by Tom McCarthy

“What’s the most intense, clear memory you have?” asks the narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. “The one you can see even if you close your eyes—really see, clear as in a vision?” Dispensing with Proustian reminiscence, McCarthy brazenly assumes the role of conceptual artist and literally reconstructs moments of time. In the same way that Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy tells its story through architecture in book form, Remainder is an art installation disguised as a brilliant novel.

After enduring hospitalization due to an undisclosed falling “something,” the novel’s nameless narrator receives a massive corporate reparation, which gives his post-traumatic mind the opportunity to fund any bizarre project it imagines. In this case, that means physically realizing his memories and quasi-metaphysical visions, creating a fantasy world he can inhabit for the duration of the book.

On the surface, the narrator is concerned with uncomplicated things, such as “blue liquid gushing out of an air conditioning unit” or “taking a carrot in your right hand”—but as with William S. Burroughs or Raymond Roussel, there exists a remarkable system of intersecting ideas governing every detail of Remainder’s hermetic universe. McCarthy conjures miniature worlds and explores the fabric of time with the creative ambition usually reserved for science fiction authors. Every movement of every character is McCarthy’s way of asking his larger question: What does it means to be an authentic human being?

McCarthy wields all the literary essentials—neurosis, repression, subconscious desires, etc.—but wields them like newfangled weapons, aiming them into strange little pockets of life, such as déjà vu and nostalgia. He manipulates the what-would-you-do-with-a-million-dollars hypothetical to take free reign with his imagination, and bravely rethinks the way people act out their lives.



As far as positions and movements were concerned: I took care of these myself, as before. I showed the Michelin Man boy re-enactor where to stand and sway, and the other two how to kick his head between them. I made them kick it with their legs mechanically, like zombies or robots. The driver, the person re-enacting my role, had to get out slowly. Like the concierge, he wore a white ice-hockey goaltender’s mask, so as not to overrun my personality with his—or, more precisely, so as not to impose any personality at all. I just wanted the motions and the words, all deadpan, neutral—wanted the re-enactors to act out the motions without acting and to speak the words without feeling, in disinterested voices, as monotonous as my pianist. The oldest boy had to take the tyre from the boot, carry it over to the lathe and fix it; the middling one had to attempt to help him lift it and the oldest had to push his hand away; the youngest one had to come over and then lurk outside the door. I showed them where to step, to lift, to kick, to stand. Most of the time they only had to stand, completely static.



Remainder was chosen from a short list of novels (published in the last issue and accessible online here) selected by the editors of the Believer. We also asked our readers to fill out a survey card included with the March/April issue indicating what they thought were the three strongest works of fiction published in 2007.


  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Díaz
  2. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—Michael Chabon
  3. The Savage Detectives—Roberto Bolaño
  4. Tree of Smoke—Denis Johnson
  5. Then We Came to the End—Joshua Ferris
  6. No One Belongs Here More Than You—Miranda July
  7. On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan
  8. Zeroville—Steve Erickson
  9. Like You’d Understand, Anyway—Jim Shepard
  10. Slam—Nick Hornby
  11. Divisadero—Michael Ondaatje
  12. Bowl of Cherries—Millard Kaufman
  13. Varieties of Disturbance—Lydia Davis
  14. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—Sherman Alexie
  15. The Abstinence Teacher—Tom Perrotta
  16. Call Me by Your Name—André Aciman
  17. After Dark—Haruki Murakami
  18. Darkmans—Nicola Barker
  19. Diary of a Bad Year—J. M. Coetzee
  20. Falling Man—Don DeLillo
  21. Five Skies—Ron Carlson
  22. God Is Dead—Ron Currie, Jr.
  23. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name—Vendela Vida
  24. Shortcomings—Adrian Tomine
  25. Samedi the Deafness—Jesse Ball
  26. The Gum Thief—Douglas Coupland
  27. Remainder—Tom McCarthy
  28. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—J. K. Rowling
  29. Acme Novelty Library #18—Chris Ware
  30. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England—Brock Clarke
  31. Exit Ghost—Philip Roth
  32. Bad Monkeys—Matt Ruff
  33. The Last Novel—David Markson
  34. The Raw Shark Texts—Steven Hall
  35. Inglorious—Joanna Kavenna
  36. Mister Pip—Lloyd Jones
  37. Spook Country—William Gibson
  38. Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey—Chuck Palahniuk
  39. The Indian Clerk—David Leavitt
  40. The Terror—Dan Simmons


Other authors whose books made our reader survey’s “long list” include:

Giorgio Agamben, Martin Amis, Stephane Audeguy, Paul Auster, Alan Bennett, Mischa Berlinski, Kiara Brinkman, Peter Cameron, Brian Chippendale, Nicholas Christopher, J. Storer Clouston, Lucy Corin, Jim Crace, Rebecca Curtis, Peter Ho Davies, Rudolph Delson, Annie Dillard, Stephen Dixon, Danielle Ganek, Anna Gavalda, Veronica Gonzalez, Michael Gruber, Garth Risk Hallberg, Mohsin Hamid, Andy Hartzell, Nancy Horan, Khaled Hosseini, Michel Houellebecq, Ha Jin, Roy Kesey, Porochista Khakpour, James Kochalka, Phil Lamarche, Richard Lange, Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman, Felicia Luna Lemus, Jonathan Lethem, Simone Lia, Tao Lin, Robert Lopez, Michael Lucas, Paul Magrs, Stephen Marche, Stephen-Paul Martin, Armistead Maupin, Miranda Mellis, Denise Mina, David Mizner, Susanna Moore, Richard K. Morgan, Laurie Notaro, Robert Olmstead, Stewart O’Nan, Ann Pancake, Michael Parker, Thomas Perry, Per Petterson, Stacey Richter, Selah Saterstrom, Rachel Seiffert, Lionel Shriver, Jane Smiley, Charles Stross, Graham Swift, Alexander Theroux, Anthony Tognazzini, Paul Verhaeghen, Andrew Wedderburn.

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