Returning to Hong Kong makes me feel like the narrator in “Remainder.”
Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder” is one of my favorite novels. I haven’t thought of that novel for years, but after a few days in Hong Kong I think of it daily. I want to buy a copy and reread it ASAP.
“Remainder” is about memory, happiness, and authenticity. The unnamed narrator is an average man who is the victim of an accident that removes much of his memory and stunts his emotions. He is given a substantial settlement package to compensate him for his injury. The award is so large that he can afford to devote all of his time and resources to an unusual project: an attempt to recreate a single lost memory with perfect fidelity.
The narrator wants to recreate a vague memory of being at a flat he used to live in. In the memory, the narrator could smell the woman downstairs cooking kidneys. A pianist upstairs played part of a piece, made a mistake, and then replayed the same part more slowly until he mastered the difficult part; then he played the whole piece at full speed. A motorcycle fancier worked on his bike in the yard, trying to fix some mechanical issue. Garbagemen took rubbish cans and emptied them into their truck.
The narrator is so determined to recreate this reverie that he buys a building that resembles the one in his memory, renovates it so it is congruent to his recollections, and then hires actors to play the people in his memory. The actors imitate the people in the memory, sometimes for eight hours or more per day. The pianist plays until his hands go stiff; the woman cooking kidneys fills entire trash barrels with cooked meat that goes uneaten. The motorcycle is taken apart, fixed, put back together, and then taken apart again. All along, the narrator sits in the flat, enjoying the intoxicating nostalgia.
The narrator is obsessed with authenticity. He looks at Robert DeNiro in the movies and how he moves. DeNiro moves with a grace and correctness that seems impossible for mortals to achieve. The narrator wants to recreate frames from his life until the reproduction happens with the effortless authenticity and truth that DeNiro achieves. Perfection through repetition, at any cost.
Yesterday, when I stepped onto an MTR subway train, I felt like I was suddenly the correct version of my imperfect past self. I remembered “Remainder” and the narrator’s obsession with DeNiro, authenticity, and replication. I finally understood what the narrator was talking about. When I stepped onto that train, I recreated an action that I performed hundreds of times in my past, but this time I felt like I had nailed it. For a moment, I felt like I was simultaneously experiencing all of the times that I passed through that MTR door at that specific station. A mundane action became a dissociative experience. For a split second, I felt like the year I have spent away from Hong Kong simply did not happen and that I had never left.
I have four homes: Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, and Taipei. In each place I have a different set of practiced routines and behaviors. In each place I am a slightly different person. When I go on autopilot in those places, I do different things. It feels odd to get off of a plane and feel like you are suddenly a different person, but that is exactly how I feel now that I have returned to Hong Kong. Suddenly I am using the British words that I carefully avoided when I moved back to the states. And I am using the peculiar dialect and accent that I developed while living in Asia: a slow, clear, carefully-enunciated, culturally-neutral English cleansed of idioms, uncommon words, and figures of speech.
I feel that by buying a plane ticket, I was able to achieve the elusive thing that the narrator in “Remainder” sought to achieve. I have the uncanny feeling of stepping off of a plane and into a perfectly-reconstructed memory. The feeling is such an odd one that I know that I cannot capture it with words. However, I am confident that anyone who has lived in a foreign country for a long time, gone away, and then returned will know exactly what I am talking about.