Tomorrow at 2pm I’ll be interviewing novelist Tom McCarthy at the Storefront for Art and Architecture here in London. McCarthy’s excellent book Remainder – which just last month won the fourth annual Believer Book Award – is about a man in London who is hit on the head by “something falling from the sky.”
He thus goes into a coma; he is involved in a lawsuit upon waking; he’s awarded £8.5 million in damages. This all takes place in the first few pages.
[Image: Tom McCarthy and Remainder].
The rest of the book is about the narrator’s attempt to figure out what exactly to do with all that money – as well as how he can recreate, to a hilariously precise extent, a building in which he might (or might not) have once lived.
What happens is that he’s struck by a moment of déjà vu while in the bathroom at a friend’s party, and so he realizes, with a sense of overwhelming purpose bordering on religious epiphany, that he must use his new-found funds to reconstruct the exact circumstances of the moment to which that déjà vu referred. If he can’t remember everything about that déjà vu in its entirety, in other words – well, then, he’ll just physically recreate it. It’s a “forensic procedure.”
After all, he’s got £8.5 million. What else is he going to do?
To facilitate this projective act of mnemonic reconstruction, he first gets in touch with real estate agents. In Chapter 5 – a chapter which should be required material in certain architectural design courses – we read:
I spoke to three different estate agents. The first two didn’t understand what I was saying. They offered to show me flats – really nice flats, ones in converted warehouses beside the Thames, with open plans and mezzanines and spiral staircases and balconies and loading doors and old crane arms and other such unusual features.
“It’s not unusual features that I’m after,” I tried to explain. “It’s particular ones. I want a certain pattern on the staircase – a black pattern on white marble or imitation marble. And I need there to be a courtyard.”
“We can certainly try to accommodate these preferences,” this one said.
“These are not preferences,” I replied. “These are absolute requirements. (…) And it’s not one property I’m after,” I informed her. “It’s the whole lot. There must be certain neighbors, like this old woman who lives below me, and a pianist two floors below her, and…”
Getting nowhere with the agents of already-existing London real estate, he turns to the services of a firm called Time Control. Time Control can make things happen – very precise things.
He soon meets up with Nazrul Ram Vyas, a representative of the firm.
“I have a large project in mind,” I said, “and wanted to enlist your help.” “Enlist” was good. I felt pleased with myself.
“Okay,” said Naz. “What type of project?”
“I want to buy a building, a particular type of building, and decorate and furnish it in a particular way. I have precise requirements, right down to the smallest detail. I want to hire people to live in it, and perform tasks that I will designate. They need to perform these exactly as I say, and when I ask them to. I shall most probably require the building opposite as well, and most probably need it to be modified. Certain actions must take place at that location too, exactly as and when I shall require them to take place. I need the project to be set up, staffed and coordinated, and I’d like to start as soon as possible.”
“Excellent,” Naz said, straight off. He didn’t miss a single beat. I felt a surge inside my chest, a tingling.
They later discuss what some of these hired residents will do.
“What tasks would you like them to perform?”
“There’ll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me,” I said. “Her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly. Her kitchen must face outwards to the courtyard, the back courtyard onto which my own kitchen and bathroom will face too. The smell of liver must waft upwards. She’ll also be required to deposit a bin bag outside her door as I descend the staircase, and to exchange certain words with me which I’ll work out and assign to her.”
“Understood,” said Naz. “Who’s next?”
In any case, to make a long story short, the narrator goes on to audition actors – or re-enactors – and to become increasingly unhinged. Weird chains of events extending well outside the original architectural structure are acted out – including a robbery – and re-enactors are soon hired to re-enact earlier actions by the first group of re-enactors. The whole thing takes on the feel of a nomadic and vaguely schizophrenic opera troupe on the loose in Greater London, performing scenes from a life that never really happened, under the illusion that they’re helping an eccentric millionaire to get his lost memories back.
Three quick questions, then:
1) On the most basic level, how different are some of the narrator’s requests from the precise, arcane, and well-practiced moves of 19th-century butlers and other house attendants? In other words, what appears to be mania in a person hit on the head by an unidentified piece of technology falling from the sky is seen as tradition, class structure, and ritualistic social role in the lives of others.
2) What on earth would it have been like to work for someone like the legendarily eccentric Howard Hughes, who had not £8.5 million to spend on strange projects but literally billions? Or, more interestingly, from the standpoint of a novelist, what other, far more ambitious demands could Hughes have made of his staff? I’m tempted to pitch a novella in which Howard Hughes has sent a small team of actors deep into the Andes where they are required to build a house just like his own, to change their names to Howard for exactly one year, and to act out forgotten moments from his own past on a precisely worked out schedule. There are bells, alarms, and inspections. Until one of them gets fed up…
3) There was an interesting article in The New Yorker several months ago about the use of immersive, 3D simulations of war scenes from Iraq to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers. The general idea was that, by confronting, over and over again, the very thing that once traumatized you, you could nullify its long-term psychological effects. But what if these immersive simulations didn’t have to take place on computer screens inside military labs? Perhaps a returning soldier – the son of a refrigeration billionaire – will take matters into his own hands on a large estate in South Dakota, building vast stage sets… Remainder 2: Return to Basra.
So I’ll be speaking with Tom McCarthy tomorrow, July 4th, at 2pm, in South Kensington. Feel free to stop by!