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?
TM 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
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
TM 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?
TM 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
–from Volume Magazine