Some people won’t read novels. I understand. I’m close to not wanting to read novels myself: they’re trying, and often seem the same. But one thing all fiction guarantees is that it will describe a place that doesn’t exist: ideally, a place that bears some relation to the world you think you know but is larger, stranger, bolder and more promising. The rest – stories that never happened, about people who never existed – is immaterial. What is for me the most memorable novel of the last fifty years, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, is endlessly valuable because of its infinite promise: Perec invented a Parisian apartment block and bisected it, as if it were a doll’s house, to describe lives that might have been lived in every one of its hundred rooms. The book’s construction depends on an elaborate pattern, but its central brilliance is trick-free: Paris, 1975, a particular building with cellars and garrets and stairways and salons and endless particular clutter.
The narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder has been given £8,500,000 to keep quiet about an accident that has befallen him. Something – ‘Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know’ – fell from the sky, broke most of his bones and sent him into a month-long coma. He doesn’t remember the accident itself, but we’re led to imagine whirling helicopter blades or a cataclysmic explosion or a freak collision with frozen airborne waste. The accident has altered his memory in an interesting way. His past has gradually come back to him, but with its priorities reversed. His time at university has largely disappeared – collapsed into a round of boring conversations with boring people – but some things he had forgotten have come into sharper focus. Sports, mainly: the arrangement of players on a cricket field, the tactical complexity of football matches. As he was recovering from the coma, he remembers, he had a recurring nightmare or dream: he was compelled to keep up a running commentary on a race; if he didn’t carry on talking, something would go irreparably wrong. Patterns now beguile him. And so does one memory in particular: an apartment block he once lived in, with the smell of frying liver drifting up from downstairs, along with the sound of a man practising the piano while another man tinkers with his motorbike in the courtyard. Across the way, black cats walk on red-tiled roofs.
The memory comes to him after he has locked himself into the bathroom to retreat from the banal goings-on at an acquaintance’s housewarming party. There’s a crack in the plaster, and he thinks he’s seen it somewhere before. So he traces its outline onto a strip of paper, determined not to lose its texture, and the memory comes flooding back: the worn marble flooring in the common areas, the rusting banisters, the tatty plants. Suddenly he knows what he wants to do with his money, and on his lawyer’s recommendation enlists the services of Time Control UK, a company of facilitators for busy executives. He decides to reconstruct his apartment block by buying up and converting a building of roughly the right appearance, and to recruit actors to play all the significant roles: an old lady to fry the liver, a balding piano player, a motorbike enthusiast, a concierge. Lives will be lived on repeat while he moves through the building watching and rewatching the same trivial events unfold.
While teams of investigators scour likely areas of London for the building, and his wunderkind chief facilitator, Naz, directs their operations from a rented office emblazoned with maps and many coloured pins, he absorbs himself trying to recover every last detail. He remembers brushing past the kitchen unit in his apartment to the rustle of spider plants, and descending the staircase just as the liver lady on the floor below deposits a rubbish bag outside her door, holding her aching back with one hand while they exchange words he can’t quite recall. That’s all there really is to his memory: a fleeting instant. He doesn’t seem to be arrested by the fact that the scene has quietly shifted tense – ‘every day she fried liver in a pan, which spat and sizzled and smelled rich and brown and oily’ – as if the mental work involved in examining a past instant has extended it until it occupies an unending amount of time. He is also relatively unexercised by the question of where and when he might have lived in his apartment block. It can’t have been London – the place looks too Parisian for that – but it can’t have been anywhere else. It’s a nowhere, an impossibility, a trick of the light.
It isn’t surprising that his memory isn’t a memory at all: what’s interesting is that he treats it as one. An ideal apartment block is a utopia in which anything can happen and most things probably have; you can reorder it in your imagination so that people interact in novel and perfect ways. I have an ideal apartment block in my head too. It’s made of red brick and sits crammed into a terraced street; the neighbour upstairs wears stripy flannel pyjamas and plays with a train set; people hang washing from the windows. I’ve dreamed about it and woken up to remember it. It feels as though it’s part of me. It isn’t, exactly: it’s an amalgam of memories from children’s books in which – curiously – cats and plants were both involved. The trouble with having a dream retreat available to you, the trouble with fantasy generally, is that you can’t quite get it to behave as it should: it isn’t properly malleable.
McCarthy’s narrator used to know the problem. He was once friendly with an American girl called Catherine. After she went back home they began to exchange mildly flirtatious letters, and he started thinking about her in a way he hadn’t at the time: he developed fantasy scenarios in which their mutual seduction would take place, little scenes that he would ‘play, refine, edit and play again’. In one they would make love in his Fiesta on a country lane with birds singing from the treetops:
I never got this second sequence quite down, though, due to the difficulty of manoeuvring us both into the car without bumping our heads or tripping on the belts that always hung out from the doors. And then I’d worry about where I’d parked it, and whether someone might speed round a bend and crash into it like the drive-off guy from Peckham.
Objects intrude, as objects always do. Fantasy, unlike memory, is unrepeatable.
What the narrator wants in his building is perfect fidelity and perfect repetition. There are setbacks, of course. The black cats keep falling off the roofs to their deaths and are constantly having to be replaced. The piano teacher he employs to trip up endlessly over a passage in Rachmaninov takes it into his head to slope off to an audition, leaving a recording of himself running on a loop. The narrator is livid: it isn’t the same thing at all. During the conversion of the block, he has great difficulty making people understand what it is he expects. Certain parts of the place have never resolved themselves fully in his mind; he wants those he can’t remember to look entirely blank. The high-end interior decorator contracted to the job throws a hissy fit when told that bare plaster and rough concrete will be preferred to his flock wallpaper. A film-set designer is summoned instead, a man who knows how illusion works. There are other blanks too: the narrator could never visualise the concierge’s face, so he has his actress wear a hockey mask. The mask is a kind of victory over the intrusive imagination that wants to fill everything in, and her creepy vacancy – like a figure from nightmare – is exactly what he wants.
Almost anyone can be bullied or bought. But the narrator finds that his own awkward body is harder to manipulate, and he spends several days rehearsing his own role in a key part of his memory: the moment when he brushes past the kitchen cupboard. He remembers it happening smoothly and effortlessly, his shirt lightly touching the wood in a gliding motion. He is badly bruised before he gets it right, and when he finally does it’s a thrill: the sense of easy accomplishment is like a sportsperson’s unselfconscious grace. Ever since the early days of his rehabilitation, when he was relearning how to walk by breaking each movement down into its constituent parts, he has been concerned with the difficulty of unstudied authenticity. He sees the inauthentic everywhere: from a coffee-shop window in Soho he watches a group of young film-industry professionals, with their mobiles slipped into the back pockets of their low-slung jeans, stand about in the street, laughing and looking carefree. Entirely conscious that they’re being watched, they’re as studied as can be, as if they were living some über-glamorous advert, with every pose a careful mimicking of something they have seen and absorbed. But they’re not good enough as actors. Unless you’re Robert De Niro, the fridge door always catches when you open it, the cigarette lighter won’t work first time. He learns that there is only one way to eliminate the intransigence of material things: you have to be a better mimic than the mimics, to repeat and repeat until your movement is automatic.
There’s nothing radical about the idea that the appearance of unconscious ease requires a great deal of practice: we accept that a very good tennis player has to be something of an automaton. But people are uncomfortable with automata in fiction: they want their characters to be fallible and irrational, to suffer mood swings and experience change. In Remainder the characters change, but only to become less and less human. Whenever the narrator asks something difficult of him, there are clicks and whirrs behind Naz’s eyes as he calculates the necessary logistics. Naz is an ultimate bureaucrat, and as the narrator’s demands become increasingly autocratic and increasingly complex – a tyre-repair shop to be reconstructed at Heathrow, a drug-related shooting to be restaged in Brixton, a hypothetical bank heist to be intricately choreographed – he has to process more information than it seems possible for a single mind to contain. It’s ecstasy. The narrator, meanwhile, begins to lose himself in his reconstructions, no longer aware of where or who he is, and spends increasing amounts of time unconscious.
This isn’t how we expect a novel to be, but it’s why it’s a very good novel indeed. It trains you out of a certain way of thinking. When the narrator first receives his £8,500,000 settlement, he visits an accountant who advises him to invest it in shares. He has been admiring the precision handiwork of a team of telephone engineers in the street outside, so opts for a portfolio in telecoms and technology. The accountant gently suggests that he limit his exposure to contingencies by spreading his bets a bit, but he’s adamant: technology, telecoms. The market goes up, he makes a packet. He spends a few million on the apartment block, only to find that his stake has returned to its initial level and then some. This is too good to last, we think. The accountant is getting anxious, and leaves frantic messages telling him to get out before it’s too late. Our man doesn’t return his calls. Everything we know from all the books we’ve read and all the stories we’ve heard tells us that disaster is about to strike. We’re rooting for our hero and we don’t want him to lose any of his lovely money. But he keeps not losing it, and we realise that what we were hoping to avert is what we also half long for, because it’s what we’re brainwashed to expect. A disaster is just another ending to another story. This book has gone too far for that.