Re-Enacting a Past Life—With Money

A man of 30, living in an unprosperous area of South London, receives a whopping settlement of £8.5 million for an accident that left in him a coma for weeks, followed by months more in casts. Because of brain damage, he’s had to relearn to walk and to lift food to his mouth. Though he doesn’t feel like doing anything, the money does affect him, largely in perverse ways.

The story is told in the charming, light, witty style of the kind endemic to British comic novels, leading us to expect it to unwind in the way of such plotty, fluent confections. Further, it comes with a publishing back-story: Initially issued in an edition of 750, after many rejections, by an obscure French art press, its early history seems a parable of the evils of commercial publishing. Then an editor at big American Vintage came across it and loved it, and it arrives on reviewers’ desks trailing movie rights and critical praise from the British press and early reviews here.

If I’d encountered one of those 750 copies, I too would have felt righteous outrage at the state of publishing—but maybe for only the first two-thirds of the book.

Our hero-narrator wants simply to feel natural again, the way he did before walking or eating had to be constructed acts with worked-on stages and moves. How will his millions help?

In a bathroom at a party, the image of a time he can’t specify pierces him with joy and urgency. His settlement allows him to re-create in reality this scene that appeared so inexplicably in memory, and to that end he buys a building resembling the one in his vision, has it remodeled, fills it with “re-enactors” to mimic this moment of unplaceable memory, and then spends hours gazing at light crossing the stairs, or repeatedly greeting a resident, to capture those instants when his blighted present seems to converge with his unimpaired past.

You anticipate some revelation when, about halfway through, he has his building up and running: So far, the obsessions, while narrated with humor, have an atmosphere of masturbation and fetish, literalizing the Freudian observation that neurosis recruits others to re-enact the dramas that define us, in this case in a rhapsody of autism. However, the narrator just goes on to create new re-enactments, which increasingly involve simulated street crime. You foresee his ruination.

French literary theory has been invoked in praise of this novel (the author’s previous book is called Tintin and the Secret of Literature), as well as Camus’ The Stranger. Be that as it may, in the end Remainder leaves you feeling tricked into cozy sympathy with a character who proves uncaring and vacuous.

Anna Shapiro is the author of a collection of essays and three novels. Her most recent, Living on Air (Soho), will be out in paperback in May.

Re-Enacting a Past Life—With Money