more on tom mccarthy and the international necronautical society

Symbolic Remainder

Tom McCarthy

Interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

On behalf of the International Necronautical

Society, novelist Tom McCarthy and

philosopher Simon Critchley recently released

their ‘Interim Report on Recessional

Aesthetics’ to President Obama in the

pages of Harper’s Magazine. Among

their suggestions to the US leader was

to read the recession allegorically, as

‘the intimate space at the heart of all

economics, its muted truth’, and celebrate

it ‘as you would the revelation of godhead

itself ’. Volume spoke with McCarthy

about representing crisis and trauma –

whether assaults against the economy

or the body – and the death-driven

compulsion to repeat these moments of

intensity in seeking catharsis.

Jeffrey Inaba Can you explain the process of creating Remainder?

Tom McCarthy
Well, in a way the writing of the book

came about by happy accident. I was just passively looking

at a crack in the wall and had this moment of déjà vu

during which I remembered a similar room with a similar

crack. I remembered a building or I kind of half-remembered

– it was like the composite memory Proust describes

in which you can remember a staircase in a house that

never existed because you make a collage in your head from

other houses you’ve known – and I thought it would be

good to reconstruct this moment: to make the house and

to put the crack in the wall.

So that’s what happened in the book. The hero, or antihero,

starts by reconstructing a building he’s remembered.

And by making everyone – all of his neighbors who he’s

remembered – move to the rhythms he’s created as they

cook liver or play piano . Then he expands the parameters of
that reenactment zone until
he’s reenacting shoot-outs
in the street and bank heists.
By the end he’s making planes
fall out of the sky.

JI The hero/anti-hero of Remainder goes into a coma as a

result of an object falling from the sky and hitting him on

the head. How did you arrive at this device as a departure

point for the novel? Was it immediately apparent that this

was how the novel should start out?

No, initially I had to consider that if the hero’s going

to do all this stuff, he needs a lot of money to pay for it.

So he could win the lottery or inherit lots of money from

an uncle like the character Jean Des Esseintes in that

wonderful Huysmans novel Against Nature, which was

definitely an influence on Remainder, but I just wasn’t

convinced. Then I looked into compensation

culture, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and it perfectly

tarried with his whole reenactment

compulsion. For Freud, and for almost all psychologists,

trauma is always linked to repetition afterwards: the

reenactment and repetitive behavior. And so, yeah, it just

kind of made sense. The idea of something falling from

the sky is just straight Blanchot. One of the first things

he points out in The Writing of the Disaster is that

the word comes from ‘des astre’, literally, ‘from the stars’.

It’s the Fall. You can read that as the death of god, the

collapse of metaphysics or in a Newtonian way, in the

sense of gravity: things fall. And in Remainder you have

lots of things, not just airplane parts or bits of technology,

but also undisclosed matter and the share prices of stocks,

falling. He’s somehow reacting against this entropic

universe and trying to delay the inevitable, but of course

he ultimately fails.

He does get his memory back, but what’s lost is a sense of

authenticity. I conducted a long interview with someone

who’d been in a very serious accident resulting in motorneuron

damage and he had to relearn how to do everything

– from walking to lifting a glass.

And interestingly, he said ‘I can do it now, I can lift up

the glass and walk, but it seems fake. It seems like I’m

simulating.’ Warhol said the same thing after he was shot.

He said he felt like he was watching TV for the rest of

his life.

JI In this issue of Volume we think about how narratives of crisis are

told: what structures are employed to convey our experience of a world

in flux? It seems that Remainder is not about narrative per se, rather it’s

about constant confrontations with the elements of storytelling and in

particular the objects that percolate as confrontations within a larger

symbolic order.

Yeah, the character keeps on going on about a carrot

that won’t stay still. That’s a metonym for the whole

material world: this thing that cannot be controlled. And

I suppose, you know, objects are really important. They’re

always really important in Freud.

JI Remainder is about all of these encounters with

estranged objects. During moments of crisis, while we

might obsess over how we construct logical explanations

of the situation, it seems that crisis is really when

things can’t be explained. It’s when there’s a breakdown

of a given symbolic order. We question the relationship

between the things we experience in the world and the

way that the world is described. In that sense do you see

the post-traumatic reencountering of objects the protagonist

goes through as analogous to crisis moments?

Yes. He has to not only reprogram himself in

terms of kinetic stuff and movement, but it’s also about

movement and language. He has a large staff and he

keeps having them look up words in the dictionary and

text him the definitions. That informs his behavior.

By the end, he’s more or less killing people

because of dictionary definitions . So all of that is borne
out of crisis, out of catastrophe.
As he’s moving away
from the catastrophe he’s trying
to remaster the symbolic
order. But what for him is the
happy ending – the euphoric,
orgiastic ending – comes
not through resolution, but
through provoking an ultra
crisis. It’s when everything goes
wrong, spectacularly
wrong, when people are dying all
around him and planes
are crashing. At that moment,
everything comes together.
He’s at one with catastrophe.

Trauma studies report that only trauma is real. The trauma is

the moment-in-time. It’s always excluded from

Narratives and histories of time because it’s always censored:

the actual kernel of the disaster is always withheld

from consciousness or narratable memory. And yet it’s

the only moment which is true, which is real. Therefore

trauma victims often try to recover that moment, as if

it were some lost nirvana. The whole of Remainder is less

a movement away from – or resolution of – crisis than

it is an attempt to reenter crisis and retrigger it. In that respect

it’s successful. I mean, in the end, he gets

his disaster.

–from Volume Magazine