This is the IB extended essay, which requires the student to pick a subject area and a topic within that subject area that interests them, and independently construct and produce a work of about 3,000-4,000 words putting forth their findings and analysis. The essay doesn’t count for a grade in any subject, and most of the work is done in the summer between 11th and 12th grade, when students have ample time on their hands. English was an obvious choice for me, as it’s easily my favorite subject; I don’t necessarily get to explore all the different aspects of literature in class, and the idea of hyperrealism and simulation was something I had never previously looked into in class or otherwise. I also thought a lot about how literature can be relevant to real life (it’s often viewed as something superfluous,) and have tried to include some connections that the themes in the book have with real life behavior. Literary analysis is fun for me, and, as I even mention in this essay, I enjoy continually thinking about and deconstructing the books I read. Moreover, investigating the literary techniques and forms of other writers will no doubt help me in my future endeavors to write novels. The essay turned out to be more of an intensive one-sided conversation, or rather an attempt not so much to persuade the reader of an argument, as to clarify and deepen my own understanding of the ideas inspired by the book. The link to the Google Docs version, with footnotes of cited works, is provided at the bottom of the text.
Research Question: In what ways do the narrator’s simulations and repetitions of events in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder attempt to come to an understanding about the nature of reality?
Remainder by Tom McCarthy deals with an anonymous narrator recovering from a major head injury caused by a falling object, who is unable to enjoy his life after the accident. He admits to not feeling as real and authentic as he wants to, and using the eight-and-a-half million pounds he wins in the lawsuit against those who caused the accident, he begins to recreate certain events that occur in his life. His goal is to make the events as authentic as possible- but this raises many issues regarding his view of authenticity and reality, and whether or not the reality of an event can ever be regained after the fact. This is essentially what the essay examines. Along the way, his interpretation of authenticity, which is hazy initially, begins to emerge; this turns out to be crucial in the success or failure of the narrator’s simulations in getting to reality. However, his definition of authenticity is not the only one, and through the evolution of the reenactments (each is slightly more real than its predecessor,) one sees the possibility of another interpretation of reality existing in conjunction with that of the narrator. Yet, both perspectives of reality lead to different conclusions about the effectiveness of his simulations- when seen through the narrator’s perspective, the reenactments may never enter the realm of reality, but when seen from outside his viewpoint, it may seem like he can never avoid creating reality after all.
In the realm of mathematics and art, it’s common to illustrate real-world occurrences and systems through the use of models; even quotidian objects such as maps and scaled-down versions of buildings serve primarily as representations of entities that we categorize as ‘reality.’ Models, which to an extent are informed estimates of reality, even go so far as to predict events like population and economic growth. However, though initially derived from the workings of nature itself, these abstract simulations are transforming from reflections of reality, meant to summarize and simplify natural processes, into ideals that reality aims to attain. A role reversal is taking place. The original scenario in which the model tries to accurately capture or predict real events is being replaced by another situation. This new process is characterized by the model existing first and being idealized, so that reality strives to obtain what the model promises. The model no longer represents the real, it represents the potential of the real.
Of course, it could be argued that in both the original and ‘current’ purposes of the model there is idealization. Due to this we resort to circular reasoning when trying to understand which is more genuine, the model or the real: While in the second case the model is the ideal, in the first, the real is essentially the ideal towards which the model inches- one could say that neither ideal is ultimately reached. However, there is a distinguishing element between these two categories of idealization- the element of chance which manifests in reality, and which is ostensibly removed in simulation. To a great extent, this is the element that the anonymous narrator of Remainder tries to eliminate from his life through a draining process of recreation and repetition of past events, scraping away the ‘surplus matter’ or white noise around him that he feels obscures the significance of his actions. In observing him, one can sense a desperation to reach a state of mind characterized by absolute clarity, where each movement or word can be dissected until its core, essential meaning is found.
In many ways his actions seamlessly fit into a society that makes it a point to project and strive for a world of unadulterated authenticity by removing whatever might make an individual disconnect from the ‘real’. The narrator’s desire is to systematize his surroundings and place his experiences in the purest light possible, which is precisely why his reenactments of events may be viewed as a hyper-extension of reality, and therefore not reality at all. Over the course of the book though, one could notice the narrator’s attempts (in the progression of his re-enactments,) to subvert the idea that simulation conflicts with reality. This in turn introduces a host of contradictions regarding the nature of authenticity vs. that of re-creation, and whether both can in fact be included under the umbrella of reality. Though the novel may be in first person, the author’s voice too, discreetly emerges and leads the reader to see an alternate view of authenticity; by the end of the novel, the relationship between simulation and reality undergoes rigorous alterations in the narrator’s obsessive efforts to create authentic feeling and extract the ultimate meanings out of moments, by trying to recreate reality- something that might be both successful and pointless, depending on whose perspective of authenticity one adheres to- the narrator’s, or the author’s.
Remainder begins shortly after its narrator returns to his daily life, having partially recovered from a traumatic head injury and coma caused by an unknown falling object, and with eight and a half million dollars in his pocket as a result of winning a lawsuit against those responsible for the accident. Still, it is immediately apparent to him that he isn’t in his regular mindset. Not trusting his memories of his life before the accident (and of the accident itself,) he is distanced from his surroundings and the people around him; his best friend and romantic interest are too irritating to be around, and nothing in life interests him. He remains in a groggy state, his senses not adequately awake or ready to relay his experiences to him in their full intensity. And it is here that his obsessive tendencies of using simulation to fabricate authentic actions are revealed: on his way to the airport to pick up a friend, he realizes he’s left the flight details at home. While deliberating the necessity to turn, go back, and get them, he unconsciously slips into jerking back and forth on his feet in front of two men at a cafe; embarrassed, he quickly decides to return home, but not before standing on the footpath for a few moments in full sight of the men, pretending “to weigh up several options and then come to an informed decision.” He admits, it is “a performance for the two men…to make my movements come across as more authentic.”
But what was inauthentic about his previous movements, the pivoting and shifting weight from foot to foot? His acting may be a manifestation of the gaping void there is between the ‘level’ of authenticity at which he wants to experience his actions, and the level at which his senses register them. The jerky movements are not fluid enough for him to accept, so when he undergoes physiotherapy to regain his physical mobility, it’s through the lens of this fervent desire to attain the same flawlessness in movement he observes in others (namely Robert DeNiro in his movies,) that he re-learns simple operations by breaking the actions down into their component parts. In the calculated process, each ‘maneuver’ is performed slowly, and the moment in which it is carried out elongated, stretched until the component part itself occupies the amount of time it would take to complete the entire movement. The consequent sensation of suspended time, in which action is truly savored, could perhaps be considered an embodiment of a concept articulated by Jean Baudrillard: that society has an underlying “fantasy of seizing reality live,” of “surprising the real in order to immobilize it.” Particularly relevant is the idea that we ‘surprise’ reality to capture it; the narrator is well-versed in second-guessing the workings of reality to ensure that his future experience matches his rehearsals of it. As he starts to actually practice moving his arm to pick up a carrot, he encounters a multitude of inhibiting factors unaccounted for in his theoretical descriptions of the movement, and naturally wants to eliminate them to make his actions fluid. It seems that later in the story he realizes the futility of trying to control the elements spontaneously appearing and preventing him from reaching his goal of unobstructed motion, and switches to an ostensibly different method. He begins to incorporate glitches into his re-enactments: an initially accidental trip on a carpet during the rehearsal of a bank robbery simulation is then made a part of the scene, as if by using this kind of foresight, the narrator (falsely) thinks he reduces the chances of possible mistakes in the future. The technique doesn’t work well; it follows the rules of theoretical and experimental probability. The experimental probability (the reenactments,) will approach the theoretical probability (an authentic reproduction of reality,) as the experiment is repeated, but will never actually reach it. Furthermore, with each repetition, the odds of obtaining each possible outcome in the experiment remain the same, never increasing or decreasing; each time a coin is tossed, there theoretically is always a 50% chance of getting either heads or tails.
In this case, the odds of there being errors in the reenactments don’t lessen as the narrator conducts them indefinitely, something that’s highlighted in the reenactments of an apartment scenario, where actors have been hired to play his neighbors, and follow painstaking instructions. Every detail has been accounted for, including the duration of time that the light from a window falls on the floor of a staircase landing. Yet after numerous reenactments of the same dialogues and actions, and countless adjustments to improve the authenticity of the scene, there is one aspect that cannot be corrected- the smell of cordite wafting up from the flat below him when the neighbor there fries bacon. Despite replacing the frying pans and the type of bacon used, that small defect is never erased. His repetitions only move the scene towards the asymptote of the ideal reality. Moreover, the reappearance of the odor of cordite seems to almost be there to make the narrator realize that perhaps he will not be able to perfectly recreate a scene and make it as real as the original- cordite itself is a substance that’s used as a substitute for gunpowder, and hence is not real gunpowder. The ideal the narrator strives for through the book happens to be the ‘usual’: the normal, error-ridden life. It is this that the narrator wants to epitomize in his scenes- absolutely usual, nondescript events. Yet as soon as he starts to regard this usualness in terms of perfecting it through repetition, it seizes to be reality, once again becoming a model of it, in turn being replaced by true reality (which is perhaps characterized by its unpredictability, its unknown future.) Ultimately in the process of surprising reality, the narrator just distances himself from it even more. The same desire to capture reality seems to persist in society’s intentions behind certain types of art like photography. While attempting to freeze a moment of reality and portray it accurately, a photo itself is not real, only a representation of the real. And every progress made in photo technology (color photography, better resolution,) serves to make this representation more authentic, though it will never cross the threshold into reality.
When one considers the problem of reality vs. representation, the question of what constitutes the real inevitably emerges. What causes the events that people experience from moment to moment to be a part of what is known as ‘reality’; more importantly, what makes fictional or reproduced scenarios unreal? In Remainder, the inability to exactly replicate certain events as the narrator sees them in his mind or as they actually occurred, may be the factor that separates his reenactments from reality, due to one crucial component. As much as he tries, the narrator will never be able to perfectly reproduce his scenes, because they will never happen in the same instant in time as they had originally. This is the limitation that the past places on the present. Even the reenactment of apartment life, a scene resulting from the narrator’s imagination, takes place somewhere on the continuum of time, at least in his mind, and cannot be realized fully again. What makes this imagined apartment scene less capable of being real is that it did not occur in the same space as the other once-real events that were reenacted did- it first existed in the narrator’s brain, not in the world outside of it. If one reads through the lens of the narrator’s perception of reality, then the real is partly defined by this limitation of time, and from the outset, any endeavor to recreate an event would be ineffective. However, while the narrator’s process may not end up simulating the intended event with the authenticity he’d like, he inadvertently constructs another reality- and this is perhaps what the author gradually leads the reader to discover by the end- that is, the reenactments themselves can be recognized as their own reality taking place in their own space and time. The simulations are only that when seen in the context of the events they are copying- but outside their influence, they are separate episodes that each result in different experiences. During the first reenactment of apartment life, he feels “light and dense at the same time,” his body “gliding fluently and effortlessly through the atmosphere around it.” Though this sensation isn’t unique to the initial simulation of the scene, it is intensified in the following ones, appearing at different stages and for longer durations. No two reenactments feel the same. Additionally, the fact that mistakes in the rehearsals of the scenes can’t be fully avoided just serves to make them more usual, ordinary, real- the ideal that he’s striving for. At the same time, his models result in a perception of suspended time, in which case, following the concept of reality existing within the confines of time, the simulations would not be considered a part of the fabric of reality; during another reenactment of the apartment scene, the narrator enters a trance, in which he senses a “widening out of the space around me, and of the moment too.” The “suspension, the becoming passive,” that he experiences, are perhaps clues to the nature of the models: they are not authentic or inauthentic, but somewhere between the two- they are mirror-reflections of reality, superficially resembling it, on the way to becoming it, but ultimately lacking substance, their growth being stunted by the limitations mentioned above. Yet, if one examines this theory, the reflections too are real in that they are real reflections (but unreal versions of what they reflect.)
What’s more is that these feelings of frozen time convey the narrator’s compulsion to dissect every moment and event in a crazed pursuit of some kind of understanding of their ‘essences.’ Observing a soccer team shooting goals on a track, he admires the way they seem to “expand every second…as though they were pushing its edges outwards so it takes in more track.” Though this fervent quest is arguably exaggerated in the book, it can be viewed as a possibly satirical commentary on similarly neurotic behavior in society. By making the narrator follow a vacuous obsession and squeeze any and all significance out of anything he comes across or experiences (walking, a shop sign, moving through his kitchen, and other utterly trivial things,) the author exposes the ridiculousness of not only the narrator’s actions, but also by extension our society’s unrelenting over-analysis of certain topics; literary commentaries, even essays such as this, contain the echoes of the narrator’s method: unpacking minute details and stretching them out, extracting every drop of meaning from the words of a poem or book, until every angle and interpretation, until the piece of study itself, has been exhausted. And just as the narrator’s largest gain out of this is not some grand revelation about the mechanisms of the world, but simply the serenity of being in his trance, so we too continue to thirst for such arduous tasks as literary and artistic analysis not necessarily to discover the absolute meaning of a work, but rather fuelled by a need to conduct the process of analysis.
The narrator is never content after each reenactment- at the end of the rehearsals, there always seems to be something lacking- a true meaning or purpose for his reenactments maybe- and he is forced to move onto further simulations to fulfill his nagging want. The fact that this struggle for reality doesn’t ever seem to be quelled also leads the reader to foreshadow in their mind what the narrator’s life would be like if the motive behind all his simulations was satisfied, extinguished. How would our lives be without desire? The question is a paradox in some ways; though our everyday actions are directed towards fulfilling our desires, we may never be completely devoid of them- new cravings replace ones that lose their charm or dissipate- the intensity of the ambition driving us is sometimes more than the rapture of reaching the final destination. In the same way, the ferocity with which the narrator’s longing for reality keeps returning suggests that he lives in order to experience this longing and journey to grasp a moment of reality. It may be in the process of rehearsing and making the simulations that reality is created, not in the final product; at one point the narrator subconsciously realizes this and even comes incredibly close to putting his discovery into words: “I’d been so busy…moving from project to project, from the building reenactments to the tyre shop ones and then on to the shootings…and yet I’d never stopped and asked myself if it had worked.” In these lines one can discern the unintentional detachment the narrator has made between his method and his goal- so much so, that he’s forgotten an end point even exists; as he expresses shortly afterwards, his pursuit for authenticity is embedded in his process- it “wasn’t something you could just ‘do’ once and then ‘have got.’”
But now that he’s come to better understand the course his actions are taking, his words also foresee the potentiality that he may never succeed in arriving at the state of reality he must “return to again and again.” Though he is more aware than before that the nature of the reality he wants lies in a place different from what he’d originally thought, he is still clutching onto his initial interpretation of reality: a precise replica of a usual event, without errors or glitches, infused with some sort of deeper yet inexplicable ‘significance.’ It’s possible that in the reader’s eyes the reenactments are lost causes because of their inherent inabilities to fit the above criteria- but what if the criteria were altered? Shifting perspectives from narrator to author reveals an attitude towards realness that proposes (as is discussed in the paragraph above,) that reality is being created through the process of reenactment, unbeknownst to the narrator.
A variant of the idea that the process of creating reality by simulation is more real than the consequences of it, carries through to the progression of the reenactments in Remainder, and to a key decision the narrator makes: to use actors in the reenactments, rather than the real people involved in the original events. Though this may seem a bit out of character, given that he so meticulously pores over other details to perfect them, the use of actors (who themselves are only pretending to be a persona,) reinforces a thought that may have struck the reader of the book already- that his reenactments might not attain the status of reality- while still suggesting that through the façade of simulations the narrator is unwittingly creating something else. This is neither explicitly nor subtly discussed, and the reader wonders why the narrator couldn’t have used part of his eight-and-a-half million pounds to simply hire the original people for the reenactments as well. The lack of explanation here may be a deliberate decision of the author, part of a technique that helps the reader step outside the narrator’s myopic perspective, and look at the progression of his simulations somewhat more objectively. Because the novel is in first person, the reader is in a sense only ‘allowed’ to view the events that occur through the narrator’s eyes at the beginning- the reenactments are ideals of previous events or events of the narrator’s imagination, straining to be real again; the way the reader is shown the story and the desperation of the narrator creates a narrow frame in which the narrator’s definition of authenticity (outlined above) is the presiding one, and in which there are two possible and opposing outcomes: either he manages or he fails to finally clinch the realty he’s after.
Another possibility appears when his situation is considered along with the time and space aspects of reality mentioned previously, the use of actors, and the evolution of the reenactments from scenes rooted in imagination to ones that are glaringly real: the narrator could simultaneously succeed and fail at his mission. While he may not attain the state of ideal ‘usualness’ at the end of his reenactments, the very fact that there are errors in the rehearsals, makes the scene ‘usual,’ as it is normal to have these random mistakes. The narrator may be getting away from reality by thinking of the reenactments as models of the original events (this could even be referred to as the ‘fake’ reality,) but is inevitably participating in the formation of the other, real reality, the present, that comes into existence just by the passing of time. The narrator seems to miss this point however, and continues to retain his own definition of reality.
The structure of the novel is such that towards the end, it becomes obvious to the reader that the narrator is taking part in real scenarios; if one is drawn out of the narrator’s perspective of events and views a kind of topographical timeline of the reenactments, what can be seen is that they become increasingly more real in nature. The first simulation is of apartment life, and is derived entirely from the narrator’s mind. It’s not entirely certain if the whole scene is actually a memory, but this information may not be relevant; at the moment that he has his ‘epiphany’ in a restroom, where the scene unfolds within his head, it is hardly a memory to him, but rather a spontaneous invention of his imagination. Hence the first reenactment of the apartment scene is a reenactment of an imagination, not of something that occurred in the space outside of him. The subsequent reenactment of a scene in a car repair shop is slightly more real than the building scene, as it happened out in the real world. The next reenactment was of a fatal shooting in the city; this time the narrator uses real guns but not real bullets. Of course, both these reenactments, for their own reasons, never attain authenticity in terms of being accurate replications of the original. Instead, they could be seen as their own events with their own people and location in time and space.
It finally becomes apparent to the reader that reality is being created in this alternative way, in the last reenactment of a bank robbery. The narrator, interested in simulating bank robberies in general (not a particular one,) makes a model of a bank, studies its schedules and its guards’ shifts, hires actors to be his accomplices, and rehearses their steps and maneuvers- already the same actions of true bank robbers. Then he makes a decision that tips the reader over the edge into realizing that he has been creating reality all this while, and that too of the most authentic type- unforced, unintentional: he decides to hold the ‘reenactment’ of the robbery in the real bank. To everyone else involved (the man who facilitates the scenes, the principal actors,) this is not a reenactment anymore. But the narrator doesn’t observe that after all his previous attempts at ‘realness,’ which, as put forth above, themselves brought reality as a side-effect, he at last is being as authentic as he can. He still thinks in terms of simulations being extensions of events, directed towards an ideal. Perhaps it’s fitting that this ‘other’ view of his reenactments isn’t revealed to him; his life is now so centered around an interminable, goalless craze for realness, that to take away the mystery and elusiveness of this process he’s addicted to would be to remove any purpose in his existence. And so the novel ends on this sort of note, as the narrator flies on a privet jet with no destination in mind, ordering the pilot to indefinitely repeat a loop made during the flight path.
The actions of the narrator, and his numerous simulations, offer various, sometimes contradictory, hypotheses about the nature of reality (and consequently how or if people can truly possess it.) And though not a direct voice in the story, the author is an influential force in that the way in which he progresses the narrative may cause the reader’s interpretation of the ‘real’ to change. The two seemingly divergent takes on authenticity, the narrator’s and the ‘author’s’, need not be mutually exclusive either- ultimately, the narrator will always be creating some sort of reality through his actions, while still not sparking the simulations themselves into reality.
Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila F. Glasser. Simulacra and Simulation. Publication. N.p.: University of Michigan, 1994. Georgetown University Education. Georgetown University, 15 Feb. 2011. Web. 02 May 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/baudrillard-simulacra_and_simulation.pdf>.
McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. 5th ed. Surrey: Alma, 2011. Print.