Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

[Sorry for the recent abandonment of this blog; I was trying to prepare myself for the GREs, which I took yesterday. I read Remainder in the midst of this tedious preparation, which in retrospect seems oddly apposite.]

Last year, Remainder came in second in The Morning News Tournament of Books, losing to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The praise for Remainder made me curious but was vague enough that it seemed an enigma I could pass over if I wished ("It is such a weird novel, I don’t know who I’d recommend it to."). There were a lot of other books from 2007 that I needed to catch up to anyway.

Zadie Smith's "Two Paths for the Novel" made me think differently, or rather the ambition of the title made me think differently. When I saw that Smith was opposing Remainder to one of my favorite novels from this year, Netherland, I decided to try out Remainder, read Smith's essay after finishing the book, and then see how my own thoughts on the state and future of the novel compared with hers. I think I'll wait on expressing those thoughts for another post; right now I just want to say a few things about Remainder itself.

For a book so widely praised for its strangeness, its daring, and its challenge to readers, I found Remainder to be at best placidly avant-garde, largely devoid of the sorts of buzzy shocks and electric frustrations that you'd get when, say, watching a Buñuel film or reading Pound or Stein or even DFW. Remainder crashes no gates which haven't been trampled a hundred times over, though it must be said that it never treats a well-used ideological turnstile as an uncrossed boundary. It never acts like it thinks it's breaking new ground; it is extremely content running behind its blockers—Robbe-Grillet, Bataille, Blanchot, Kafka, even (I think I detect) Deleuze and Beckett, in their emphases on repetition. But the reviews I have seen are filled with the shock of the new, as if McCarthy has burst the seams of the Realist strait-jacket in a wholly new way. Many reviewers—particularly Smith—speak of it in emancipatory terms:
In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.
I suppose I open myself to charges of philistinism or stodginess or what-have-you, but I didn't experience Remainder as a liberating or even rattling challenge to realism or literature or complacency. Which isn't to say I didn't like it, or that it had no effect on me. I felt myself pulled toward the recursive patterns of thinking the narrator creates; I began to dissociate from simple tasks, considering the performance of them from multiple perspectives. In other words, Remainder got to me. But "getting to me" isn't, I've found, an experience limited to avant-garde or experimental or even edgy literature; Netherland stretched or crammed me into the mindspace of Hans just as effectively.

I think Remainder is a very good and sometimes brilliant novel, but I don't think its claims to brilliance are primarily about its relation to Realism (or its metaphysical shadow, philosophical Idealism). What is brilliant about McCarthy's book is its relation to avant-gardism itself. I believe it proposes a notion of avant-gardism as a repetition compulsion, a conception of the avant-garde not as something fundamentally new, original, heroic and rebellious, but as something self-duplicative, retreaded and, if viewed from the right distance, tedious. In terser terms, rather than being transgressive, it is regressive.

These terms, at least in the discourse of art, have contradictory valences: transgressive art is good or at least ambitious art, regressive art would be something which doesn't even seek the status or purpose of art. But what I mean by regressive is that McCarthy seems to find a purpose for his book in its attention to matter, to the way that matter critiques or frustrates our attempts to elude death and sheer materiality. In aesthetic terms this could be called regressive, and I feel its status as avant-garde is open to question, though I don't see it as a question that McCarthy is particularly wrapped up in. He has bigger ambitions than being an avant-garde novelist.

As Smith points out, Remainder needs to be read in the context of McCarthy's work in the International Necronautical Society. One of the key documents, the "Joint Statement on Inauthenticity (reported on here) proclaims: "The Statement declared the death of tragedy in which the lonely hero, in death, is rewarded with authentic being. Instead they called for the comic, the divided and the repetitive: instead of Oedipus, Wile E. Coyote who, like a true necronaut, 'dies almost without noticing', again and again, repeatedly."

This emphasis on comedy answers a question I had when reading Smith's summation of the Necronautical dicta and their relation to McCarthy's book. If matter is, by the fact of its existence, a permanent critique to our idealist philosophies and arts (i.e. Realism), then why do we need art to make this clear? We are always being corrected by matter, and particularly being made aware of its dissimilarity to Realism and idealism. We do not need a novel, or even the International Necronautical Society, to apprise us of this fact, do we?

I believe that McCarthy's answer is that we need art to tell us that we should be happy that matter is a permanent critique. Matter does not need to tell us that it is a critique (though sometimes, it seems, necronauts like McCarthy think we don't observe its criticisms with sufficient awareness). But matter, I think McCarthy and the necronauts are saying, needs art (and philosophy) to proselytize, telling us that matter's critique should make us happy. Hence the emphasis on the comedy of Wile E. Coyote's repetitive deaths, on the denial of tragedy, and the dark ironies of Remainder. "'What distinguishes the poet or philosopher from others,' the Statement said, 'is that he can laugh at himself. That is, he can simultaneously be the one who trips and the one who watches the trip: he can split himself in two — what Baudelaire calls dédoublement.'" Tripping, if you have read Remainder, is the catalyst for matter's critique, but even more so, it catalyzes and fulfills the narrator's blissful acknowledgement that he is always subject to matter's critique.

Remainder's notion of happiness is tremendously disorienting and somewhat hard to catch a hold of, which makes it both a little repulsive and very compelling. It disorients the terms of happiness, shifting them completely and decisively away from what has become the typical axis—either a full achievement of a self-determining self or an annihilation of self—an achievement of personal authenticity or an utter excision of inauthenticity. I don't think Smith sees this fully, and I'll address that in the post about her essay, but I'll circle back to pick up the question of Remainder's avant-gardeness. If the work rests on a notion of happiness that escapes or ignores the (all-too-common) dialectic of authenticity/inauthenticity, then its status as avant-garde is kind of beside the point, as authenticity seems to be all we're ever really talking about when we talk about avant-garde art.

The refusal to play the authenticity game—in fact, the philosophical opposition to it—despite maintaining a deep connection to the names we associate with that game's highest performance (avant-gardism) is, now that I think about it, what is most strange about this book. It reminds me of a quote by D.H. Lawrence: "The world doesn't fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can't pigeon-hole a real new experience. It can only dodge." I'm glad I stopped dodging this book, although I wouldn't go so far as to proclaim it on the whole a "real new experience" in fiction. It generates some new experiences, and that's very, very good.

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