Logistics: Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder.”

remainder“All great enterprises,” the unnamed narrator of Tom McCarthy’s brilliant novel Remainder says, “are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics.” Unsurprisingly, one of the chief concerns of Remainder is management: after the narrator is hit by something that fell from the sky—we never find out more—he receives an £8.5 million settlement. Suffering from a variety of complications from the accident, including some memory loss, the man embarks on a mission to recreate and reenact the small memories that do remain, in order to recapture the sense of authentic living he has lost. He is inspired by seeing a familiar-looking crack in the wall:

Right then I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my money. I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would. Nothing else mattered. I stood there staring at the crack. It all came down to that: the way it ran down the wall, the texture of the plaster all around it, the patches of color to its right. That’s what had sparked the whole thing off. I had to get it down somehow—exactly, how it forked and jagged.

Reenactments of the magnitude he wants to accomplish require impressive logistics. For that he enlists Naz, who appears to have a near-preternatural talent for such enterprises. That is not to say, however, that the book unfolds in the manner of a UPS commercial. Indeed, logistics is merely a sort of false front. If anything, the observation of the narrator of Remainder that logistics is the sine qua non of “great enterprises” ironically proves a point: that he is unable to grasp something fundamental about existence.

Early on in the novel, a friend of the protagonist’s, Catherine, comes to London to visit. He and Catherine have been exchanging missives that have grown increasingly flirtatious. It’s obvious why Catherine is in town—and even, also, to the narrator, who has had sexual fantasies of her—but when a romantic moment between them seems to be perfect, he turns away, focused instead on sketching the wall crack. He forsakes the future to recapture the past. The tension that runs throughout this novel, perhaps nowhere more obvious than in this scene, is between what the narrator was before and what he has become: perhaps the accident has left the narrator brain-damaged beyond what he describes early on. (He is forced to visualize, over and over, eating a carrot, to repair the motor functions of his brain.)

If the protagonist is so damaged, it is a peculiar sort: he is still able to function otherwise normally, but he seems to be verging on something akin to autism—especially given how cruelly he treats the various actors engaged as “reenactors” to flesh out (pun not intended) his fantasies, and how obsessively he drinks cappuccinos at the local “Seattle-themed coffee bar,” filing up his card repeatedly just to get a free cup after the tenth stamp. (After all, a man with £8.5 million doesn’t need a free cup of coffee.)

Of course, reenacting lost memories eventually proves to be insufficient. Soon, the man is pushing his assistant Nazrul (“Naz,” who works for a logistics company Time Control UK) to determine the logistics of reenacting a local shooting, which requires bribing the police for access to the police reports. Naz is compliant, perhaps because he, too, begins to share the obsessions of the protagonist (or perhaps because he is a cipher). Eventually the shooting isn’t enough, either, and the line between reenactment and actual doing is finally crossed.

Zadie Smith, in her essay Two Paths For the Novel, wrote that Remainder was “fully conscious” of the ideas that underpin it. She sums it up well: Remainder “works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event.”{{1}}

[[1]]To really understand Remainder, you have to understand a bit more about Tom McCarthy. I won’t replicate what Smith has already written in her essay; really there’s no better description of the International Necronautical Society, McCarthy’s organization, and how it subtends his novels. For more, you can read their manifesto.[[1]]