Opening to any randomly chosen page in Tom McCarthy's Remainder is sufficient to capture the novel's excruciatingly pristine depiction of the resonant spaces that dwell in daily life. Following an accident our narrator cannot recall (and a settlement, the details of which he cannot disclose), he goes about methodically re-enacting minor events, repeatedly staging the ephemeral experiences normally catalogued in one's subconscious throughout a day's routine.
My building was in there, being carried along somewhere in the complex interlacings. I caught glimpses of it as it slipped behind another building and was whisked away again to reappear somewhere else. It would show itself to me then slip away again. The belts were like magicians' fingers shuffling cards: they were shuffling the city, flashing my card, my building, at me and then burying it in the deck again. They were challenging me to shout "Stop!" at the exact moment it was showing: if I could do that, I'd win. That was the deal.
"Stop!" I shouted. Then again: "Stop ...Stop!" But I timed each shout just wrong...
What the novel works at, with its formless protagonist honing in further on these unseen machinations of the urban fabric, is the continuing effort to shout Stop! at just the right moment. He worries at tokens of the ineffable until they are well-worn: small talk with a neighbor in the hall, a pianist neighbor making a mistake, then slowly playing through again, the smell of cooking fat wafting through a window. It is only when these events recur with a certain singular exactitude that our man can feel any pleasure, but this pleasure is pure.
This plot conceit would be a tiresome meddling under the hood of the postmodern psyche were it not for McCarthy's rendering of the protagonist as something of a reborn child. As he recovers from his accident, we watch him enduring physical therapy, relearning actions as simple as eating a carrot as a series of micro-moments; muscles clutch and release, joints tense and flex, limbs move through air. Seemingly scrubbed clean of any self-consciousness, our man experiences these coordinations free of their typical context. He is an outside observer in his own body. As he moves out of the clinic and into the outside world, he continues in this way, acutely aware of everyone around him putting on airs, going through their inauthentic movements.
But he does not stop here, at this intersection of Sartre's phenomenology of dread, Gombrowicz's playful repurposing of the inanimate, and the alien body capture narrative of sci-fi. Our man's fixations deepen, his re-enactments incite stronger reveries, he becomes ever more demanding and insistent on his actors getting certain details just right. As Zadie Smith puts it, he "seeks to dominate matter, the better to disembody it." His mind unable, or unwilling, to associate the objects he sees with their everyday usage, they instead become infused with a portentousness. A crack in a plaster wall becomes an evolving cipher, a map; a bit of parking lot tar which cannot be destroyed; a liter of windshield fluid, which, upon disappearing inside his car, becomes a metaphor for transubstantiation; a carpet's wrinkle becomes the axis on which an entire room rotates. Normally heavily relied on by most novelists to supply meanings, people are, on the other hand, interchangeable. Some are so insignificant as to be little more than space occupiers; they are told to say nothing, and wear blank masks. They are hired and arranged, then replaced, or worse.