Monday, 21 September 2009

remainder (w. tom mccarthy)

The way in which a book is discovered is part of the potential joy (or disappointment) of being a reader. Books make their way towards their audience, (or prey), often through circuitous routes, both in the process of their writing and dissemination, and the reader's awareness of their existence and gradual drift towards them. After having read a book it always seems as though the connection, between book (writer) and reader was inevitable, but until the book has been opened and consumed, that inevitability has only been theoretical. The books that you will read are out there, wending their way towards you. Many of which you will have no knowing of; because they're still beyond your ken; or they have yet to be written; or even because their writers have yet to be born.

Remainder came to me thus. I was browsing through a website, written by a group of Americans, which I came across because they'd referenced Bolano. It's the same place where I found Zurn, and The Monks. There was a brief entry about McCarthy, who at first I took to be of the Cormac variety, but then learnt was actually called Tom, and was English. I'd never heard of Tom McCarthy, even though he was/ is closer to me than I realised, and was sufficiently intrigued to order the book.

This alone doesn't guarantee its reading. Over the course of the past eighteen months or so I have made attempts to read books by British writers without being able to complete them. I've managed to come up with a kind of reader's block, and it's been years since I read a British work of fiction, as the blog attests.

I started Remainder and once again couldn't get going with it. But something made me start again last week. Perhaps it was the lure of Brixton.

There may be thousands of books set in Brixton, but I've only read one other, many years ago. Remainder is now the second. It mentions many spots I know well. Although it's years since I lived there, Brixton still feels a bit like home when I've been away from London for a while. Apart from playing football there, various friends live in the vicinity. In fact, the day after starting Remainder, I found myself travelling to Brixton three days in a row. And back again. As I travelled, below ground, I read. And learnt that a journey from where I live, on the edge of Zone 1, is the perfect distance for reading one of McCarthy's chapters. I got on the tube to Brixton, reading about Brixton, to emerge in Brixton, a Brixton exactly the same as the one described in the book. But also different. Because the one described in the book is both slightly out of date, and also fictional. It's not real.

Authenticity is in a way the keynote of McCarthy's book. It's nameless narrator, having suffered an unspecified accident, and come into a remarkable sum of money, tries to re-enact moments in his life when he has felt most real, or alive. It's dizzying stuff, as layers of reality seem to collapse in on each other. There's the ghost of Baudrillard hovering around, but also that of Bishop Berkely. How can you re-create reality? But within an alienated world, why wouldn't you want to seek a moment of truth?

It wouldn't be hard at this point to shuffle off into philosophical theorising. Which in itself is testament to the book's imaginative take on Brixton, and the world in general. What has puzzled me, however, is why, after years of finding any attempt to read the work of British writers similar to crossing the Gobi with a bottle of Evian and some M&S sandwiches in the backpack, this book succeeded in flying over (or under) the desert without my even breaking sweat. By way of explanation, I'd say that McCarthy does various things. Firstly, he conceives a remarkable story, and he tells it. He doesn't embellish it, or seek to make it appeal to a variety of selected demographics. He just tells it, in prose which, for the most part, is unadorned and functional. Secondly he's not scared of ideas. He doesn't try and make the ideas human, rather he's happy to twist his humans round his ideas. And the ideas sing for their supper far better than a whole host of carefully conceived characters ever could. Thirdly, he discovers a wicked swathe of humour in all this, which perhaps inevitably arises through the juxtaposition between the lunacy of ideas and their enactment in a given world.

Remainder isn't perfect, and probably wouldn't want to be. But it's a beautiful, dazzling work of fiction, that gives you a glimpse of what words are capable of. (As well as the benefits or risks of owning a coffee house loyalty card.) It's also set in Brixton and its chapters are ideally lengthed for a tube journey between the southernmost tip of the Victoria line and anywhere just beyond the boundary of Zone 1.

Lastly, a postscript on how the book reached this reader. As noted, it did so via a satellite and cables and a server or two, and some readers in the US (I think it's the South somewhere) who alerted me to its existence. It also got to me via an obscure publishers in Paris, who published the book after it had been rejected time after time in the UK. (Something I didn't learn until I had already been gripped by it.) I've also learnt that McCarthy is something of a star in the artworld firmament, which perhaps makes the book's success, and its ability to reach me, less surprising. However, on Thursday night, after playing football with a group of guys I know only through our connection with a small piece of sandy astroturf in Brixton, I placed the book on a wooden table in the Duke of Edinburgh, suggesting to my team-mate he might like it, and he said, oh yes, Tom's a mate of mine. I used to go out with his sister. I'm in his book about Prague. Only it's not me, he just used my song.

There had been a trace of Remainder swirling around in the patterns of the Ferndale Road sand all along.

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