Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tom McCarthy, _Remainder_

I PICKED THIS one up because it won a prize, of sorts -- most interesting novel of 2007 according to the editors of Believer magazine.  And it is certainly interesting.

The narrator, as a consequence of severe injury in an accident that, for legal reasons, he can't tell us about, but which seems to involve falling airplane parts, find himself millions of pounds richer but also "not himself," so to speak -- that is, an arduous course of rehab that involves analyzing and mindfully, painstakingly executing even his most natural, spontaneous actions has left him feeling as though he no longer fully inhabits his own personhood.

So, he begins spending the money constructing enormous  "re-enactments," with sets, scripts, actors, etc., that allow him for a few seconds or minutes at a time to feel that he is himself again.

The novel raises one good question after another.  Is the narrator an artist?  Is all art mainly an attempt to recapture some fleeting sensation, heavy with meaning when it occurred, that is of its nature not really recoverable?  When, in what conditions, are you "yourself"?  If you have a guess what those conditions are, can you contrive them, artificially (by art) bring them into being and thus through massive effort be yourself?  If you knew you could create a situation in which you could "be yourself," what would you sacrifice to create it?

All wrapped up with a disturbing if somewhat open ending.

By the way -- is there some large trend towards protagonists/narrators with some neurological glitch, some kink of cognition and/or memory that shapes the narrative decisively?  Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn qualifies, with its Tourette's Syndrome narrator, and this one does, since the narrator (does he have a name? can't find one) has some kind of neurological impairment due to the accident.  Then there is Mark Shluter in Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, who has something a lot like what the character in the new Rivka Galchen novel has.  Not that I've read it yet, just a review  -- nor have I read The Raw Shark Texts nor The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, though those are obvious other examples.

This trend seems even taller & wider than that of ten years ago when every other novel included at least an episode, perhaps several chapters,  in post-Iron-Curtain Eastern Europe. 

And then some films as well -- Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

There are precursor texts for this: Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," Gogol's "Diary of  a Madman," Faulkner's Benjy Compson.  But why so many all at once, just now?

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