The Unbecoming

“A man is severely injured in a mysterious accident, receives an outrageous sum in legal compensation, and has no idea what to do with it” is a pretty simple story idea, but that’s verbatim the pitch for Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The publisher’s blurb is elegantly written around what he does wind up doing with it, so if that doesn’t sound like something you want to know, it’d behoove you to stop reading here. The real spoiler that’s not a spoiler is that if you’re reading this, you already know everything’s going to end in motorcycle racing anyway.

As with the other McCarthy I’ve read, Remainder treads a fine line stylistically balancing mind-numbing detail with occasional, circuitously transcendent gravitas; his writing doesn’t feel unfamiliar to people who’ve read Geoff Dyer or DFW, though I don’t think McCarthy quite has the emotional breadth to match either (which might actually have shielded him over time from the flock of Lit Bro windbags eager to extol every Serious Male Writer). You get a feel for his sense of pace and humor immediately as the reader finds the unnamed protagonist in a reflective mood. How did the accident happen? What was it that hit him? Where in the sky did it come from?

The second page informs you the narrator’s financial settlement doesn’t permit him to say, but you won’t care anyway once you see how he blows £8.5 million (which, by the way: not an “outrageous” sum if you ask me given Bill Gates then and Jeff Bezos now, but of course I’ll take it if you’re offering). Even adjusted for turn-of-the-millennium inflation, I’m skeptical of the narrator’s increasingly intense recreations of the most mundane scenes if for no other reason than he ends up with thousands of people in his employ working round the clock that he must pay handsome sums to, for instance, continually tweak a motorcycle or play Rachmaninoff terribly. But it coheres into a cult of unclear direction where you’re left spectating, waiting to find out what exactly necessitates a state of grace to this guy (defined in terms of authenticity, an awfully ‘90s understanding of happiness’ endgame if I’ve ever heard one). Occasionally the narrator mentions a sensation as fleeting as it is pleasurable in conjunction with the notion of authenticity, the lynchpin of the book — and so, given the financial wherewithal, chases it in ever more maddening scenarios.

“I turned the palms of my hands outwards, closed my eyes and thought about that memory of just before the accident, being buffeted by wind. Remembering it sent a tingling from the top of my legs to my shoulders and right up into my neck. It lasted for just a moment but while it did it felt not-neutral. I felt different, intense: both intense and serene at the same time. I remember feeling this way very well: standing there, passive, with my palms turned outwards, feeling intense and serene.”

You might guess how it ends, but like the beginning, that’s less the point than what lies between: Happiness is a difficult proposition. But what if you could recreate an exact point of happiness over and over and over to the extent where it’s second nature and you’re able to then set aside your primary thoughts for tertiary ones, explore the details of a scene, its smells, its colors, its alternative endings and universes and possibilities? What if you could pick it apart so much, you end up stuck in it? How do you come out of it? And what, ultimately, remains?

I’ve seen some reviews that suggest Remainder is a one-trick philosophical pony or a novel that reads a lot deeper than it actually is, but I’m not sure it’s so stupid as it appears with a more critical eye; there isn’t just money and insanity and happiness to consider. The notion of what is and isn’t authentic remains an interesting question apart from that even if the binary itself feels quaint. Maybe it’s phasing out, though. Personally, I’m not sure Gen Z cares one way or the other; to them, authenticity might just be a millennial handbag fight over who bonded harder with the elephants on their Thai vacation. A petty concern of a bygone era.

– – – – –

Nobody stumbles into Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Part One by accident. I found it aimlessly scrolling through The Criterion Channel’s offerings over the summer, which might sound like a refutation of that, except a) I was on The Criterion Channel, so it’s not like I wasn’t asking for it, and b) if I missed a Marvel franchise film whose title references Arthur F. Bentley’s essays on social theory, by all means let me know.

Bill Greaves’ avant-garde piece of ‘60s cinéma vérité sets you up quickly: It’s a film crew filming a film crew filming. Easy enough. The decade was rife with movies about movies, from 8 ½ to David Holzman’s Diary to whatever Andrew Noren lost by accident, and at least initially, things seem clear here, too: A scene is playing out in which a married couple argues intensely over having a baby and whether or not the husband is in the closet. Potentially jarring to audiences in 1968, maybe, but hardly earth-shattering to the contemporary eye.

Ah, but the movie you thought you were watching gradually morphs into a chaotic, anxiety-laden mess. Greaves continually plays coy, changes his mind, appears standoffish, tries ridiculous zags with the same scene that include “an experiment in musical comedy form,” all to agitate the increasingly bewildered, frustrated crew. This, it turns out, was the point. Through multiple locations, different actors, interruptions from the NYPD and casual parkgoers, an emotionally exhausting scene frays the nerves. Greaves would later say the movie is “crawling around with angst, if you will, and anger and rage and what have you. It was wonderful.”

Toward the end of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (there is a Take Two, incidentally, though it came much later), a homeless drunk bearing the demeanor of a stage actor and the mug of a weathered Frank Turner wanders on set with an extended digression on the meaning of life. At one point, he utters what might be the movie’s most important line: “Oh, it’s a movie. So who’s moving whom?”

Nobody really answers — probably because at that point, nobody really knows.

– – – – –

I didn’t have to wake up at 3:30am, really. I could have comfortably slept another half hour or 45 minutes, maybe even an hour, and still made it in time to hear an empty field full of deer casually frolicking and grazing turn with the sunrise to a cacophonous swarm of sandhill cranes socializing before the next leg of their trip south to Florida. But there I was, an hour early to the party huddled in the freezing cold on a glorified deck looking at an empty field in the middle of nowhere, Indiana, awaiting the promise of thousands of these things, birds that apparently have a fossil record dating back 2.5 million years.

They sound like it, too. Once you hear the call, you can’t unhear it; a trilling prehistoric trumpet affixed to a sleek avian body on stilts that looks graceful until you watch them walk around in absurd struts like uncommitted carnival performers. Binoculars helped as I surveilled the field where first tens, then black clouds of hundreds gathered. As the morning sunrise gave way to overcast afternoon gloom, a friend and I retreated from the officially designated Sandhill Crane Observation Area back to the car to warm up and, after a few hours, we decided to head elsewhere in search of a closer view.

This was a part of Indiana where I can’t imagine social distancing is much of a problem and paved roads are a luxury; dead crops sat withered on the ground as we drove around in giant squares because that’s the only way to get around when you’re not flying over it. Others had similar designs, and why not? The cranes were everywhere — sometimes easier to spot where there was still grass or golden crop, sometimes harder because the sky and most of the land were as gray as the bird feathers. We pulled over a few times here and there to observe. A few times we got out and the cranes, slowly, trilling, would start to move off.

We drove around for hours. Occasionally, we got much closer than we had back at the observatory, but they were everywhere and it would’ve been hard not to. When we’d had our fill of frigid cold and drab plumes and bad photos, we turned back and went home. I wonder how much the farmers hate them.

– – – – –

What the fuck is going on with Fabio Quartararo?

After the season opener at Jerez, I’d wagered some mental money on Maverick Viñales to win the 2020 MotoGP riders championship thinking Yamaha had sorted out their woes and Viñales his inconsistency, thinking he might finally step up and cement his role as MotoGP’s preeminent rider with the psychic burden of Marc Marquez lifted. But after back-to-back Jerez wins, the second from pole, it was clear that Quartararo had figured out the 2020 YZR-M1 better than either Viñales or Valentino Rossi, nevermind teammate Franco Morbidelli on an ostensibly inferior 2019 M1. Now that he’d finally tasted victory for the first time and followed it up the very next weekend with another convincing triumph, you got the feeling the cork had been popped and the bubbly was about to flow for real, his stratospheric rise from biking prodigy to Marquez’s greatest challenger in the latter half of 2019 to MotoGP’s first French world champion ordained at short last.

How naive that seems now; how far from the sky he has fallen. For the sake of the show, everything that’s happened since has been great. But if you’re a Fabio fan, everything that’s happened since has been painful like a knife slowly twisted, like watching a fire grow out of control in slow motion helpless as Quartararo has been left increasingly confused and lost a race meeting at a time aboard a bike that, at least initially, appeared to be the class of the field. The results tell the story: 40% of his 125 points this year came in those opening two rounds. The only person who’s taken as many wins this year is Morbidelli, but in the 11 races since MotoGP left Jerez, he’s scored just one podium (a win in Barcelona, granted), finished out of the points once and DNF’d twice, most recently in the season’s penultimate race at Valencia.

His desperation there was plain. After a poor start, an early error put him at the back of the field and effectively out of the championship fight that Joan Mir was about to cruise home and shut down anyway. But to my eyes, it was the body language after the front washed out and he slid into retirement that said it all: Back on his feet immediately, Quartararo’s helmet didn’t even shake its head and his fists didn’t suggest he was screaming inside it. It was as if he’d expected the crash. Unsurprised and unamused. Defeated. Bewildered. He was, you could say, standing there, passive, with palms turned outwards, feeling intense and serene.

As in other sports, there are plenty of examples in MotoGP of riders who’ve delivered their personal twist on The Peter Principle and risen to their own level of incompetence by showing loads of talent in lower classes but getting a bad or mediocre bike early in their big league career and then, almost imperceptibly over time, forgoing fulfillment of that potential by either not working harder for a better ride or riding just hard enough to maintain the one they got. We’re not there yet with Fabio Quartararo, not by a long shot. But how much is it preying on his mind that he’s stuck with this bike for two more years? How much longer will Yamaha let what might be the fastest man on the grid languish? Why is it that the most successful manufacturer of the season (seven of this year’s 13 races have been won by a Yam; no one else has more than two) feels like such a failure this year, and last year, and the year before that, right on back to 2016? When does inscrutable inconsistency turn ugly?

We’re not there yet, but nobody’s really answering, either — probably because at this point, with one race to go in an erratic 2020 season where nothing has been assured, nobody really knows. The years, though: The years can’t all be like this one. Can they?

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