Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder was a bit of a puzzle for me; I felt lots of conflicting emotions as I read. Underlying all of it was pleasure in the reading — let me make it clear that I enjoyed this book very much — but it was difficult to know what to make of it. The book made me feel wonder and horror at the same time, if such a thing is possible, and also joy and disbelief and amazement, and I don’t know what else. It was confusing, but in a good way.
But enough of generalities. The book is about a man who has had something, we never learn what, fall from the sky and hit him. When he comes to, he has lost his memory, and slowly regains only some of it. He finds himself with £8.5 million as a settlement from the accident and now must figure out what he wants to do with it. He has little idea until he has a vision of what might be a memory, although he’s never sure where the memory came from. It’s a vision of an apartment building that comes to him with vivid details — the smell of liver cooking in the kitchen downstairs, the sound of a pianist practicing, the noise of a motorcyclist tinkering with his bike outside. He now knows what he wants to do — recreate the vision exactly as he experienced it. He buys a building, redesigns it from top to bottom, hires actors and buys props to fill the space, and then he relives the vision or the memory or whatever it was over and over and over again.
The problem he struggled with before he settled on this bizarre way of spending his money was that after the accident he began to realize just how inauthentic and unreal he had always felt, as though he weren’t really living out his life, but were an actor acting it. He couldn’t really inhabit his body and his actions and the world around him but always lived at a remove from it. He thinks about actors he has seen, Robert De Niro, for example, who can move around the world with complete unself-consciousness, doing what he is doing single-mindedly:
I’d always been inauthentic. Even before the accident, if I’d been walking down the street just like De Niro, smoking a cigarette like him, and even if it had lit first try, I’d still be thinking: Here I am, walking down the street, smoking a cigarette, like someone in a film. See? Second-hand. The people in films aren’t thinking that. They’re just doing their thing, real, not thinking anything.
His vision seems to rescue him, then, because in that vision he realizes he felt perfectly authentic. It was a memory of a time he wasn’t distanced from himself, wasn’t hyper self-aware, and could just do what he was doing, without thought. He thinks that if he can recreate the exact circumstances of that memory, he can recreate the experience of authenticity.
And he succeeds in doing this, at least for short periods of time. He runs a reenactment of the vision again and again — which is a huge production, with a large staff to watch over all the details — living out one part of it and then another and another, lingering over brief moments and moving through them in slow motion. He’s happy, at least for a while. But then he moves on to another reenactment, and another and another, all in his quest to try to capture reality and live in it authentically. Eventually these reenactments take him in some bizarre and deranged directions.
What was so puzzling about this book, causing all of my mixed emotions, is that I both admire this quest for authenticity and find it profoundly disturbing. I think we all know what it’s like to feel inauthentic, to feel estranged from ourselves and as though we aren’t really living out life but are acting it out on a stage or with a narrator in our heads telling the story as we live it. It’s a wonderful thing to be able simply to do something, without the self-awareness and without the narrator in our heads.
And yet this man is incredibly selfish and self-absorbed. He wants to lose himself in the moment, but to do so requires that he become even more wrapped up in himself. Rather than do something useful with his money like donating to charity organizations, as another character suggests to him that he might, he spends massive amounts of money on buying buildings, creating sets, and hiring actors and staff to create his fantasies. He loses the few friends he formerly had and comes to live in a bubble, surrounded only by those who will pander to his increasingly outrageous whims.
And losing himself in the moment to gain that elusive feeling of authenticity comes to mean losing himself in more profound ways — he starts to fall into trances that come to last for days, where he will simply stare at the wall or a spot on the ground and lose consciousness. He starts to lose a sense of what it means to be a human being and what it means that other people exist, outside of his mind.
So as much as the idea of living without self-consciousness and self-awareness is intensely appealing, McCarthy seems to be saying that living with a sense of inauthenticity and distance from ourselves is part of what it means to be human. The narrator never seems to realize that Robert De Niro, as much as he appears to be moving about with complete unselfconsciousness in his films, is an actor, and is intensely aware of what he is doing at every moment. What he is doing is the opposite of living in the moment — he is pretending to live in the moment. Losing that sense of inauthenticity is a hopeless dream that takes the narrator to nightmarish places.