by Tom McCarthy


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Traumatized by an accident which 'involved something falling from the sky' and leaves him eight and a half million pounds richer but hopelessly estranged from the world around him, Remainder's hero spends his time and money obsessively reconstructing and re-enacting vaguely remembered scenes and situations from his past: a large building with piano music in the distance, the familiar smells and sounds of liver frying and spluttering, lethargic cats lounging on roofs until they tumble off them... But when this fails to quench his thirst for authenticity, he starts re-enacting more and more violent events, as his repetition addiction spirals out of control.

A darkly comic meditation on memory, identity and history, Remainder is a parable for modern times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307278357
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/13/2007
Series: Vintage Originals
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 245,964
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Known in the art world for the reports, manifestos and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network, Tom McCarthy is the author of four novels: Remainder, Men in Space, C and Satin Island. The last two were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction.

Read an Excerpt


about the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.

It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that—well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been—or, more precisely, being about to be—hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed. But who’s to say that these are genuine memories? Who’s to say my traumatized mind didn’t just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap—the crater—that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.

And then there’s the Requirement. The Clause. The terms of the Settlement drawn up between my lawyer and the parties, institutions, organizations—let’s call them the bodies—responsible for what happened to me prohibit me from discussing, in any public or recordable format (I know this bit by heart), the nature and/or details of the incident, on pain of forfeiting all financial reparations made to me, plus any surplus these might have accrued (a good word that, “accrued”) while in my custody—and forfeiting quite possibly, my lawyer told me in a solemn voice, a whole lot more besides. Closing the loop, so to speak.

The Settlement. That word: Settlement. Set-l-ment. As I lay abject, supine, tractioned and trussed up, all sorts of tubes and wires pumping one thing into my body and sucking another out, electronic metronomes and bellows making this speed up and that slow down, their beeping and rasping playing me, running through my useless flesh and organs like sea water through a sponge—during the months I spent in hospital, this word planted itself in me and grew. Settlement. It wormed its way into my coma: Greg must have talked about it to me when he came round to gawk at what the accident had left. As the no-space of complete oblivion stretched and contracted itself into gritty shapes and scenes in my unconscious head—sports stadiums mainly, running tracks and cricket pitches—over which a commentator’s voice was playing, inviting me to commentate along with him, the word entered the commentary: we’d discuss the Settlement, though neither of us knew what it entailed. Weeks later, after I’d emerged from coma, come off the drip-feed and been put onto mushy solids, I’d think of the word’s middle bit, the -l-, each time I tried to swallow. The Settlement made me gag before it gagged me: that’s for sure.

Later still, during the weeks I sat in bed able to think and talk but not yet to remember anything about myself, the Settlement was held up to me as a future strong enough to counterbalance my no-past, a moment that would make me better, whole, complete. When most of my past had eventually returned, in instalments, like back episodes of some mundane soap opera, but I still couldn’t walk, the nurses said the Settlement would put me back on my feet. Marc Daubenay would visit and brief me about our progress towards Settlement while I sat in plaster waiting for my bones to set. After he’d left I’d sit and think of sets—six games in tennis or how- ever many matching cups and plates, the scenery in theatres, patterns. I’d think of remote settlements in ancient times, village outposts crouching beneath hostile skies. I’d think of people—dancers, maybe, or soldiers—crouching, set, waiting for some event to start.

Later, much later, the Settlement came through. I’d been out of hospital for four months, out of physiotherapy for one. I was living on my own on the edge of Brixton, in a one-bedroom flat. I wasn’t working. The company I’d been with up until the accident, a market-research outfit, had said they’d give me paid sick leave until May. It was April. I didn’t feel like going back to work. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I wasn’t doing anything. I passed my days in the most routine of activities: getting up and washing, walking to the shops and back again, reading the papers, sitting in my flat. Sometimes I watched TV, but not much; even that seemed too proactive. Occasionally I’d take the tube up to Angel, to Marc Daubenay’s office. Mostly I just sat in my flat, doing nothing. I was thirty years old.

On the day the Settlement came through, I did have something to do: I had to go and meet a friend at Heathrow Airport. An old friend. She was flying in from Africa. I was just about to leave my flat when the phone rang. It was Daubenay’s secretary. I picked the phone up and her voice said:

“Olanger and Daubenay. Marc Daubenay’s office. Putting you through.”

“Sorry?” I said.

“Putting you through,” she said again.

I remember feeling dizzy. Things I don’t understand make me feel dizzy. I’ve learnt to do things slowly since the accident, understanding every move, each part of what I’m doing. I didn’t choose to do things like this: it’s the only way I can do them. If I don’t understand words, I have one of my staff look them up. That day back in April when Daubenay’s secretary phoned, I didn’t have staff, and anyway they wouldn’t have helped in that instance. I didn’t know who the you was she was putting through—Daubenay or me. A trivial distinction, you might say, but the uncertainty still made me dizzy. I placed my hand against my living-room wall.

Daubenay’s voice came on the line after a few seconds:

“Hello?” it said.

“Hello,” I said back.

“It’s come through,” said Daubenay.

“Yes, it’s me,” I answered. “That was just your secretary putting us through. Now it’s me.”

“Listen,” said Daubenay. His voice was excited; he hadn’t taken in what I’d just said. “Listen: they’ve capitulated.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Who? Them! The other side. They’ve caved in.”

“Oh,” I said. I stood there with my hand against the wall. The wall was yellow, I remember.

“They’ve approached us,” Daubenay continued, “with a deal whose terms are very strong each way.”

“What are the terms?” I asked.

“For your part,” he told me, “you can’t discuss the accident in any public arena or in any recordable format. To all intents and purposes, you must forget it ever happened.”

“I’ve already forgotten,” I said. “I never had any memory of it in the first place.”

This was true, as I mentioned earlier. The last clear memory I have is of being buffeted by wind twenty or so minutes before I was hit.

“They don’t care about that,” Daubenay said. “That’s not what they mean. What they mean is that you must accept that, in law, it ceases to be actionable.”

I thought about that for a while until I understood it. Then I asked him:

“How much are they paying me?”

“Eight and a half million,” Daubenay said.

“Pounds?” I asked.

“Pounds,” Daubenay repeated. “Eight and a half million pounds.”

It took another second or so for me to take in just how much money that was. When I had, I took my hand off the wall and turned suddenly around, towards the window. The movement was so forceful that it pulled the phone wire with it, yanked it right out of the wall. The whole connection came out: the wire, the flat-headed bit that you plug in and the casing of the hole that that plugs into too. It even brought some of the internal wiring that runs through the wall out with it, all dotted and flecked with crumbly, fleshy bits of plaster.

“Hello?” I said.

It was no good: the connection had been cut. I stood there for some time, I don’t know how long, holding the dead receiver in my hand and looking down at what the wall had spilt. It looked kind of disgusting, like something that’s come out of something.

The horn of a passing car made me snap to. I left my flat and hurried down to a phone box to call Marc Daubenay back. The nearest one was just round the corner, on Coldharbour Lane. As I crossed my road and walked down the one lying perpendicular to it, I thought about the sum: eight and a half million. I pictured it in my mind, its shape. The eight was perfect, neat: a curved figure infinitely turning back into itself. But then the half. Why had they added the half? It seemed to me so messy, this half: a leftover fragment, a shard of detritus. When my knee-cap had set after being shattered in the accident, one tiny splinter had stayed loose. The doctors hadn’t managed to fish it out, so it just floated around beside the ball, redundant, surplus to requirements; sometimes it got jammed between the ball and its socket and messed up the whole joint, locking it, inflaming nerves and muscles. I remember picturing the sum’s leftover fraction, the half, as I walked down the street that day, picturing it as the splinter in my knee, and frowning, thinking: Eight alone would have been better.

Other than that, I felt neutral. I’d been told the Settlement would put me back together, kick-start my new life, but I didn’t feel any different, fundamentally, from when before Marc Daubenay’s secretary had phoned. I looked around me at the sky: it was neutral too—a neutral spring day, sunny but not bright, neither cold nor warm. I passed my Fiesta, which was parked halfway down the street, and looked at its dented left rear side. Someone had crashed into me in Peckham and then driven off, a month or so before the accident. I’d meant to get it fixed, but since coming out of hospital it had seemed irrelevant, like most other things, so the bodywork behind its left rear wheel had stayed dented and crinkled.

At the end of the road perpendicular to mine I turned right, crossing the street. Beside me was a house that, ten or so months previously, two months before the accident, the police had swooped on with a firearms team. They’d been looking for someone and had got a tip-off, I suppose. They’d laid siege to this house, cordoning off the road on either side while marksmen stood in bullet-proof vests behind vans and lampposts, pointing rifles at the windows. It was as I passed across the stretch of road they’d made into a no man’s land for that short while that I realized that I didn’t have Marc Daubenay’s number on me.

I stopped right in the middle of the road. There was no traffic. Before heading back towards my flat to get the number I paused for a while, I don’t know how long, and stood in what had been the marksmen’s sightlines. I turned the palms of my hands outwards, closed my eyes and thought about that memory of just before the accident, being buffeted by wind. Remembering it sent a tingling from the top of my legs to my shoulders and right up into my neck. It lasted for just a moment—but while it did I felt not-neutral. I felt different, intense: both intense and serene at the same time. I remember feeling this way very well: standing there, passive, with my palms turned outwards, feeling intense and serene.

Reading Group Guide

“A stunningly strange book about the rarest of fictional subjects, happiness.”
—Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Remainder, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant and unsettling first novel. In this mesmerizing and quietly shocking debut, Tom McCarthy takes as his premise an event everyone has dreamed of—sudden and spectacular wealth—and develops it in ways that are both marvelously inventive and deeply disturbing.

1. Why might McCarthy have chosen the word “remainder” for his title? What particular resonance does the word have in the context of the novel’s themes of repetition, re-enactment, and things left over?

2. In the second paragraph of Remainder, the narrator remarks that “Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers” [p. 3]. In what ways does the novel demonstrate the truth of this statement?

3. In what ways is Remainder an unconventional, shocking, and troubling novel? What expectations does it either frustrate or satisfy in unexpected ways?

4. “No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed me that for ever, an eternal detour” [pp. 22–23]. Why does the narrator find this condition so intolerable?

5. In order to create the authentic experience he craves, the narrator realizes that he’d “have to buy a whole building, and fill it with people who’d behave just as I told them to” [p. 69]. How does the use of the artifice and a controlled environment create a feeling of naturalness? What does that paradox reveal?

6. The mysterious “councillor” who appears late in the novel asks what purpose the narrator’s elaborate re-enactments serve—are they art, or perhaps a kind of magic, or shamanic performances? Dr. Trevellian suggests that the narrator is seeking a condition that will generate the mind’s own opiates. The narrator himself believes that he is trying to feel more “real” [pp. 237–240]. Which of these explanations seems most convincing? Are there other ways of understanding the narrator’s bizarre obsessions?

7. In what ways does the narrator’s obsession with controlling time—reliving the past, creating a self-contained world where he can act as a god over people and events—reflect desires that, to one degree or another, most people feel? Is the need to control an inherent part of the human condition?

8. Remainder is a realistic novel and yet it describes actions that seem impossible. How does McCarthy manage to make the more fantastic elements of the novel believable?

9. How does the relationship between the narrator and Naz change over the course of the novel? Why does Naz end up in a catatonic state?

10. The narrator thinks of the man gunned down on Belinda Road, “he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extent of having no more consciousness of them. He’d stopped being separate, removed, imperfect. Cut out the detour” [pp. 197–198]. Why does the narrator find this “merging” so fascinating? To what extent is this a universal desire?

11. The phrase “Everything must leave some kind of mark” is repeated several times throughout the novel. What is the significance of this statement?

12. The narrator kills Robber Re-enactor Two, he says, “because I wanted to,” and is fascinated by the blood coming from the body: “Wow, look at it. It’s just a . . . thing. A patch. A little bit repeating. . . . Isn’t it beautiful?” [pp. 299–300]. Why isn’t he able to feel any empathy for the man he has just killed? Is the narrator himself, by the end of the novel, beyond the reader’s empathy?

13. The novel ends with the narrator forcing the pilot to keep flying back and forth, creating vapor trail that describes a figure eight in the sky and achieving a state approximating pure stasis. Why does this give the narrator such pleasure? How is this flight likely to end? With a deadly crash or a return to land and incarceration?

14. Can Remainder be read as a kind of parable of the human condition? If so, how?

15. The International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictitious avant-garde network for which Tom McCarthy serves as General Secretary, declares on its Web site ( that the origins of art “lie in transgression, death and sacrifice.” In what ways does Remainder explore “transgression, death and sacrifice”?

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