What would you do if you were totally in charge of everything and everyone around you?
(Get scheduled for exactly the right shifts at your restaurant job, for one thing. Perhaps have an unlimited supply of Anna’s Ginger Thins. Definitely not wait for the subway.)
This question is at the heart of Tom McCarthy’s vivid, bizarre, and slightly maddening debut novel, “Remainder.” I was so caught up the story- a man wakes after a mysterious and violent accident leaves him in a coma to find that the government is giving him 8 1/2 million pounds to keep the details quiet- that it wasn’t until I started writing this blog post that I realized the protagonist has no name.
Way to go, Tom. That was sneaky.
This man- unnamed but certainly fully realized in the novel- must relearn even the most basic actions: picking up a carrot, say, and getting it into his mouth. He remembers much of his past, but not all of it, and seems to be missing a large chunk of his social skills due to the accident. No one can reteach him how to feel, and the closet the man ever comes to talking about pain- emotional or physical- is when he describes a certain tingling in his head as being similar to the feeling you get when you eat too much MSG at a Chinese restaurant.
Obsessed with recreating “reality” as he once knew it, the man hires Naz, a genius ‘facilitator’ of projects for the fabulously wealthy, to rebuild an apartment he vaguely remembered living in. They hire actors to re-enact specific moments the man believed to have transpired in the building- a mechanic tinkers with a motorbike in the courtyard, an elderly lady takes out her trash, the building concierge stands still with her hands clasped behind her back. But there’s something terribly off about this re-enactment: black cats are set loose on the red rooftop, but instead of lounging around, they repeatedly fall to their death. Asked for a solution, the man nonchalantly orders Naz to ensure an extra large backup supply of cats is always ready.
The man is in complete control over everything that happens in this recreated world. People speak the lines they are given, when and how they are told. The man pays them vast sums of money to be constantly on call- whenever he feels like it, the man switches the building into “on” mode and wanders around, sometimes interacting with the actors (or ‘re-enactors’), sometimes laying on the floor and thinking about the sunlight.
I read the first third of this book on the M train home after a rather long and sweaty day. A thing I love and hate about the M is that it runs above ground in Brooklyn. That means that, for 20 minutes of my daily commute, I can check e-mails, send text messages, read the news, and listen to Pandora (thanks, iPhone!). It also means that everyone else on the train can call their cousin in the Bronx and bitch about the heat, or make plans with their boyfriend for dinner, or tell their boss that they’re only running late because the trains are all messed up (lies).
This particular afternoon, I had gotten a seat in a rather crowded car and was reading the disturbing section about the cats falling off the roof when the M broke above ground and started to chug over the bridge to Brooklyn. The girl standing in front of me- or rather, leaning over me as she hung onto the bar above me- immediately pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialed a call. She had so little discretion, it was almost as if she thought she was alone. Not only was her stomach hanging out of her tank top, but the details of her life started pouring out of her mouth as soon as the person on the other end of the line picked up:
“I told you! The toast and the milk were making me sick so I started eating a bagel instead… No! I was throwing up every morning! So I switched to bagels…”
I zoned out as best I could to focus in on the novel, but was snapped out of the story when the girl angrily hung up the phone. She dialed a new number.
“I just hung up on my mother. She was being rude, so I called her lazy and hung up on her. But is it my fault that my own mother is too lazy to do my laundry so I have to give it to my little sister’s mother? And now I have to go pick it up myself. My own mother won’t even go pick it up for me.”
The next call didn’t go through, so she left a message:
“Antony’s laywer called and he wants you to come in at 11 on Friday. For the hearing. He wants you to tell them that Antony’s a good kid and that he never stayed out past curfew or something. I don’t know. Just be there. 11 in the morning on Thursday.”
Geez louise. This was a disaster. How was I supposed to read with all this drama going on right over me? If I had my way, if I got complete control over the subway, there’s be no cell phone use at all. People’s headphones would send their music to their ears only, not seep out and fill the whole car with just a little tiny irritating bit off tinny bass. There’d be a dozen people on every car- few enough to make sure you get a good seat without feeling creeped out. And did I mention- there’d be NO CELL PHONE USE ALLOWED?
But I’ll try not to get too jealous of McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist- judging by the novel’s inevitable yet unfortunate ending, McCarthy seems to subscribe to the “can’t buy me control” school of thought. The book is quick and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it, so I won’t tell you what happens. Suffice it to say, one thing leads to another, and you will be glad to have two feet firmly- and sanely- on the ground.