For many years my mother was a care worker for autistic youth. One older boy she worked with, as part of his condition, did not distinguish reality from fiction. He watched Spiderman on tv and therefore Spiderman was real. At any moment the superhero could come swinging down from the trees outside the front door to zip and/or zap some baddie—zero distance between his reality and DC comic’s created reality. Of course for most of us the distance is greater than zero. But it remains a question of subject and degree. Some people keep a distance from the created realities of books, films, television and the other arts we immerse ourselves in regularly, while others draw closer, and are even capable of reciprocity. (Have you seen, for minor example, the costumes at ComicCon or a Trekkie convention?) Looking at an ordinary man who goes from a normal distance to zero, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant debut Remainder (2005) looks at created realities, our interest in and response to them—and in a manner significantly more intriguing than dressing up as Spiderman.
A delicate spiral, Remainder looks at art imitating life, life imitating art, and most importantly, movement between the two spheres as one becomes the other, all in strongly Ballardian fashion. The blurring of lines creating a quiet personal crisis that spills over into the public domain in less than ideal fashion, the novel is disturbing from a pure story point of view: one man’s estrangement from reality becomes an obsession with realizing the “reality” thereof. But from purely a thematic point of view, the novel is far less disturbing, rather more stimulating, captivating. The interplay of the story’s devices and elements forms an engine whose potential parallels to real-world subject matter perpetually set the gears of thought turning.
A gust of wind and bits of falling material are all the unnamed main character remembers. Badly injured in some kind of accident, he is able to relearn most physical activity, while memory remains something of a problem. Scenes from an apartment building recurring in his mind, the man has trouble knowing if they are memories of a reality he experienced before the accident or just his imagination, and thus starts to convince himself the world is a stage. A silver lining to his accident, a settlement of 8.5 million pounds is agreed upon, on the condition the man speak to no one, formally or informally, about the incident. A stock portfolio initially seeming the best option, a chance encounter with a bathroom wall crack, however, serves to change his mind about the money. Deciding the only way to get over the recurring scenes—to concretize what floats through his brain—the man puts his 8.5 million to direct use. He calls a real estate developer with the request they find the building from his visions and recreate the scenes right down to the last detail—a woman cooking liver, a man making mistakes playing the piano, an elderly lady bringing her rubbish to the concierge, black cats on red roofs, and all. Trouble is, can he find a real estate developer who doesn’t think he is mad? Oh, he finds them, and much more.
Though Remainder gently accelerates toward the absurd, it remains a novel grounded in human reality; McCarthy ensures the reader understands the mental stance of the main character relative to normalcy. At first slightly quirky and later quite mad, the points between the two mind-states transition like footsteps on a city sidewalk—normal and unobtrusive. But the man does arrive in crazy-land, certainly. Not clown crazy, it’s a subtly terrifying kind of crazy that on one hand represents something humans are fully capable of, and on the other, serves to illustrate the more abstract relationship between life and art. Thus, where Ballard focused his energy in Crash on a specific life/art cycle, that of people imitating celebrity car crashes, Remainder offers a more generic cross-section, in turn making the transition more transparent. Moreover, where Ballard’s novel feels more like commentary (particularly when set aside his blurry milieu of life and art in The Atrocity Exhibition), McCarthy’s novel feels more like observation—something that renders his conclusion transcendent, pitch perfect.
In the end, Remainder is a fascinating chicken-and-egg exercise examining the relationship of life to art and vice versa. Written in a cold minimalism that strips the exercise down into its bare physical components, the approach serves to make the main character’s decisions and actions all the more penetrating while allowing the concept to be applied to a wider meta. 21st century life saturated with created realities, the simplicity of the presentation does not belie the novel’s sheer relevancy, however, particularly as more and more people shorten the distance to reality. Spiderman, curiously enough, is real in some normal peoples’ minds.