It's incredibly rare for me to buy a frontlist title because I absolutely hate paying hardcover prices. Besides, they're bulky, heavy, and—depending on the number of pages—don't easily fit inside a purse. As a result, I mostly consign myself to bargain books and paperback releases.
Then I read a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder in The Guardian:
But is all as it seems? The narrator is haunted by the smell of cordite; there are characters who might not be real; and he begins to fall into catatonic trances brought on by the re-enactments. Is this purgatory? Did he in fact die in the traumatic event? McCarthy wisely lets the question remain open, finding instead a marvellous closing image of a plane flying a figure of eight - which, of course, is also the symbol for infinity.
Hmm. It sounded intriguing but wasn't available yet on this side of the ocean, so I made a note of the title and author and went on my merry way. A few months later, Levi oozed enthusiasm when the U.S. paperback original made the front cover of The New York Times Book Review. I thought to myself, "Oh, yeah. I remember being interested in that one," and placed an order on Amazon because I had no problem with paying a paperback price.
Within the first few pages, I fell in love. I reviewed it for an Australian lifestyle site and set it up here as May's discussion. Unfortunately, the discussion didn't go over very well because one participant stopped in after discussion week was technically over (but thanks for the comment!), Eddie finally dropped in even later (but we talked about it in person), and I pretty much fell down on moderator duties.
In time, posts about it began popping up on other blogs. Matthew Tiffany has mentioned it with near obsession on Condalmo. I talked about how much I loved it over dinner with Levi, Jason, and Ed (and it seems as though Ed has finally jumped on the McCarthy bandwagon). It's been reviewed on Bookslut and The Quarterly Conversation. Ready, Steady, Book is currently running a five-part interview series with Tom McCarthy.
I've been seeing the book everywhere, and it makes me want to experience Remainder all over again. Yet, despite the unnamed narrator's need to reenact in order to get at what's real, my reality is that I probably won't reread with the same amount of awe as the first time.
But McCarthy has a new book out, Men in Space, which is not yet available in the U.S. So you know what happened? The same person who usually scoffs at overpriced, bulky books has ordered the hardcover and paid a premium for express international shipping.
I simply have to have it.
Discussion: Remainder by Tom McCarthy
For this month's discussion, let's begin at the beginning:
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. (p. 3)
As you read, did you make note of the punctuation? Did it help or hinder your understanding of the narrator and his story? Do you think it serves a purpose other than making the text readable?
When I began reading Remainder, the first thing I noticed was the punctuation. Take another look at these first two paragraphs. There are periods, question marks, apostrophes, commas, semi-colons, colons, and em dashes. I'm amazed McCarthy failed to work in an ellipsis and an exclamation point. As I continued reading, I noticed that the punctuation played an important part in helping to establish the tone of the prose. Em dashes, for example, are often used to indicate breaks in thought, and our unnamed narrator has certainly suffered from scattered thoughts since the accident.
What do you think of the narrator? Is he reliable or unreliable? Is he a hero or an anti-hero?
Near the end of the third chapter, the narrator goes to a coffee shop and observes two groups of people. The first, media types with sharp clothes and colorful cell phones, remind him of a television ad showing beautiful people having fun. The second group consists of homeless people, and he decides that they are genuine. "That they really did possess the street, themselves, the moment they were in. (p. 56)" He tells us he takes one of the homeless for a meal—to find out more about his genuineness—but we quickly learn that he's lying. He hasn't spoken to anyone and has drawn a new conclusion: the homeless are usurpers and only pretend to own the space around them.
Initially, I didn't know what to make of this scene. It took many more pages before beginning to think that the narrator uses it to set us, the reader, up. He lies then fesses up in order to make us believe he's incapable of lying even though he began with a perfectly believable lie in the first place. Although I spent most of the book liking the narrator, it took me all the way to the concluding scene on the airplane before deciding he is an anti-hero. As he searched for genuineness, I sympathized with his plight because I often feel like I act a part as I go through life. However, as his search turned more frantic, his reenactments became increasingly beyond reason: a murder, a bank robbery, a hijacking. The ending snuck up on me, and I didn't realize the level of his disconnect until after I finished the book.
What of the reenactments? Are they surreal? Hyper-real? What is the narrator trying to accomplish? What is he searching for?
Although the beginning of the book spends a fair amount of time setting up the rest of the book, I'm still not exactly sure about the narrator's purpose. Since the accident, he clearly feels like a second-hand version of himself. He says he is looking for authenticity, the mysterious thing that makes a moment real. At first, the reenactments seem like his way of recapturing his memories. Yet, he does things like obsessively practice having his shirt brush against woodwork and slows down the reenactments so that the actors are barely moving. He leaves reenactments in "on" mode even when he isn't present and has actors work in shifts to run around the clock. He watches a scene in real life while simultaneously recreating the same scene using a miniature architectural model. For me, his search for authenticity became more and more unauthentic as the book progressed.
What is the remainder?
After having a tire repaired, the narrator also asks for a fill-up of his car's window washing fluid. Two liters are poured into the reservoir but:
They'd vaporized, evaporated. And do you know what? It felt wonderful. Don't ask me why: it just did. It was as thought I'd just witnessed a miracle: matter—these two litres of liquid—becoming un-matter—not surplus matter, mess or clutter, but pure, bodiless blueness. Transubstantiated. (p. 171)
At the above moment, he believes he has seen something amazing and wants to understand it, down to the fraction of a second and to the tiniest molecule. He wants to experience the remainder, whatever is left over after matter is stripped away. Of course, such a feat is impossible as is clearly demonstrated seconds later when the blue fluid squirts out the dashboard and onto his pants. I'd have given up at this point (maybe sooner), but the narrator is undeterred. What is with this guy?
I have a lot (TONS!) of things to do today because I am hosting the family for a Mother's Day BBQ on Sunday. The house is a wreck, flats of flowers need to be planted, a bird's nest in a bad spot in the shed should be relocated, grass must be mowed, and the yard has to be cleared of piles of wood being stored for next winter. There's a chance of rain for this afternoon and tomorrow, so the outside stuff has to be handled ASAP.
While I'm out working my butt off, here are a few bookish things to keep you busy:
- Our discussion of The Wasp Factory is still going. If you've read the book, please feel free to drop in and leave a comment. However, the thread contains huge spoilers. I wouldn't recommend reading through it before having finished the book.
- Interested in starting your own online book club? Check out Curling Up, a new forum site for people who love talking books.
- I Feel Pithy Book Blog is running a book drive to benefit the Oasis Youth Shelter in Ft. Myers, Florida. Find out more about it and, seriously, consider making a donation by purchasing an item from the Amazon wish list. Between now and July 13th, your donation will be matched by the owner of the blog. Get your give on.
- I've been meaning to post about Library Thing's UnSuggester, but Bookninja beat me to it. If you hated The Da Vinci Code or wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole, you might want to read some of these books. However, considering its sales numbers, I bet it's on a lot more bookshelves than the 12,000+ Library Thing members who have admitted to it.
- Speaking of bad writing, poor John Grisham. Looking at the top 20 most available Bookins books, he has the honor of having 10 titles on the list. His books are clearly not keepers.
- According to Stephen Colbert, we are winning the war on reading. "People are going to read what Oprah tells them to read and they are going to like it." Guest Salman Rushdie says he no longer needs to worry about the fatwa and brings Paris Hilton's memoirs to the world's attention.
- Are you a frustrated writer? Maybe a video called "How to Write the Great American Novel" will help. After watching it, I'm now considering becoming a novelist. I regularly have to remind friends/family of my genius and get plenty of sleep, so I must be qualified.
- Plotastic is a blog run by an aspiring novelist who needs some ideas. He's conducting a poll to find out what you think his book should be about. He should watch the above video. If I understood it properly, alliteration and cowboy chaps are more important than plot.
- And don't forget. Our discussion of Tom McCarthy's Remainder will begin on May 21st. Shouldn't you be reading it instead of this?
Spring Cleaning for Reading
I don't know what you've been up to over the last few days, but I have been taking full advantage of the long-awaited arrival of spring weather. With winter lasting until the end of April, I have become very behind on sprucing up the garden. Yesterday was near perfect, so I spent it working grass seed into the bare patches on the lawn and yanking out the dreaded dandelions. In between spurts of digging in the dirt, it was delightful to sit at the patio table with a cool beverage and a good book.
It's time to get ready for summer reading and mark your calendars for our upcoming discussions:
May 21, 2007 - Remainder by Tom McCarthy
June 25, 2007 - Happiness by Will Ferguson
July 23, 2007 - On Beauty by Zadie Smith
August 20, 2007 - Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
Speaking of Remainder and this month's discussion, I have written a review of the book for thescene, a lifestyle e-zine based in Australia. You can read the review here, but I'll go ahead and let you know right now that I loved it. The writing is just as surreal as the storyline and compliments it well.
There's also a blog dedicated to the work of Tom McCarthy, which I assume was created by a fan, called Surplus Matter. It hasn't been updated since March, but it does contain the full text of many reviews of the book and interviews with the author. If you're interested in finding out more about Remainder, Surplus Matter is an excellent resource.
Next month's title, Happiness will be hosted by Brian of Dispatches from an MFA Seeking Writer. (He's pretty close to graduating, I think. I wonder if he'll change the name of his blog to Dispatches from an MFA Graduate Seeking a Book Deal.) Brian is no stranger to hosting, since each week he leads his visitors on Haiku Saturday. Surely you have a few moments to stop by and haiku with the crew.
May's Discussion: Remainder by Tom McCarthy
It's been one of those days. Due to sundry reasons, I haven't managed to finish a single thing. I worked on the site because all of its pages were recently converted to PHP, but got tired of looking at code. I began another post, but ran out of writing steam. I attempted to answer emails and respond to comments, but still suffered from issues with words. During the afternoon's pleasant weather, I managed to halfway put together a small rock garden before tiring of hauling rocks.
Although I feel like I did a lot of work today, I accomplished very little except for one thing. I have chosen a book for next month's discussion. The following is from the back cover copy of Remainder by Tom McCarthy:
A man is severely injured in a mysterious accident, receives an outrageous sum in legal compensation, and has no idea what to do with it.
Then, one night, an ordinary sight sets off a series of bizarre visions he can't quite place.
How he goes about bringing his visions to life—and what happens afterward—makes for one of the most riveting, complex, and unusual novels in recent memory.
Remainder is about the secret world each of us harbors within, and what might happen if we were granted the power to make it real.
Normally, I finish each book I choose to discuss before choosing it for discussion. I'm only a small way into Remainder, so choosing it seems fitting on a day of getting nothing done.
Now, a question: Anyone want to moderate July?