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  • Intentional Fallacies:(Re)enacting the Accidental in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder
  • Sydney Miller (bio)

“Step accidentally on your untied shoelace, fall down, and you’ll understand a thing or two about the theory of literature.” Viktor Shklovsky’s axiom from Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (100) cuts two ways, contingent upon our reading of it. It could speak to the nature of literary fiction itself, a form born from writers’ chance discoveries; or, it could speak to the work of literary criticism, a field born of the chance discoveries of critics, who, lest they fall into W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s fallacy, must insist on meaningful patterns while avoiding claims of authorial intention. It speaks, let’s say, to both. Likewise, suffused as it is with the rhetoric of suspension and falling, Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, Remainder (2005), takes up the question of how and where we locate the accidental in—and, perhaps, on the periphery of—narrative fiction. Symptomatic of a broader trend of accident-prone literature and an increasingly pronounced preoccupation with emplotted chance that both novelists and critics have expressed in recent years, Remainder concerns itself with the accidental in its story, in its style, and in the circumstances of its composition. Classifying his novel as a “‘eureka’ book … a happy accident,” McCarthy has explicitly set it against the type of belabored novels that are “very consciously willed, you know, forced from the author,” and in doing so, directly aligns himself with his own narrator, each driven to the obsessive construction of a world by the chance sighting of a crack on a bathroom wall [End Page 634] (“What’s Left Behind”).1 In its sustained paralleling of McCarthy’s and his protagonist’s shared project of attempting to forestall accidents through their purposeful orchestration, Remainder ultimately emerges as a model not for literature but for literary criticism, with its narrator functioning as a surrogate not for the reader but the author—the imaginative Everyman whose command of his creation extends only through its completion, who dictates every detail of a text only to relinquish interpretive control to the critics awaiting its publication. By looking at how the accidental operates in this specific text, in narrative fiction more broadly, and in criticism itself, we can begin to identify the nuances of the distinction between literary and critical authorship. And only then can we fully appreciate the new form that McCarthy’s self-interpreting work takes in decidedly collapsing the two. In his usurpation of the interpretive throne, McCarthy reminds us that just as we critique Remainder, so, too, does it critique us.

Remainder is about many things. Steeped as it is in philosophical discourse and critical theory, the novel could potentially be read as a commentary on trauma, on authenticity, on the aesthetics of repetition, or on the status of the novel in the wake of postmodernism—that is, as a plea for fiction to continue its retreat from the brink of crippling self-consciousness. But there is one aspect of Remainder that any plot summary of this otherwise plodding and occasionally plotless novel must acknowledge, and it is the one incident that the novel’s nameless narrator is prohibited from talking about himself: the accident. What the narrative does tell us is that as a result of this unspecified accident, the narrator has become plagued by a heightened awareness of his own inauthenticity; that as compensation for incurred damage, the narrator has received a settlement [End Page 635] of several million pounds; and that in an obsessive quest to capture the elusive feeling of authenticity, he uses this substantial sum to finance reenactments of certain incidents, which escalate over the course of the novel from a benign amble through an apartment building to the fatal staging of a bank robbery. At the most reduced level of story, then, Remainder is the tale of a man who attempts to strip the accidental of its essential stochastic quality by systematically taking control of everyone and everything in his world, until an unintended fall catastrophically subverts a carefully planned trip. Even beyond the mechanics of its plot, as we will see “again and...


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pp. 634-659
Launched on MUSE
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