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Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

An Everyman's life history doomed to repeat itself as farce

A turning point comes in the bathroom at a party, when he notices a crack in the wall. This retrieves a memory of being in an old tenement block and looking at a similar crack; he could hear someone practising piano in an adjoining apartment and the odour of frying liver was wafting from below.

When and where this took place is a mystery, but the memory is so significant that he is driven to recreate the scene at vast expense, buying a block of flats in Brixton and hiring managers, designers and actors. Then he relives the memory repeatedly. Paradoxically, these repetitions come close to recapturing the unforced spontaneity of his life before the accident.

Soon he decides upon another re-enactment. This time he is in a garage getting a wheel mended when he is struck by the same uncanny sense. He recreates the garage using a hired warehouse. An inexorable mechanism is at work, and as he stages further re-enactments, their subject matter becomes violent.

Re-enactment has been a feature in recent art, most famously in Jeremy Deller's reprise of the Orgreave battle between striking miners and police. It is a art practice that readily invokes issues of trauma, nihilism and death. In fiction, it has been most prominent in the work of J G Ballard. As well as Ballard, McCarthy also draws upon influences including Huysmans, Bataille and Freud. Above all, his novel deals with the difficulty of relocating authenticity in everyday life.

Do not be deterred by Remainder's elevated associations, because it wears its high-art attire discreetly. McCarthy's prose is precise and unpretentious. His anti-hero is a sympathetic Everyman, and it is difficult to resist the dominion of his obsession. It has to be said that the title is not a positive portent for future sales, and Remainder might amount to no more than a cult. This would be unfortunate, because its minatory brilliance calls for classic status.

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