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.
And this is still donation week. If you want to send a little appreciation for this site and The Quarterly Conversation, drop me some coin. Or write an email. Whatever suits you.