Tag Archives: tom mccarthy

Reappraising Remainder

I had been half-looking for a reason to talk about Remainder, which I recently re-read, and now that Garth Risk Hallberg has written a thorough and lucid deconstruction of the myth of that book as “avant-garde” literature, I think it’s time to jump in.

First a caveat: I think Garth is absolutely right to have written what he did, and his essay certainly does a lot more than just argue that Remainder and Tom McCarthy aren’t all that avant-garde. But, let’s not forget that we’re having this discussion mostly because of some excessive praise C. received from a generally overly credulous press. Which is to say, the whole conversation of “McCarthy as avant-garde” is more than fabricated to begin with. But anyway, as I said, Garth spins a lot of gold from it.

But anyway, Remainder. Garth lays out a fine genealogy of that book’s antecedents, in part stopping by a number of luminaries:

Here we encounter a wrinkle, though. Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism” dates to 1984, and even then, the deposition of the Realist self was well underway. Smith’s essay is liberally sprinkled with examples from the field of literature. Just the B’s: Blanchot, Bataille, Ballard, Burroughs…. In the “Two Paths” schematic, they populate a “skewed side road.” But think of another B: Beckett. Hasn’t the postwar period more or less widened the side-road of “self”-sabotage to a superhighway?

Two novelists in particular, Alain Robbe-Grillet (whom Smith names) and Peter Handke (whom she doesn’t), seem to have anticipated Remainder’s characteristic “intensities.” Even decades on, though, each seems more genuinely “violent” in his rejection of the Realist “self” than does McCarthy. Robbe-Grillet is willing, unlike Remainder, to sacrifice the continuity and escalation of plot on the altar of a philosophical apprehension. And The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick finds Handke strategically discarding the continuity of language for the same reason. Of course, Handke himself has umlaut-ed antecedents in Döblin and Büchner, and I wouldn’t want to define “avant-gardism” as “that child which has no parents.” Instead, it might help to think of the avant-garde as what still has the power to disturb the settled order of things.

I don’t want to talk about Remainder as avant-garde, because in my opinion that conversation is pretty much over (and maybe never got started). I’d just like to ask whether or not it’s good literature. In my opinion, it’s a book that had the makings of greatness but that misses the mark and suffers from a lot of common first-novel problems.

First the good: McCarthy’s overall conceit is great–the idea of a fundamentally absurd accident causing an immense character pathology that leads to this idea of reconstructing life events so as to make them more “natural.” He brings to bear some interesting, but by no way novel, ideas about infinity, the derivative-ization of life, and “passing through the zero.” This is all ably handled, and at times McCarthy’s treatment of these ideas enters into the realm of art. Although far too often his pedanticism is much too clear, and we feel less like people staring into a ponderous work of art than good little students being lectured to.

Which is to say the book is of uneven quality. Much has been made of McCarthy’s treatment of character, and I don’t really care to have yet another tired conversation about round versus flat. My beef isn’t with that but with the fact that so many of these people are given walk-on roles purely so that they can spout ideologies that McCarthy wants to inject into the narrative. It’s clumsy, and it pokes out and slows things down.

My other main beef with this book is that, while the prose can at times be quite tight and very interesting, too much of it feels mundane and unnecessary. I have no idea of how this book was edited or if the fact that it was originally self-published at all impacted the editing it got once Vintage UK picked it up, but there’s a lot of lose prose hanging around that should have been cut. I’m guessing, but have no factual basis, than this was probably to do with it being McCarthy’s first novels. A lot of first novels are excessively chatty. That’s too bad. The book would have been a lot better if it lost about 50 pages and tightened up. Is that enough to forever kill its chance of being a classic? In my opinion, yes.

I think that it’s possible that the book will stand the test of time, if only because it and it’s writer have begun to assume a certain place in the discourse surrounding literature. But even then I feel that it will be remembered as a precocious but flawed work.

Incidentally, it’s funny to note that while McCarthy’s prose tightened up considerably with C., I found that book far less successful. Don’t get me wrong–there are some stretches to C. that are quite sharp, and on the whole it was a lot better than the competiton. But whereas Remainder had some real serious big ideas behind it that really drove it forward, C. just seems to be a bunch of cool shit that McCarthy wanted to drop together into a book. I think that a lot of what is presented in C. has collective relevance, and there probably is a book to be had there out of the pieces that McCarthy has brought together, but it seems to be too unsure of what it wants to do or be. I’d much rather have a clumsy book with a distinct and interesting point of view than a polished book that’s still sorting itself out.

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Tom McCarthy on The Pale King

I hope you haven’t hit your 20-article limit yet, because Tom McCarthy’s review of The Pale King is very good.

I say “perhaps” and “seems” because a good portion of this framework comes in the final “Notes and Asides” section tacked onto the main, patently partial manuscript. Which brings me to the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward — properly and rigorously forward — in an age of data saturation. The Jesuit presents “the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the real world’s constituent info generated . . . now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling and organizing that torrential flow of info.” He could just as well be describing the task of the novelist, who, of course, is also “called to account.” It’s hard not to see in the poor pencil-pushers huddled at their desks an image of the writer — nor, given Wallace’s untimely end, to shudder when they contemplate suicide.

Lost childhood pools, by this reading, would constitute a kind of pastoral mode cached (or trashed) within the postmodern “systems” novel — which, in turn, is what the systems-within-systems I.R.S. really stands for. The issues of emotion and agency remain central, but are incorporated into a larger argument about the possibility or otherwise of these things within contemporary fiction. The data-psychic character Sylvanshine can glean trivia about anyone simply by looking at him, but is “weak or defective in the area of will.” Nor, due to endless digressions, can he complete anything. No one can; in “The Pale King,” nothing ever fully happens. That this is to a large extent a metaphor (for the novel in general, or this novel in particular) becomes glaringly obvious when we hear one unnamed character describe the play he’s writing, in which a character sits at a desk, doing nothing; after the audience has left, he will do something — what that “something” is, though, the play’s author hasn’t worked out yet.

Remainder Crossed with Italo Calvino

Pretty interesting story.

At ten past three the phone rang. ‘Pronto,’ I said, and the voice answered: ‘I am Signor Calvino.’ It was the novelist Italo Calvino; I was due to interview him later that afternoon. We had scarcely agreed on the place when something hard hit me on the back of the head. The room spun; there was a glare of light. Calvino assumed it was a bad connection.

I sat for a while on the marble steps outside the flat, my vision blurred and a taste of copper in my mouth. I remember moments of lucidity when I was aware of a burning pain in my head and blood running down my face.

Had Gilly not come home early that evening I might have died. At about six o’clock she opened the door to our flat on Via Salaria. Bloody handprints covered the walls where I had tried to steady myself. A pungent smell filled the air. Down the hall in the bathroom she found two damp bath-towels stained with blood. I was in the kitchen, sprawled face-down on the floor. Blood had congealed in a pool round my head. In a panic Gilly tried to sit me up but my movements were unco-ordinated and my speech garbled. I seemed to be ‘speaking backwards’, Gilly later told the police.

It was an age before the ambulance arrived. . . .


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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