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Black cats resting on red roof tiles
on 6 October 2009
This novel was greeted by so much hype from the critics that I was dismayed on reading it to find it was full of substance, colour, light and energy but with a profound vacancy at its heart. On an ordinary day and to an ordinary man a terrible accident occurs that robs him of most of his memory. Only fragments of it return, but he is compensated for the accident (about which he can remember nothing) to the tune of eight million pounds.
The protagonist, who has a flat, affectless, totally amoral personality, perhaps as a result of his accident, becomes obsessed with recreating, first of all, moments from his past, and secondly, with new moments. And these are, literally, moments: coming down a staircase and seeing an old woman moving a bag of rubbish; listening to someone playing a piano; looking out of a window and seeing some black cats resting on red roof tiles - their very banality and the intensity with which he experiences them are puzzling and seem to lead precisely nowhere. We learn nothing about his life prior to the accident and he seems to have no family and a few friends, who, in any case, soon abandon him or are abandoned by him.
But then he becomes interested in recreating moments that have happened since the accident - and one of them involves a bank heist, during which things get a little more interesting.
Looking for a clue in the title, I wondered if the writer was trying to suggest something about the philosophical problem of memory itself, since any memory is changed by the act of remembering. He is trying to recreate himself by repeating images that in some way moved him or made him feel safe or contented, but he's doomed from the start, since what remains from repeating an action is a faraway echo of the original feelings. If I go back to the place I lived in as a child I do not become that child again, except, perhaps, in a fleetingly imaginative sense and one wonders how such a momentary effect could possibly be worthwhile. One of the most interesting facets of memory is how it is changed by what we invest in it - and that sometimes involves us in trying to understand more about ourselves as human beings than is ever entirely comfortable or easy. None of the insights our protagonist gains seem to give him much insight into his past. One quickly begins to wonder what the writer wants to convey. It seems muddled and muddied to me.
Tom McCarthy goes for amorphous effects unconnected to thought, such as a tingling in his arm when something seems authentic, and although his writing is the fine stuff of a highly literate practitioner, the novel ultimately dissolves in its own solipsism.