Zadie Smith praises Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as “one of the great English novels of the past 10 years,” and further extolls in her essay “Two Directions for the Novel” that McCarthy’s text creates newly revealed spaces “On literary modes (How artificial is realism?), on existence (Are we capable of genuine being?), on political discourse (What’s left of the politics of identity?), and on the law (Where do we draw our borders? What, and whom, do we exclude, and why?). As surface alone, though, so fully imagined, and so imaginative, Remainder is more than sufficient” (96).
Remainder follows the story of an unnamed protagonist who suffers a severe head injury in a mysterious accident. The reader of the novel never gets the specifics about what happened to the narrator, but the general gist of the accident is that something fell from the sky—“Technology. Parts, bits” (3)—which crashed into the head of Remainder’s protagonist. The whole event is “a blank: a white slate, a black hole” for the recently-un-comatose-man, and he only possesses “vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been—or, more precisely, being about to be—hit” (3). All the reader is privy to is that the protag has just awoken from a prolonged coma—how long is never divulged—because of some blunt force trauma, and he has just received eight and a half million pounds (approx. $12, 798, 450) as a result of a settlement with the “parties, institutions, organizations—let’s call them the bodies—responsible” (4). Following the accident, the narrator feels inauthentic and sees inauthenticity everywhere. Going through his physical therapy sessions, he cannot be natural, and he constantly complains that he isn’t fluid. “He’s only good at completing cycles and series,” explains Smith, “reenacting actions” (85). Eventually, Remainder’s unnamed protag goes to the washroom in the flat of one of his friends, David Simpson, where he becomes fascinated with a crack in the plaster of the washroom’s wall. The crack in the wall of his friend’s washroom creates an abrupt sense of déjà vu. The narrator says that, “The sense of déjà vu was very strong. I’d been in a space like this before, a place just like this, looking at the crack, a crack that had jutted and meandered in the same way as the one beside the mirror” (65). The protag is remembering a crack in the bathroom of an apartment in which he used to live, a very specific six-story building with distinctly described neighbors, and the sense of déjà vu sparks a grandiose plan: the narrator is going to rebuild his old apartment building and hire actors to portray the specific neighbors who will reenact the distinct behaviors and movements that he remembers (or thinks he remembers) his neighbors performing—such as: cooking liver, playing the piano, greeting him in the hallway, working on a motorcycle—with his settlement money, n.b., the narrator—following the advice of his lawyer—hires a financial consultant and, as a result of doing the exact opposite of what the professional financier says, has what seems like an unlimited supply of money.
The exact reenactment w/r/t his old apartment building and previous neighbors is only the tip of the iceberg. The unnamed protag becomes addicted to a “sense of gliding, of light density. The moment [he] was in seemed to expand and become a pool—a still, clear pool that swallowed everything up in its calm contentedness,” as he reenacts his old life in his old apartment building (147), and he associates that tingling feeling he experiences with the fluidity that he feels is missing from his life. As a result, he starts creating and performing grander and grander reenactments in order to increase the effects of that high, culminating with a reenactment of a bank heist.
In order to stage his final reenactment, the narrator hires an ex-professional bank robber Edward Samuels to help him with the logistics of setting up an hold-up, and Samuels tells the protag that, “The staff are programmed to behave a certain way, the robbers know this and the staff know they know, and the robbers know they know they know. So a robber, ideally, follows a strict action-reaction pattern: A does X, B does Y in response, A then does Z and the whole interaction’s run its course” (249). Samuels, in addition, tells the protag that the preset pattern works in both the favor of the banks and the robbers, though, admittedly, the system Samuels describes is heavily weighted in the bank’s favor. The banks aren’t so much concerned with stopping the robbery as it is with setting in motion the process for nabbing the robbers after they have left, hopefully with zero to minimal drops of blood spilt. The robbers, Samuels explains, have to delay the bank employees from pressing the button to sound the alarm as long as possible therefore.
The original plan involved building an exact replica of the bank, hiring re-enactors to portray the bank employees and customers as well as the security guards and robbers, and, basically, pulling off the robbery in a controlled environment. However, the narrator becomes increasingly fascinated with the patterns involved in bank heists after hearing Samuels’s description; additionally, the training that the employees at the bank have to go through awes him. In his eyes, the employees are already re-enactors, and the protag is struck with a realization as he lies in the bathtub that sends a jolt through him—“almost a shock, as though the water had become electric” (261). He decides to transfer the reenactment of the bank heist to the actual bank, and in a true no-two-ways-fashion, he decides to commit a real-deal bank heist. Why? “For the same reason I’d done everything I’d done since David Simpson’s party,” states the protag “to be real—to become fluent, natural, to cut out the detour that sweeps us around what’s fundamental to events, preventing us from touching their core: the detour that makes us all second-hand and second-rate” (264).
The narrator and his re-enactors—n.b., the re-enactors, to whom the narrator assures that the bank’s employees (in an act of complete negligence) have green lighted his (the narrator’s) change of the re-enactment location, have no idea that they’re about to commit an armed robbery—rehearse over and over again the bank heist in a rented out warehouse, and in a weird sense, the real bank staff and real security guards also rehearse the bank heist, but they do so in their robbery training drills, so oddly enough it is almost as if the heist had all happened already. Remainder’s protag muses over the fact that his bank heist has already happened millions of times before, since mankind first started circulating currency, and he pauses to reflect on the thought that, “They’d [the heists] never stopped happening, intermittently, everywhere, and our repetition of them here in Chiswick on this sunny autumn afternoon was no more than an echo,” states the protag (281); however, he also notes that in another sense, though, that the heist had never happened, “this being not a real event but a staged one, albeit one staged in a real venue, it never would. It would always be to come, held in a future hovering just beyond our reach” (281-82). Lost in the Heideggerean ekstasies (unity of the past, present, and future), the narrator only knows one thing, which is that his plan goes FUBAR. Quick.
When the narrator shows up to the Chiswick bank with his posse, he, in the spirit of Baudrillard’s hyper-real, starts to compare the real-life bank, the real-life transport vans, the real vault, etc. to the replicas from his warehouse. Inside the bank, all goes according to plan; that is, until own of the narrator’s re-enactors trips and falls into a second re-enactor as the crew is making off with the sacks of cash. During the reenactments in the warehouse, there was a kink in the carpet that one of the re-enactors kept tripping over. The movement looked so natural and fluid to the narrator during the rehearsals that he (the narrator) instructs the re-enactor to keep tripping over and over the snag in the carpet, ten to twenty times a day, so when it comes time to perform the real heist, the re-enactor still tripps, despite the fact that the carpet in the real bank was perfectly smooth. The collision causes one of the re-enactors to pull the trigger of the shotgun he is holding, and the shotgun’s spray catches a third re-enactor in the chest causing him to crumble to the floor in a pool of his own blood. The re-enactors begin yelling for help and try to call the re-enactment off when they finally come to the horrifying realization: “It’s real!” (293). Those two words, “It’s real,” causes an intense tingling sensation in the narrator that, “flowed outwards from [his] spine’s base and flowed all around [his] body” (293). Watching the re-enactor die, the narrator finally feels alive and real. Death becomes a space for the narrator to occupy and represents a movement from one plane to another. The narrator delivers himself over to death, i.e., the unknown. The chaos and unpredictability of the real eclipses the narrator’s ideal perfection, and it’s in the moment of failure at the bank that the narrator realizes that he’s human. Remainder’s end is ultimately about failure: “We want to go to the heavens as heroes but we trip over our own shoelaces and piss ourselves” (McCarthey Mattering of Matter 73).