Residual Ramblings on Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, American Pie & Sidebrow Speculative Redux: The Recursive reenactment as Recombinant Ritual
EWR to ABQ. 13.03.09
It’s Friday the 13th and we’re in the air en route to Albuquerque. We’re seated in the exit row. I like the word EXIT. I plan to get it tattooed on my arm or fingers some day so the E is backwards, like ∃XIT. (∃ means “there exists” in mathematical terms.) The ∃ may or may not show up in your browser—that's for you to find out.
I also want to get CATGUT tattooed on me somewhere, for more genetical reasons than mathematical ones. Though Jess tells me that technically I’m mixing my metaphors—combining components of RNA and DNA that otherwise wouldn’t mesh—recombinant DNA if you will. To make my (mis)intent more clear, I'd write the A and U upside down, to read C∀TG∩T, where ∀ means "for all" and ∩ means "intersection of." I think, it's been a while.
I haven’t quite figured it all out though, in time to get a tattoo this trip. I think it needs to be embedded in an equation somehow, the actual tattoo and the timing of it. You should get a tattoo to signify the beginning or end of something, of a stage or period. And we are up in the air right now. Not just literally, but in regards to the next phase. So we need to figure out what we’re doing next before I get another tattoo.
The word NEXT should also be included in the equation. Like NEXT ∃XIT. Maybe even with the T upside down (to mathematically designate "perpendicular to.") Like NEX⊥ ∃XIT. I can even throw a nod to Miller and say NEX∩⊥(S)∃XIT.
I’m thinking out loud.
I‘ve been reading Tom McCarthy’s Remainder on the plane. For a big press book I must admit it’s really quite astonishing. It made me think some. When I think of “remainder,” the word, I think of it in a mathematical sense—what’s left over after a divisional calculation. Remainder, the book, pays off and then sum. It’s a book that will implode your head, or make it feel perpetually on the verge of implosion, or explosion, I’m not sure which. (If your own head is the one sensing this ex/implosion, does it matter?)
It took us a while to get situated on this plane. The fuckers gave us both middle seats apart from each other. “That’s what the computer does,” the Continental agent told me. Well, make your computers more human. On board we negotiated with other human passengers. I shuffled around between four different seats until I eventually landed NEXT to Jess. In the EXIT row. And also next to a linguist no less.
I embarked on Remainder in the apartment we were staying in when we first arrived in New York. It was cold outside and sunny in the living room of this apartment—a good place to read. Occupying someone else’s apartment is what it’s like reading Remainder.
In a nutshell, I’d say Remainder is a book about the epiphanic release from the ritual of reenactment. About obtaining some sort of inner peace by cutting out the detours. It is in this place, “—that in these spaces, all my movements had been fluent and unforced. Not awkward, acquired, second-hand, but natural. Opening my fridge’s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I’d merged with them, run through them and let them run through me until there’d be no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real—been without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour."
It’s more of a concept-driven book rather than a language-driven book. The concept being simple: A man is in an accident and receives a large sum of money in a settlement. He has a vision and uses the money to reenact this vision. And then reenact the reenactment of this vision, ad amnseium.
The details of the accident are incidental, as are the details of the settlement. The details of the vision don’t really matter either, except that there are details. The details are what’s carried out, executed with precision, with no regard to creating anything new with the language, and no need to really, that's not what it's about. It's has more to do with ideal concepts and free will.
As this is all going on, you can’t help but feel a nagging sense that this is all a metaphor for something far bigger. In many ways it reminded me of the strangeness of making movies—how there’s people that will (for money) act out the precise details of a script, and fashion a world within the constraints of the existing world, either in the studio or on location. I'm thinking in particular of once where I was involved in the shooting of a scene in someone's house while that person was present, observing. And in fact, some roles used in movies, such as set dressers, are useful in the reenactments in Remainder. And they have to apply for a film permit in order to re-occupy the scene of a crime they want to reenact, as that's the closest approximation to what it is they are doing. But he, the unnamed narrator, is adamant about not having cameras. No recording devices.
Remainder also reminds me of the art of photography. The compulsion in photography is to capture or recreate a moment, a snapshot in time. But when it comes down to actually taking the picture, most of the time there is something out of place, something that is not how you pictured it in your mind. And when people are involved it's even worse as they transform the second they know their picture’s being taken. It's the Schrodinger cat thing. Other types of "studio" photographers (those with means) can orchestrate or stage photos. It’s never quite the same, but that's not necessarily the point—it becomes more about the intention, the ritual of reenactment. To quote the unnamed narrator:
What he is referring to is an arbitrary oil slick.
The book can also be thought of as a metaphor for the writing process itself. At least how certain people write. The kind of people that have a “vision” and need to translate this vision into words. I don’t think I’m the type of writer that writes from a preconceived vision. To the contrary, I’m more into associative and spontaneous writing. If there’s something in my head that I want to get down on paper, it’s more a vague idea I can't articulate, not necessarily associated with any “storyline”. If it's already solidified, it doesn't need to be written. If I have a clear vision in my head, then it doesn’t interest me to write about it. To the contrary, Tom McCarthy had a vision about having a vision, and executes it to the T. Or to the ⊥, depending on your perspective.
This is my serendipitous short-story version of Remainder that runs perpendicular to it but not through it: The reenactment is Never the Same (from my collected Residual Mail).
McCarthy's Remainder is an elaborate quantum mechanical thought experiment. An intricate stunt with Cremaster ambition. A novel hoax (or hoaxy novel) reminiscent of Martin Amis' Time's Arrow.
Thing is, to pull it off, there needs to be insiders within this vision to see him and give instructions for, say, the old woman with the rubbish to leave her apartment at precisely the right time, but he (the unnamed narrator) can’t see these people watching him. This would ruin “the moment.” Perhaps the only flaw in the book, the only obstacle to completely buying into, or suspending my disbelief, is that most everyone around him in this elaborate hoax doesn’t know why they are doing this. They just know they are getting paid. There’s a man paid to play the piano and make mistakes in just the right way. There’s people that push cats out on to the roof at the right time to "act natural." All these other people involved would want to know why, it's human nature.
If Remainder was made into a movie, Paul Thomas Anderson should direct it. Or Spike Jonze or Richard Kelly. It's like Donnie Darko in fact, in that something falling from the sky triggers the events to unfold.
People are waiting for an accident. For the plane to fall from the sky.
I'm listening to Radiohead, “Everything in it’s Right Place" as we speak. It would make a good soundtrack for the movie Remainder. As I'm listening to Radiohead and reading Remainder I'm also dwelling on our living situation. This is sort of why we were in NYC after all, deciding our next steps. Something Jess and I seem to do frequently. What’s the NEXT EXIT? Do we come back to NYC? And if so, where/how? Where else is there besides NY? DC? LA? Rome? Timbuktu? As I’m writing this, Jess is next to me writing out pros and cons of various scenarios on an excel spreadsheet. That’s the type of person she is, as am I. Typically, the desire for new experience dictates our next exit. Whether it be the “searching for greener pastures” approach, or the “fuck it, why not?” approach. Doesn’t hurt to try. Maybe the whole point is we don’t want anything to stick, but want to keep traveling through the rest of our lives, never “settling.”
We have visions, or preconceived notions about our happiness like the narrator of Remainder or anyone else. My vision of happiness can arbitrarily be summarized by the word “goat”. It's just a word, a symbol, but I do like goats, and think my life would be enriched if there was a goat in it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had a dream about a goat last night. Nothing in particular, I just remember it being there, it’s fur, it’s warmth, it’s inquisitive and frisky disposition.
Dog is probably a more realistic vision, and one we have also never managed to make come true. I think having a dog would make us happy, as would having a goat. But really, I don’t have a particular dog or goat in mind. They are symbols that are part of a greater equation.
In Remainder, he has a very arbitrary yet specific vision involving such things as a rooftop with cats, a woman below him cooking liver, a man tinkering with a motorcycle, a crack in the plaster, etc. The details of these are extremely important (in his mind) and need to be recreated as such. To the T. People are hired as extras to reenact the vision he has in his head.
Albuquerque. 13.03.09 to 19.03.09
We're in Albuquerque now, Tijeras (literally scissors) to be exact, but I'm still dwelling on our living situation and the light Remainder sheds on it. There’s two approaches. One is to have a vision of how we want to live—have a list of requirements: (#) top floor apartment, (#) a dog, (#) pre-war building, (#) outdoor space, (#) hardwood floors, (#) morning light, (#) no smokers beneath us, etc. and do everything in our power to “realize” this. The other is to try something new beyond all expectations and let yourself be surprised. Keep trying the NEXT EXIT.
There are advantages to both approaches. If you don’t have expectations, then life is full of surprises, some good and some bad. It’s a crapshoot. If you have expectations and they are not realized exactly, this leads to disappointment. Speaking of crapshoot, I won $115 on red 23 at the Casino of the Mountain Gods near Ruidoso. When people say they win money, what they are not telling you is how much money they had to lose to win it. I walked away from the casino with $50 more than I had. A paltry sum compared to the 8.5 million pounds McCarthy’s unnamed protagonist gets.
Since he receives a large sum of money, he essentially has infinite power to execute his vision. He has complete control, he can buy the building, the city block, employ the people to “live” around him like extras on a movie set. We don't have such a luxury. Some people might think, wow, if I had infinite money imagine all I can do, I’d buy a mansion on an island with boats and drugs, etc. But does this lead to happiness?
And what would I do at this NEXT EXIT? The intersection of my writing and my "professional" career is information management, something McCarthy goes into at length in Remainder.
In order to execute his vision, he needs Naz, his information manager, to execute. This is the role that impresses me just as much as the "seer." When I view Matthew Barney's art, I don't think so much about Barney, but am awed by the production team that pulls it off.
I want a job where I can manage information and pull off novel stunts. Someone please hire me once we figure out where we are going.
Here's two more passages I related to, that have more to do with where we've been than where we are going. But to know where you are going you should know where you've been.
One thing I can say with certainty, I don't miss Nairobi much. I'm tired of thinking about their problems. There's enough to worry about on the homefront. In light of "our" (America's) current economic situation, I’ve been thinking about "speculation" a lot. While speculation is the root or major driving force in fiction and art, speculation is not necessarily a good thing in reality, or at least in terms of our economy. Speculation is what got us into this mess. Though I’m not sure it’s necessarily the mess the media makes it out to be (being a casual observer who has been on hiatus for the last nine months).
People say there’s a crisis, but it’s not the kind of crisis you witness in Africa. This is a crisis of speculation, where people are living the good life, too good of a life, joy-riding on speculation. It’s a 401K issue more than a matter of eating or starving or having a shelter over your head. It's a futures issue more than an immediate issue. It’s a crisis of paranoid and greedy Americans needing to know they are secure in the long run. In a place like Africa, 99% of the people aren’t even secure past the next planting season. But again, Africa is not my problem. It is only my problem if I take the problem upon myself, and by taking on the problem, you become the problem.
In general terms, the buying and selling of goods is what people mean when they talk of the speculation that got us in to the current mess. Couldn’ this definition of speculation also apply to fiction? Isn’t that what us writers do? We're in the business of buying ideas, reenacting them, and then selling them back to the world from which they came. Tom McCarthy bought into his reenactment idea somehow, through a vision, and his job was to sell it to us. He sold me. I bought into it. I'd recommend you do the same if you haven't already.
Tijeras, NM. 13.03.09 to 19.03.09
They call Tijeras Tijeras because it's at a Y-junction of two roads (Route 66 and the Turquoise Trail) that from the air resembles a pair of scissors. In a sense we were doing was going on a reverse reenactment of our trip moving to Nairobi. We were unwinding, surfacing for air.
There was a dusting of snow when we arrived. And it was cold. We ate some Mexican food. I sat in a hot tub. We did some thinking. I ran. I walked around on our land imagining where the goats might live were we to live here which is not a likely scenario. I looked at the rocks and trees on our land. I became entranced by this pellet stove.
Pellet stoves are the next best thing since sliced bread. I want one whatever our NEXT EXIT is. Little pellets that look like rabbit food would continuously shoot down the chute to "feed" the fire as if it were some sort of beast (sometimes it would hum and purr). A lot of heat was given off. Sparks were given off but contained. It burns clean. It was really something. Apparently I'm easily entertained.
What else. At some point we got bored and got into a car and drove east to see some things of interest.
First stop was Billy the Kid’s grave. I hadn't spent too much time thinking about Billy the Kid before this, except that he was short and ugly and killed some people. I don't think I thought much more about him after visiting his grave. It's funny how people remember and glorify mean people, naming places after them even.
Visiting graves is a sort of reenactment akin to what McCarthy is trying to do in Remainder. Humans have a propensity to want to visit places where tragic things happened, as if to plant a picture in their minds to help them reenact what happened, for closure, or whatever.
After paying our respects to Billy the Kid, we stopped by the Norman Petty recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where the likes of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison were immortalized in wax. It's the place where "That'll Be the Day" was recorded. It gives you something to think about going to a place like this.
Unfortunately the studio was closed so we couldn't go inside. But it doesn't matter, it's the thought that counts. I'm sure if I wanted to see what it looks like inside I could google it.
As we were approaching the site where Buddy Holly recorded "That'll Be the Day," we serendipitously heard "American Pie" on the radio.
"That'll Be the Day," was inspired by John Wayne in The Searchers. "American Pie" was inspired by the death of Buddy Holly. There's all sorts of speculation as to what "American Pie" is about, but to say "the day the music died," about a man who said, "that'll be the day," is stating the obvious. Though somehow pussy always manages to get mixed into the equation. The funny thing is when they asked Don McClean what the song meant, he said it meant he'd never have to work again. Retiring is another way to say dying.
Anyway, I'll refrain from showing photos of the Norman Petty studio or Billy the Kid's grave because the whole point is to see it for yourself, just like the point of the song is to decide for yourself what it means. If you ask me, I think it's a dumb song. The only thought that went into it was how the words sounded not what they meant.
We went through Clovis, then backtracked down to Roswell. Another one of these places people go to reenact. Only in this case the reenactment is fiction, but still, people need something to believe.
We spent the night in Roswell. The next morning we went to Ruidoso. Mostly we just walked around looking at shit. We went to a casino and I won some money betting on Red 23, after losing a few times on black 24 and playing blackjack.
We looped back to Tijeras. We ate more green chili. On St. Patrick’s day, Hannah and James of Venus Bogardus paid us a visit. They live up by Madrid and had a show that night in Albuquerque at the Atomic Cantina. Here’s some clips from the show.
We saw a few other bands that were okay. Albuquerque is a strange scene that resembles neither New York nor Nairobi. We were about to leave when we saw these short Indian girls taking the stage. They looked pretty bad-ass, with long munster hair and no make-up. One of them looked like the bastard child of Janis Jopin and Linda Blair in The Exorcist. And when they opened their mouths they unleashed one hell of a fury from some primal source. They called themselves Suspended. I felt exorcised and clean after seeing them.
Other than that, did I mention we ate a lot of New Mexican food? The most notable being a place called Duran Pharmacy of all things. I walked around some more on the land we bought looking at the trees and rocks and dirt. I went for long runs every morning along Route 66. We visited our storage unit to say hi to "our things." We went to malls to buy more things but never ended up getting anything because it seemed pointless. But we looked anyway. We spent some time looking for things that already existed but were lost. We got some groceries and something we expected to be there (mushrooms) were not there when we got home. So the risotto was made with canned mushrooms. Somewhere along the way I filled out my brackets. Madness.
ABQ to LGA. 19.03.09 (laying over in Houston)
I’ve been reading Sidebrow 01 on the plane. I’m in it so call me biased, but it’s a handsome book object. I like it because it’s not just a literary journal with piece after irrelated piece. A lot of care was put into connecting the dots, into providing portals to dig deeper and form connections between otherwise seemingly disparate writers and artists.
A lot, or maybe all, of what’s in Sidebrow 01, is online. So a lot of it was already familiar. But still great to see how it all fits together on paper. Not only is it an honor to be in the company of the likes Brian Evenson, Norman Lock, Kim Chinquee, Stephen Ratcliffe and Jason Snyder (the main mastermind behind Sidebrow I suspect), but it's cool to be linked with them—connected, either indirectly or directly (by way of the Post-Hole build, which I initially seeded with “Post-holing to the Flesh Temple.”)
While it's constrained by the linear book format, it manages to be non-linear in the way it unfolds and reads, assisted by the project headers and sidenote links that tie and weave pieces together from different sources.
I had a dream once that I was linked together by way of a grid of springs to a bunch of people and when you moved it affected those near you, which in turn pulled the whole mass of people connected by the springs. Much in the way molecules are held together, but looser. This is sort of like that.
My favorites reading it this time around, the ones that really stick, are the pieces by Nick Bredie and Nina Shope.
This blog post might fit into the Sidebrow scheme of things somehow. If I were to fit it in, I would probably call it HOUSTON & 2ND (where I am right now) and it would be filed under the Litopolis project. The Litopolis project "uses cartography as a framework for the arrangement of pieces in an effort to explore how differing aesthetic visions co-habitat when placed almost incidentally side by side."
This James Wagner excerpt (from Dear W,) nicely sums up the thematic aura of Sidebrow 01 as a whole:
Any of Bill Marsh’s expository Dead Letter Games could also serve to reflect the whole, such as this passage:
Sidebrow is very fractilian in this sense. It's composed of intersecting fractals that are typically self-referential and recursive.
If anything it’s worth reading for the index alone. Who would not want to look up "dwarf pines: fucking in a forest of, 203”. Or “sunlight: dirty, gushing into her, 23; mango tree, her metal cage, or, 110”?