Tom McCarthy, Remainder
(Richmond: Alma Books, 2015)
First published: 2005

He took a tiny mobile from his pocket, switched it on and composed a text message. The phone beeped as he typed each letter in. He laid the phone down on the table top and let it send its message. I pictured his office again: the blue and red Tupperware in- and out-trays, the glass inner walls, the carpets. I traced a triangle in my mind up from our restaurant table to the satellite in space that would receive the signal, then back down to Time Control’s office where the satellite would bounce it. I remembered being buffeted by wind, the last full memory I have before the accident.

Initially written in 2001, Remainder captures a particular moment in telecommunications. For the first time, a majority of adults in the UK own a mobile phone. Third-generation wireless (3G) is on the horizon, promising high-speed mobile internet connection and a frictionless ‘information society’. Remainder targets this promise of unencumbered information exchange as part of its wider assault on metaphysics. Following an unexplained physical trauma, the narrator fixates over engaging fluidly and authentically with the world. Investing his settlement money in ‘telecommunications and technology’, the narrator uses the returns to stage elaborately detailed re-enactments of a mundane memory from before his accident. His obsession with detail leads him to dwell on telecommunications infrastructure: the underground and overhead wires that link buildings and people to enable a constant exchange of messages. This sprawling network connotes a large-scale mastery over matter yet remains entangled in a complexity that defies comprehension. In comparison, the apparent immateriality of wireless teleconnection, in which information is beamed through material barriers to receivers, proves soothing. However, unexpected emergences repeatedly confound his re-enactments. The material world always destabilises his mapping of it, producing irreducible remainders. Remainder presents information society as another metaphysical dream, one soon to be undermined by messy, unruly matter.

by Richard Bingham