Into Thin Air
In an inventive novel, radio technology signals the start of a violent era
by Tom McCarthy
$25.95 List Price
Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, published in 2007, is a work of clean and seamless guile. There’s no messy and cumbersome interiority, no ruminating, no sociopolitical context, nor much context at all. Just a contemporary city (London), rendered soberly by an unnamed narrator with a metaphysical problem: He’s had a terrible accident of some kind, feels inauthentic as a result, and proceeds to reenact events of escalating complexity in order to recapture a kind of “rightness,” of time coinciding with itself in an idealized manner. He tries to describe his own post-traumatic condition but has little insight, nothing but a feeling that everything is now “completely second-hand.” The joke here, perfectly orchestrated, is that Remainder’s story line points like a dagger toward the blot or lie at the heart of narrative. The narrator’s mysterious trauma, and all trauma, is both the origin of narrative—calling for it, giving rise to it—and also its obstacle, the secret core around which narrative stumbles and lurches, driven by some . . . thing it cannot actually confront. This clever little hermeneutic compelled various critics (famously Zadie Smith) to declare Remainder an attack on so-called lyrical realism and its reliance on myths of subjectivity. But McCarthy hadn’t dispensed with subjectivity—only the humanist trope that truth lies deep therein, waiting to be mined through limpid prose work and earnest reflection. Remainder’s narrator, after all, is a subject defined by the absent trauma that befell him, even if this trauma can’t be named or seen.
It’s to trauma that McCarthy