Remainder by Tom McCarthy


The characters in the novels of the postwar moment are characterized by a determined, almost defensive normalcy. Characters that break the mold of the defined “normal” flaunt their otherness in the face of the conventional, challenging the ordinary. While these characters delight readers with their unapologetic oddness, they also confront society’s vision of normality causing the normal characters to react to this challenging of their values. In Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the nameless protagonist has suffered a mysterious accident, causing him to have to relearn basic physical behaviors. While he reviews how to perform physical tasks, his cognitive and emotional capacity has clearly been affected. He no longer feels natural in the world he inhabits, rather he feels as though he hardly exists. After winning eight and a half million dollars in a settlement, the protagonist is able to pursue his bizarre fantasy of acting out mundane scenarios over and over; these re-enactments make him feel real, even though the events are entirely staged. Fascinatingly, the supposed “normal” characters are roped into his concept, accepting his orders in return for money. By the end of the novel, the protagonist has managed to involve an enormous number of people in his fantasy, people who seem to do his bidding without questioning his motives. The protagonist in the Remainder spreads his “otherness”, expanding London’s perception of the “normal” through his re-enactments. However, his disregard for human life surpasses the sphere of the natural and enters into the realm of the deviant and inhuman.

The protagonist’s greatest desire is to feel natural and real in a world of which he no longer feels a part. He believes there is too much thought associated with his actions, which frustrates him immensely: “That’s the way I had to do things after the accident: understand them first, then do them.” (McCarthy, 14) He watches a movie starring Robert De Niro, admiring the naturalness of his motions, his realness: “He flows into his movements, even the most basic ones. Opening fridge doors, lighting cigarettes. He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” (McCarthy, 24) Initially the protagonist sees himself as abnormal and De Niro as normal, the unnaturalness of his movements a sign of unusualness. His friend, Greg convinces him, however, that unnaturalness is actually more ordinary than naturalness. “You’re not unusual. You know what you are?…You’re just more usual than everyone else.” (McCarthy, 24) In this scene, our protagonist is deemed extra-ordinary, which begins his foray into extraordinary behavior. Thus, it is in a desire for normalcy, that the protagonist delves into the distinctly abnormal.

The protagonist’s plans start relatively small. He initially wants to create a house for himself that mimics a scene that may or may not have happened. When in the bathroom at a party, he has a moment of intense déjà vu when looking at a crack in a wall. This moment of memory or imagination makes the protagonist feel real for the first time since his accident. He thus decides he will spend his money on re-enacting this scene perfectly: “I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would.” (McCarthy, 67) Thus, begins his concept of re-enactments. He hires a logistical “executor”, Naz, to help him realize his vision. (McCarthy, 77) Naz doesn’t treat the protagonist’s requests as odd, rather he responds as though the desires are perfectly natural. Naz’s enthusiasm for tackling logistical challenges quells any unvoiced doubts he may have about the sanity of the project. The protagonist recognizes in order to construct his fantasy world he will have to, “buy a whole building, and fill it with people who’d behave just as [he] told them to.” (McCarthy, 69) Naz responds to the protagonist’s bizarre requests succinctly and unquestioningly. When the protagonist describes a certain woman he would like to be a part of his re-enactment, “There’ll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me…her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly…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,” Naz simply replies, “Understood…who next?” (McCarthy, 87) Naz’s affinity for logistics causes him to lose sight of the normal and be sucked into the protagonist’s otherness. Neither the protagonist nor Naz considers the lives of these re-enactors; they do not acknowledge that a continuous and physically exhausting job, dependent upon the whims of the protagonist could be unethical. While the protagonist has suffered a trauma, Naz has not, evidencing that the protagonist’s zeal and otherness is spreading to Naz who was previously “normal”.

The intricacy and immensity of the protagonist’s vision causes Naz to hire a huge number of staff members:

We hired an architect. We hired an interior designer. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard. We hired contractors, who hired builders, electricians and plumbers. There were site managers and sub-site managers, delivery coordinators, and coordination supervisors. We took on performers, props and wardrobe people, hair and make-up artists. We hired security guards. We fired the interior designer and hired another one. We hired people to liaise between Naz and the builders and managers and supervisors, and people to run errands for the liaisers so that they could liaise better. (McCarthy, 111)

As the staff grows, the protagonist’s sphere of influence grows larger, causing a large number of “normal” people to become involved in his abnormality. As the protagonist is the narrator, readers have little insight into the minds of his staff; however, their participation in his project suggests complicity. None of the people the protagonist hires to participate in his re-enactments question why he is doing these re-enactments. The only questions they ask are logistical. When explaining the pianist’s role in his re-enactment, the protagonist says, “You make mistakes…then you go over the passage you got wrong again, slowing right down into the bit where you messed up. You play it again and again and again—and then when you’ve got down how to do it without messing up, play it some more times, coming back to normal speed…you with me?” The pianist’s only response is, “I make the mistakes deliberately?” (McCarthy, 119) The obedient and unthinking behavior of the protagonist’s staff is nearly as odd as the protagonist’s vision itself. The protagonist spreads his peculiarity with the simple incentive of money. The compensation for their actions cause the staff not to question the idiosyncratic vision the protagonist is attempting to realize.

While the protagonist shows a blatant lack of concern for the convenience of his employees, even employing children at all hours to satisfy his desires, his re-enactment of a shooting reveals his lack of reverence for human life. He procures the part of the street where the shooting took place, not imagining that this re-enactment could be upsetting for the family of the dead man. He is only concerned with the “realness” of the event and must re-enact it. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it is real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams: with all their outlines, arrows and shaded blocks they look like abstract paintings…but they’re not abstract at all. They’re records of atrocities.” (McCarthy, 185) While the protagonist may not show reverence for the dead man’s life, he does actually honor him in his own way. “This man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac 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 extend of having no more consciousness of them.” (McCarthy, 198) The supposed “normal” people are not having the same semi-reverent experience with the dead man; none of them have undergone a trauma like the protagonist. Their concept of humanity should not be affected, yet, they participate in a re-enactment that, in their view, should be considered unethical. These people should be held to a higher moral standard, yet the prospect of money causes them to forget their qualms about impersonating a recent death. The protagonist has extended the morally acceptable with and money.

As the novel progresses, Naz becomes increasingly affected and obsessed with exacting the protagonist’s vision. It isn’t the re-enactments themselves that excite him, rather the opportunity to put all of his logistical genius to work. The narrator notes a change in the behavior and demeanor of Naz, “He’d always been dedicated to my projects…but back then his dedication had been purely professional. Now, though, his inbuilt genius for logistics was mixed with something else: a kind of measured zeal, a quiet passion. He defended my work with a fierceness that was muted but unshakable.” (McCarthy, 233) Naz is grateful to the narrator for allowing him into his fantasy, providing him the opportunity to exert his logistical abilities. He says to the narrator, “‘Thank you…for the…just for the…I’ve never managed so much information before…’ His eyes were sparking now.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s suspicions are confirmed, “Yes. Naz was a zealot—but his zealotry wasn’t religious: it was bureaucratic. And he was drunk: infected, driven onwards, on towards a kind of ecstasy just by the possibilities of information management my projects were opening up for him, each one more complex, more extreme.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s abnormal desires allow Naz a professional opportunity that is inconceivable in the normal world. He pushes the boundaries of conventionality, which then allows Naz to also pursue his passion. However, Naz’s zealotry for his work soon competes with his humanity.

The narrator decides that he would like to re-enact a bank heist. He procures a warehouse and meticulously plans out the event. The narrator soon realizes that his re-enactment would be more genuine if it were a real bank heist. He decides to plan a re-enactment without obtaining permission of the bank or telling the re-enactors that the heist is real. The re-enactment becomes a real robbery. “In law we’d be robbing a bank. There were no two ways about it. In the eyes of the staff, the customers and bystanders and police it wouldn’t be a performance, a simulation, a re-staging: it would be a heist—pure and simple, straight up.” (McCarthy, 263) The narrator and Naz plan the heist, but soon realize that there is great potential for information leakage about their plan. Naz comes up with the plan to kill all of the re-enactors in planes. “One way to guarantee there’ll be no information leakage…is to eliminate the channels it could leak through.” (McCarthy, 274) When the protagonist asks Naz what he means by ‘eliminate’, Naz replies: “‘Eliminate…’ his voice was shaking so much it reminded me of spoons in egg-and-spoon races, the way they shake and rattle—as though the task of carrying what it had to say were too much…‘Remove, take out, vaporize.’” (McCarthy, 274) The narrator is unperturbed about the deaths of hundreds of people. His reply to Naz’s suggestion is, “Wow!…That’s beautiful.” (McCarthy, 276) At this point of the novel, the complete inhumanity and extreme otherness of the protagonist becomes clear; “I lay there for the rest of the night, picturing planes bursting, flowers dehiscing. I felt happy—happy to have seen such a beautiful image…My pyramid was like a Pharaoh’s pyramid. I was like the Pharaoh. There were my loyal servants…my reward to them was to allow them to accompany me on the first segment of my final voyage.” (McCarthy, 276) His lack of compassion for human beings and concern for human life turn his oddness and peculiarity into deviance.

The bank heist goes horribly wrong. One of the protagonist’s hired re-enactors is shot and killed during the re-enactment. “The only thing that moved was a deep red flow coming from Four’s chest. It emerged from his chest and advanced onto the carpet…‘Beautiful!’ I whispered.” (McCarthy, 291) It is not only the protagonist’s lack of concern about his employee’s death that point to his complete ambivalence toward human life. The fact that he does not know any of his employees’ names and refers to them as numbers further emphasizes his unnaturalness and inhumanity. When the other re-enactors try to call off the re-enactment, they realize that they have been duped, that the re-enactment was a real heist.  Naz’s reaction to the failure of the re-enactment and the messiness of the mistakes cause him to break down. “It wasn’t dramatic or hysterical: it was more like a computer crashing—the way the screen, rather than explode or send its figures dancing higgledy-piggledy around, simply freezes.” (McCarthy, 297-298)

Though the protagonist is responsible for the death of Four, it is still possible to consider his death an accident. However, that is not the case with the death of Two. The protagonist blatantly and needlessly shoots Two, simply because he feels like it. “Two was as far from me as Four had been when he, Two had shot him, Four, in the back…I shot him. It was half instinctive, a reflex, as I’d first suspected: to tug against the last solid thing there was, which was the trigger…but I’d be lying if I said it was only that that made me pull the trigger and shoot Two. I did it because I wanted to.” (McCarthy, 299)The protagonist feels no guilt or shame when Naz sees Two’s body. The protagonist cheerfully says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” (McCarthy, 300) At this point the normal and the deviant separate. While the protagonist is untroubled by the murder he just committed, Naz is unable to cope with the reality of death, particularly one that is messy and disorganized. “Naz didn’t answer. He just stood there, looked up, closed down, vacant.” (McCarthy, 300) While Naz is able to plan the conceptual murders of hundreds of people in planes, when faced with the reality of death he shuts down. Perhaps normal isn’t the right word for Naz, however he is more certainly more so that the protagonist who cheerfully considers the death of two of his nameless employees as “beautiful”. It is the protagonist who infects Naz with the his vision, the prospect of exercising his logistical genius with an intricate project. However, Naz is not entirely soulless. He is horrified at the prospect of a dead man in front of him, while the protagonist’s reaction to the death is happiness.

The narrator, in his effort to feel real and normal becomes abnormal and deviant. Though his actions allow for the gainful employment of hundreds of people, and provide professional opportunities for people like Naz, his expansion of the realm of the normal snaps with his decision to kill all of his employees. His enormous amount of wealth allows him to challenge the status quo without being challenged by dubious staff. His oddness is initially acceptable, despite some of his unethical practices, like making people, adults and children work extreme hours and failing to learn his employees’ names. However once humans are harmed in the execution of his fantasy, he enters the realm of positive evil. While a character like Naz is certainly changed and affected by his association with the narrator, his humanity is not entirely lost like the protagonist’s. He still regards murder with shock and horror, rather than an unconcerned euphoria. While the protagonist expands London’s concept of normal, he eventually crosses the line. His otherness becomes blaring and unacceptable in the face of normality.