check it out for myself!

BooksPlease said...

Dorothy, I'm always cautious about recommending a book, as what I like or don't like is not to everyone's taste. Remainder is intriguing in a strange way. But I'm not saying do read it, or don't read it, but if you do I'd love to know what you think of it.