Memory play

Tod Goldberg is the author of the short-story collection "Simplify" and the novel "Living Dead Girl."

IF who we are is a combination of genetics and experience (discounting fate and karma and the vagaries of love and obsession), then what are we to make of the jarring effects of trauma, physical and mental? Pain colors experience in troubling hues: The past turns romantic, the future appears implausible and the present becomes a frantic search for self. So who are we after we’ve suffered an identity-altering calamity? This question and others plague the nameless narrator of Tom McCarthy’s captivating and challenging fiction debut, “Remainder.”

The trauma here is twofold. First, there is an object that fell from above and crushed the narrator, an event that becomes more obscure as the novel progresses but which is handled simply in the very first passage: “About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky.” Though it’s true the narrator can’t remember the event itself, which left him comatose, fractured and unable, for a time, to recall his past, he’s also bound by “the Settlement,” which forbids him from discussing any details. In exchange, he receives 8.5 million British pounds (about $16.6 million). And yet, the narrator knows that although the money will purportedly “counter-balance my no-past,” no sum will give him the sense that he is a person again and not, as he recounts repeatedly, a “fake.”

McCarthy is vague about what constituted his character’s past life: He shows us one friend and one love interest, both of whom disappear soon after the money arrives. There are no parents. No siblings. Not even a memory of a beloved pet. Instead, McCarthy delivers a man without allegiances or binds: an existential Everyman.


It is this that propels the second and more enervating trauma of “Remainder” -- the narrator’s quest for identity. Having seen the end and survived, he has returned feeling like an impostor in his own skin. It’s a revelation that comes to him after he sees “Mean Streets” at a revival theater, where he realizes that the memories that have returned to him in bifurcated blasts along with his newly practiced bodily movements have no more relevance to him than the action on the big screen, save for Robert De Niro’s ability to appear fluid and uncompromised. Shortly thereafter, uncomfortable and bored at a party, the narrator escapes to the bathroom and becomes entranced by a crack in the wall.

It is then that he experiences a vivid case of deja vu: Around the crack unfolds an entire apartment complex. He recalls a piano teacher who lived downstairs fumbling over the keys; an old woman cooking liver; a man fixing a motorcycle in the courtyard; another building across the way, with a roof covered in lazing cats. A life of unpracticed perfection. He madly scrawls an image of the crack over and over again, trying to perfect the vision of this world, this rerun of his life. It soon becomes clear to the reader -- and to some degree the narrator -- that this memory in itself might be false, some function of faulty rewiring. To be certain, the narrator opts to re-create it all, to reenact his memory.

Reality television has taught us that anything organic can be heightened through editing. So it is for the narrator of “Remainder.” With his scads of cash, he hires a company to manage his reenactments. He buys two buildings -- one to be the one he lived in, another to replicate the view of the cats -- and remodels them into exact replicas of his memory, down to the trash on the ground. He hires players to portray the characters of his subconscious. The narrator then systematically reenacts the mundane, putting the complex on a continual loop -- the old woman cooks liver constantly, the pianist plays Rachmaninoff (messing up at the exact same point each time), cats rest atop the roof -- in the hope that he will find a present tense. In many ways, “Remainder” is a traditional quest narrative in the vein of Carlos Castaneda, but minute realization, not spiritual enlightenment, is the goal here: McCarthy urges us to question what reality is -- and has become -- by virtue of our seeming ability to manipulate any facet of our lives.

Like Hamlet, McCarthy’s narrator becomes obsessed with reenacting the lives (and deaths) of others. Levees of consciousness begin to fail and he descends into fugue states that pry open other doors of possibility. What if a bank robbery were reenacted but no one told the people inside the bank? What if infinity is not just mathematical but personal, so that trauma is able to repeat until it means nothing? The lines between reality and repetition bend and become lost. The result is a dizzying existential free-fall that calls into question the very nature of identity.

Is any of this really happening? Is the narrator still in a coma? Is this heaven? Hell? Those looking for a neat finish will be disappointed. “Remainder” isn’t a mystery novel -- there’s no villain here apart from time and space -- so if its core ripples with ambiguity, all the better for the reader, as this is a book to be read and then reread, rich as it is with its insights, daring as it is with its contradictions. *