Saturday, November 22, 2008
06:43 Several Perceptions / 07:43 Remainder
I bought this previously unknown book at The Strand because I love Angela Carter’s work and because the cover features the tarot card from which this website gets its name and that I have permanently marked on my body. It was a sign.
The slim novel takes place in late 1960s London, but it’s not the groovy hippie Sixties. It is a time when social turmoil is happening elsewhere but has left characters everywhere lost and unsure of what to do. The main character Joseph is reminiscent of the directionless and angry young men Dostoyeski wrote about and Carter is able to nail the waste of his nihilism in one sentence: “Joseph had the chance of a fine education but threw it away; he had free choice on the self-service counter and voluntarily selected shit.” He attempts suicide but fails, and the rest of the novel is the rather shaggy-dog story about how he loses his death wish.
It’s the sort of novel in which a large party at the end pairs up various characters, reveals secrets and ties up storylines. It doesn’t come across as contrived due to Carter’s skill and compassion for her characters, even the most unlikable. However, it’s a fairly realistic novel and I missed the rich imagination evident in Carter’s later fantasy or folk-tale based work.
Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is also about a man disconnected from the world and his curious attempts to interact. The settlement from a never-explained accident has left the unnamed main character with over 8 million pounds. He spends the money recreating visions and moments of déjà vu, making sure the re-enactments are accurate down to the smallest detail. A simple moment of looking out the window of his apartment becomes a major production involving the purchase of the building, hiring actors to recreate what occurred in his field of vision and other actors to make the ambient noise heard. Everyone is then paid to repeat these actions nonstop, whether they are frying liver or practicing the piano, so that the main character can enter this déjà vu any time he wants.
McCarthy’s work is similar to J. G. Ballard’s novels about men who pursue their unique obsessions in a rational, almost scientific manner. The language of the novel seems quintessentially British: informed and eccentric, surprised by emotions. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it’s real.” This passage goes to compare forensic procedures to abstract paintings, butterfly wings and cricket. The unnamed main character is obsessed with the real and towards this end, keeps staging imitations. But he doesn’t want the “real” as in the everyday, but the “real” as in transcendent, the feeling gotten during déjà vu in which you are hyper-conscious and aware of everything around you.
Unfortunately, this hyper-consciousness can lead to passages like the following:
“Each time a gun is fired the whole history of engineering comes into play. Of politics, too: war, assassination, revolution, terror. Guns aren’t just history’s props and agents: they’re history itself, spinning alternate futures in their chamber, hurling the present from their barrel, casting aside the empty shells of the past.”
I hate this kind of writing in fiction. Hate it. It shows the influence of Don Delillo, who fills his novels with his “profound” ruminations about What Things Mean. His ideas have never impressed me and strike me as less insightful than they are self-serving and annoying.
Authors who begin with strange premises can trap themselves. Once the premise is explained and disbelief satisfactorily suspended, what then? Return the story to the “normal” and realistic and repudiate what was strange and unique? Repeat, perhaps try to top the oddity that began the story? McCarthy and his character repeat, moving on to new reenactments, and you sense that they are both hoping that some meaning will become apparent. Instead, it just leads to a Very Bad Idea (recreating a bank robbery) that manages to close the novel on a note of suspense rather than philosophizing.