Monday, November 14, 2005

About the accident itself I can say very little

As much as we hate to admit it, STML is a sucker for hype, and the buzz around this title, the excellent You Are Hear interview with the author on Resonance last week, and the backstory of an interesting new press, means this one was a shoe-in for a review.

Tom McCarthy is the shadowy figure behind the International Necronautic Society artistic/theoretical collective, while Metronome Press, an offshoot of Clémentine Deliss' Metronome art magazine, styles itself on the avant-garde mixture of high art and low porn publishing practiced by our old mate Maury Girodias, of the Olympia Press. (The Metronome books are all published in Paris, in English, and are currently available from arty outlets like the ICA and the Serpentine bookstores, as well as the usual online sources.)

Remainder concerns itself with the holy grail of the artist (particularly those who, like McCarthy, work mostly at the conceptual level): the moment when their creation steps over into the 'real' world and becomes an actor rather than an object in it. The struggle to achieve this is embodied in Remainder's protagonist, who is in the process of recovering from a serious but unspecified accident, for which he has been paid a very large sum in compensation. Bored by his old life, which has been rendered both incomprehensible by the accident and unnecessary by his sudden fortune, he struggles with the age-old dilemma of authenticity in everyday life, the sensation that while everyone else knows exactly what they're doing, he is merely pretending, acting out a part; and doing a pretty bad job of it at that.

To counteract this feeling, he begins to use the compensation money to create elaborate re-enactments, first of half-remembered people and locations, then of more concrete events - an incident in a garage, forensically researched crime scenes - and finally of meticulously realised fictional events. The scenes are analysed down to the finest grain: the light in a corridor specifically "higher, sharper, more acute", a Brixton roadway "like an old grand master - one of those Dutch ones thick with rippling layers of old paint, [the tarmac] old, fissured and cracked." Only within these rigorous playlets can he sense himself becoming 'real', even while it becomes increasingly obvious to the reader that he is in fact becoming more and more ill. Danger signs multiply, but he is egged on by his ever-present support team of logistics staff, designers and architects, built up over the course of many months to handle his increasingly maniacal requests.

It is only when, in a surprisingly shocking denouement, the re-enactments finally cross over, cease to be mere copies and become authentic, creative acts, that this support fails, and he takes control of the world back; both the world of the re-enactments, and the 'real' world from which he has been absent so long.

Remainder is a novel about the desperate attempts of artists to affect an indifferent world, and the dangers of narcissism and tragedy inherent in them. It is a novel built up of loops, refrains and reflections, that rewards multiple rethinkings and reworkings, but it is not without humour, or humanity (although lovers of cats might not take kindly to some of the treatment meted out). With the kind of dull stuff that passes for literature these days, it's about time some real artists stuck their oar in.


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