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Alex Klassen

ENG 146, Andrew Murray


June 20, 2016

What Remains of The Novel?


Creativity in McCarthys Remainder

In its relatively short lifespan, much has been written about Tom McCarthys
novel Remainder. While much of this commentary has focused on the various themes of
psychosis, trauma, authenticity, and death, a broader view sees the novel as an
examination of the creative process itself. The reflexive focus on creativity in Remainder
is so pervasive that an account can be made of it as operating on the textual, narrative
and formal levels of the novel.
In the heart of the novel, while listening to his hired pianist practice
Rachmaninoff, the narrator gives - in a microcosm - a synopsis of his whole project:
it was very difficult to play, apparently, which was good: hed really
make mistakes. I heard him hit his first snag as I moved onto the
staircaseThe pianist paused, then went at it again, slowing right
down as he entered the passage that had tripped him up. He
repeated it several times, then picked his pace up and returned to
the beginning of the sequence, clocking itthen again, a little
faster, then again and again and again, speeding it up each time
until he was back almost at full speed. Eventually he accelerated
out of the passage and on into the rest of the sonata. (McCarthy
Chapter 8)

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It is this process of careful examination of the minutiae of works that are complete a
priori that the narrator has embarked upon in undertaking his re-enactment projects.
That the narrator is interested in this eternal (re)examination of the actions within his
work, as opposed to the conclusion of project itself, can be seen on a number of
occasions, but perhaps most poignantly in a later episode concerning the same pianist.
Discovering that he has been blatantly [defrauded](McCarthy Chapter 9) by his
employee as the piano music looped and repeated in the background when I saw the
pianist walk up the stairs towards me. (McCarthy chapter 9), the narrator becomes
enraged. Defending his actions, the pianist retorts that what is playing is A recording
of me. I made it myself, especially. Its the same thing, more or less. Isnt it? . The
narrator responds incredulously, No, it is not! It is just absolutely not the same thing! .
That the narrator cannot reconcile this notion would seem to fly in the face of his holding
a recorded artifact, Martin Scorseses film Mean Streets, as the prototypical
embodiment of the Authentic. However, what it does serve to demonstrate is his desire
for a continual creativity of a fractalline nature. This is seen in the time dimension of his
ventures through his slowing and reworking of his interaction with the liver lady as well
as spatially in his manufacture of miniature models of the settings of his re-enactments.
Beyond this, once his creations have reached a certain homeostasis, the narrator
seems content to let them be, as he lets his tyre shop run played and replayed like a
stuck record for three weeks (McCarthy Chapter 13). The narrators interest in the
recurrent practicing and not the recording the proceedings is made concrete in a
logistical discussion with his manager Naz:
Yes, said Naz, but we should apply for it under filming. We need
to designate it as a recognized type of event so they can grant us
permission to do it. Filmings the easiest route. We apply to use
the area for a film shoot and then just dont have any cameras.
I suppose so, I said. As long as we dont actually film.
Given this incongruity in the very motivation of his project, we must turn to examine the
nature the protagonist.

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Remainder has been considered by critics as belonging to the family of novels in


which the traumatized or amnesiac protagonist attempts to recover his or her lifestory(Huber and Sieta 262). Any reading of the book must immediately discard this
interpretation as we are told that the entirety of the ensuing narrative takes place after
Id come out of my coma and my memory had come back(McCarthy Chapter 2). We
are also given details of the narrators life as they relate to the story at hand. He has no
apparent difficulty in recalling such detailed occurrences as the One time we found a
rowing boat tied up on the Quai Malaquais embankment, climbed inside, untied it from
its moorings and were just about to paddle it away using our hands when some men
came along and turfed us out (McCarthy Chapter 4). There are however, distinct
alternatives to the theory of the amnesia plot. These are particularly important, as,
though we are meant to view McCarthys narrator as unreliable, we are given little
reason to believe (as we shall encounter later) that he is lying to his his audience. As a
counter example, neurologist Oliver Sacks has described his experience of patients
displaying obsessive creative outpourings following severe trauma. In his anthology
Musicophilia, Sacks recounts the story of Tony Cicoria who following an ecstatic
experience of electrocution found that he was gripped by an insatiable desire to listen
to piano music(Sacks Chapter 1). Over the ensuing months Cicoria's desire expanded
to learning and writing his own piano music. Cicorias obsession soon grew to the point
that, as he describes it, I would get up at four in the morning and play till I went to
work, and when I got home from work I was at the piano all evening. My wife was not
really pleased. I was possessed (Sacks). Eventually his music would take precedence
over his work (as a surgeon) and would lead to familial divorce. Is this not the same
behaviour exhibited by Remainders narrator? Finding himself transformed by a
traumatic experience, and unaccountably distanced from his peers he finds himself
standing by the sink looking at this crack in the plaster when [he has] a sudden sense
of dj vu. Id been in a space like this before, a place just like this, looking at the
crack, a crack that had jutted and meandered in the same way as the one beside the
mirror. (McCarthy Chapter 4). From this beginning the narrators project descends upon
him growing, minute by minute as I stood there in the bathroom spreading outwards
from the crack. (McCarthy chapter 4). Just as Sacks patient finds his interpersonal
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relationships falling by the wayside, McCarthys narrator experiences a loss of empathy


towards those around him deepening in proportion to his obsession with the reenactments.
The elusive quality of the narrative as well as the need of the narrator to
incessantly repeat and act out his fantasies also finds a parallel in Sigmund Freuds
treatment of early patients of psychoanalysis. These patients, he found [remain] in the
grip of this compulsion to repeat for as long as [they remain] under treatment. That the
compulsion to repeat is found in the narrator is obvious, it is the entire basis of his
creative project. That a similar activity is taking place at the meta-narrative level is
discovered through the opening and closing paragraphs of the novel which drive
respectively away from and toward the limiting moment of icarian catastrophe, creating
a loop which we as readers as well as our narrator are resigned to complete again and
again and again(McCarthy Chapter 2). The confessional or therapeutic interpretation of
the narrative may also find support in the episode in which the narrator befriends a
homeless man he has been observing through the window of a caf and proceeds to
take him out to dinner in order to question him about his day. The climax of the
anecdote approaches as the narrator attempts to ask his homeless person about the
nature of his reality. He is cut short at the key moment though, as
the waiter leant across me as he took the tablecloth away. She
took the table away too. There wasnt any table. The truth is, Ive
been making all this up (McCarthy Chapter 3).
Evasive maneuverings such as these are also common to patients of psychoanalysis.
Following the demonstration of such behaviour, Freud explains, the physician reveals
the resistances that were hitherto unknown to the patient; and once these have been
overcome, the patient often recounts without any difficulty the [pertinent] situations and
contexts (Freud Chapter 2). Indeed, following the final tangential outburst of the
restaurant, the narrator sets firmly to his task of the tale of the re-enactments. That the
story is not presented in a clinical fashion is beside the point. What is of concern is the
nature of the narrative being told as apparently the final utterances of a man perennially

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on the verge of disaster. A man who must terminally reconstruct his life as a therapeutic
confession.
McCarthys fixation on the nature of creativity does not end with these textual
aspects, but extends to the form of the novel as well. Charles Rosen, in examining the
piano sonata op.106 of Beethoven quipped The work of art which is literally about its
own technique is almost too familiar now This natural interchange of form and content
is a normal process of any art (Rosen 434). That Remainder is a book about narrative
(re)creation was never at question. The parallel to Beethoven however, continues;
Rosen goes on (somewhat technically) Beethoven sharpens the focus of this selfreference, as the introduction to the fugue of the Hammerklavier makes peculiarly
explicit. Out of an undefined rhythm and harmony there are a series of gestures
toward polyphonic form. The third of these is an exercise in Baroque style. (Rosen
434). Rosens point is that Beethoven at this point in his sonata is delineating a stylistic
break between himself and that which has come before. In constructing Remainder as
he does, Tom McCarthy achieves a similar goal. Through the opening chapters
McCarthy has consciously rejected (as Beethoven did in the Hammerklavier) several
generic models of the novel; The (previously mentioned) amnesiac novel, The moral
novel of unaccounted riches, and the novel of self realization through romantic love,
have all been given their due in gestures toward narrative form. By defining the
boundaries of his narrative with such precision - we are told in the first lines that we will
not be told of the preceding events, and can only assume the novel concludes with a
plane crash - he must instead push narratively outwards. It is also hard to imagine
clearer insertion of the self referential voice of the author as is found in the choice to
include the abortive episode of the homeless person. An episode which pushes against
the fourth wall of the novel, straining the liminal boundary of the text.
By integrating these narrative layers in his symbolic scheme while repeatedly
blurring the lines between between them, McCarthy has created a mise en abyme that
extends beyond his nested narratives to comment reflexively on his work, and by further
extension, the work of the 21st century novelist.

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Works Cited
Freud, Sigmund. Remembering Repeating, and Working through. Beyond The Pleasure Principle.

Trans. John Reddick. Toronto: Penguin Group. 2003. ebook.

Huber, Imtraud, and Sophie Sieta Authentic Simulacra or the Aura of Repetition: Experiencing

Authenticity in Tom McCarthys Remainder. The Aesthetics of Authenticity: Medial

Constructions of the Real. Eds. Funk, Wolfgang, et al. New Brunswick, USA: Transcript.

2011. print

McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. Toronto: Vintage. 2005. ebook.

Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

1997. print

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia. Toronto: Random House. 2007. ebook.

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