Two Paths for Virtual Reality

May 18, 2017

In “Two Paths for the Novel,” Zadie Smith offers a seminal interpretation of Remainder, a book she feels is “one of the great English novels of the past ten years.”[1] Smith’s reading of Remainder sheds light on a deeper motive for the novel: to plot a new course for literature. To McCarthy, modern literature indulges in the “surplus matter” of words and the “transcendent concepts of art,” while not giving credence to the “brute materiality of the external world.”[2] He mocks realist novel writers through the surrogate of the narrator, who avoids “messy, irksome matter” and finds authenticity in fake, idealized set designs. The narrator’s attempts to achieve authenticity are just as fruitless as realist literature’s reach for reality. Smith interprets Remainder as “constructive deconstruction” of its novel predecessors, including Moby Dickand Lolita. McCarthy’s path for the novel is one that creates “zinging, charged spaces, stark and pared-down,” like the ancient Greek playwrights.[3] McCarthy’s Remainder denounces the other path for the novel, which is nothing but a ghost of inauthentic realist literary culture.

Enter virtual reality. Remainder is not a book about VR. In fact, VR was virtually unknown when McCarthy published in 2001. The bond between realist literature and VR is what makes this connection conceivable: both art forms seek “verisimilitude,” the appearance of being true or real.[4] Insofar as Remainder comments on realist literature, it hints at the nascent technology and art form. Further, the experience of the VR user is just as intrinsically inauthentic as the experience of the narrator in his re-enactments. Remainder inadvertently identifies “Two Paths for Virtual Reality.” One path runs parallel to the road taken by realist literature, in which an attempt at representing reality ends with the art overriding reality. VR in 2017 finds itself travelling down this dangerously problematic road. A second path keeps VR separate from reality, serving solely as a mechanism for empathy and a home for Walter Benjamin’s famous “flaneur.” Remainder, beginning with the Brixton flat reconstruction and ending with the bank robbery, portrays a crescendo to convergence between re-enactment and reality. McCarthy tells a cautionary tale for VR, staking a massive “Do Not Enter” sign on the route of realist literature and calling attention to many of the cultural and psychological dilemmas VR presents as a medium on its way to mass $15-on-Amazon-like appeal. Virtual reality must not converge with reality; the new technology needs to diverge and carve its own path.

The first sixty pages of Remainder establish the narrator’s initial disillusionment with his given reality: the reality we all share. The narrator feels everything he knows is second-hand and inauthentic and that he has no real agency. As he recounts riding in the ambulance to the hospital, he notes: “More than that: my failure to get a grip on the space we were traversing had made me nauseous” (15). Looking down at his greased-stained sleeve, the narrator despises the “messy, irksome matter that had no respect for millions, didn’t know it’s place. My undoing: matter” (17). Uncontrolled chaos and messy matter, salient features of his reality, irritate the narrator beyond belief. Liesl Schillinger’s 2007 review of Remainder in the New York Times keenly connects this notion to Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 book Nausea, claiming that the protagonists of both novels are threatened by matter because it is “more alive” than they are.[5] The narrator cannot stand his current reality, finding himself to be pitifully inauthentic while actors like Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets live with “perfect” and “effortless” authenticity (23). Remainder portrays a person who craves a sense of agency in his life, a man who dreams to develop “various fantasy scenarios in which our first seduction might take place, which I’d play, refine, edit, and play again” (26). To have complete control over his narrative; to repeat his favorite sensations endlessly.

This is exactly the impetus for virtual reality. Users, tired of the chaotic world around them, retreat to a medium in which they enjoy the illusion of agency. VR worlds are preferable: they are safe, controlled, beautiful, and mesmerizing altogether. Why live in a world with crime, chaos, ugliness, and boredom when you can live in VR? Molly Gottschalk’s 2016 piece in Artsy discusses this appeal:

“It makes sense, then, that the most relative and innovative art forms being produced today would mirror our reality — one defined by a perceived sense of agency in a world filled with invisible algorithms and clicks baited to us by past clicks. The internet spoils us with infinite choice: opportunities to invent our personas, refashion our self-brands, optimize our lives, and enhance our experience.”[6]

Frustration with the given world and lack of agency compels a user to look to VR, just as dissatisfaction with “messy, irksome matter” motivated *Remainder’*s narrator to pursue his “authentic” re-enactments. McCarthy would fear that users will abandon the reality they inhabit for a software-generated reality in a headset.

McCarthy soon introduces the essential plot line of the novel: the narrator goes to a party at his friend’s flat, and while in the bathroom, sees a crack in the corner of the wall. “Deja vu” overcomes him as he conceptualizes one of the rare vivid memories since the accident: his old apartment building. He recalls the feeling of authenticity he enjoyed while occupying that space. All his movements had been “fluid,” “unforced,” and “natural.” He had “been real… Right then I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my money: I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again” (67). Enter Naz, the software-turned-man who “executes” all that the narrator wishes for this reconstruction of his flat in Brixton. The narrator instructs Naz that the “re-enactors” will need to “get used to being in two modes, though: on and off” (86). He can enter and exit this world on his own volition.

After Naz handles the logistics, and the exact replica — down to the square inch — of the apartment is erected, the narrator prepares to enter the reality he orchestrated. He arrives on set (more like puts on a headset) and he feels “like an astronaut taking his first steps — humanity’s first steps — across the surface of a previously untouched planet” (142). Walking through the set is an otherworldly sensation: the euphoria of being in a personalized reality. He walks through the exterior of the apartment building, interacting with actors who each serve a sole, miniscule role — echoing The Truman Show. “For a few seconds I felt weightless — or at least different weighted: light but dense at the same time. My body seemed to glide fluently and effortlessly through the atmosphere around it — gracefully, slowly, like a dancer through water” (144). He does not walk through the set; he wades. He has control over his surroundings, nitpicking the crescendos of the piano player and the movement of the “liver lady.” His body tingles. He feels authentic in this inauthentic, second-hand reality.

McCarthy is not consciously commenting on virtual reality here, but he might as well be. Turning the re-enactment “on and off” like a VR headset. Taking steps on a “previously untouched planet,” as if it is his own personal world within the machine. Feeling weightless as if he is a flying bird in Google Cardboard. Even semantically speaking, “virtual” not only implies software: it means “being such in power, force, or effect, though not actually or expressly such.”[7] The narrator feels the same “force” of authenticity that his old flat fomented, but this set is not “actually” his old apartment. The capacity to customize your world reflects the draw of VR, and the feeling of weightlessness reflects one potential danger. You do not feel like you in VR, you are reduced to a set of eyes as the rest of your body is rendered invisible. You feel immortal. You may be a click away from control, but VR does all the world-building for you. You just enjoy the show, like some ride or rollercoaster. It is an illusion of agency so powerful it might trick millions of VR users.

Fast forward past the re-enactment of a Ballard-esque sexual scene in the tyre shop, and then an existential experimentation with death at the shootings. The narrator begins to show signs of post-traumatic stress. He becomes inaccessible: “‘You were just sitting here,’ said Naz. ‘You’d gone completely vacant. You didn’t notice me, or hear me. I waved my hand in front of your face and you didn’t even move your eyes’” (193). Notably, this interaction with Naz is reminiscent of trying to get an entrapped VR user’s attention. A doctor tries to diagnose the cause of these trances; the doctor explains that trauma is mediated by endogenous opioids… “so pleasant that the system goes looking for more of them” (220). The narrator is addicted to the repetitive trauma.

The narrator brags “I wasn’t bound by the rules — everyone else was, but not me” (225). The power of his control went straight to his head — so much so that it clouded his ability to see the chaotic outside world. A “short councillor” comes to see him and Naz to learn more about the re-enactment endeavors, treating the narrator like a patient, but never addressing him directly. The sensation this narrative creates is analogous to French filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), in which viewers see everything from a paralyzed man’s POV (visually comparable to a 2D VR). Nurses and doctors interact and discuss the patient as if he is not there. The paralyzed man finds himself without control, just as Remainder’s narrator loses control of his body’s tendency to slip into comas. The man with a never-ending stream of money attempts to seize control once more, resolving to plan a bank heist re-enactment.

Virtual reality can likewise be a drug. When you can re-enact any visual, any feeling — traumatic or sexual or beautiful — it can be addicting. Disney’s animated feature Wall-E (2008) projected this dynamic: all the people in the futuristic space world sit in their individual pods and statically experience a VR-like show all day. Virtual reality, in its capacity to create utopias, is dystopian. VR can trap people to such an extent that they forget the outside world, or do not want to leave. VR headsets are just as much a lens into a new world as they are a blindfold of the original one. This sort of enclosure is tempting but torturous. Remainder is not science fiction like Wall-E; the novel is thought-provoking because of its conceivable banality.

The bank heist is the destination of the first path for virtual reality. After going through the logistical motions of building an Ocean’s Eleven-esque set for the bank, hiring re-enactors and all, the narrator decides to pivot. He wants to perform the bank heist re-enactment in an actual bank. In other words, he wants to rob a bank. To do it “for real.”

Yes: lifting the re-enactment out of its demarcated zone and slotting it back into the world, into an actual bank whose staff didn’t know it was a re-enactment: that would return my motions to ground zero and hour zero, to the point at which the re-enactment merged with the event. It would let me penetrate and live inside the core, be seamless, perfect, real (265).

The re-enactment merging with the event is the pinnacle “realist” experience. Naz is responsible for all the potential plot lines that may unfold, as the narrator banks on the bank employees simply following the prescribed directions. The narrator and his staff go through with the heist, trying to hide the veracity of the robbery from the re-enactors. It goes poorly; the narrator goes so far as to kill one of the re-enactors, blood spilling everywhere. Blood — the mark of matter that every person leaves on the earth — signifies that the re-enactment has just become real. Life has been lost in the pursuit of authenticity. The narrator leaves us with a chilling realization: “matter’s what makes us alive — the bitty flow, the scar tissue, signature of the world’s first disaster and promissory note guaranteeing its last” (304). Here emerges the voice of Tom McCarthy. The novel concludes when the narrator hijacks a plane, commanding the pilot to repetitively turn around in circles. The stakes are high, a matter of life or death, and the reader has no idea where the line lies between re-enactment and reality.

Remainder thus makes a subconscious statement about the destination of VR’s current path. VR’s utopian, immortal, addicting, and entrapping qualities heighten the possibility that virtual reality could drop the antecedent and become the reality for many. The notion seems like it belongs in science fiction, The Matrix, maybe — but the virtual reality revolution is on the horizon in 2017. Facebook launched a department in “Augmented Reality” in April 2017, seeking to make the fad of “Pokemon Go” a large scale social media reality. AR layers digital effects on top of anything you can see with your smartphone camera, allowing you to “pin” digital objects onto real life (ex. post-it notes or reviews for your friends to see at your favorite restaurants).[8] The draw for an enhanced, augmented reality is especially alluring for modern consumers. The Oculus VR company has grown exponentially toward a $2 billion sale to Facebook.[9] People will start to avoid the messy, irksome matter in the world when they can perceive it through an augmented, enhanced virtual reality. Virtual reality and reality are en route to the ultimate corporate merger.

There is a road less traveled by. VR still has plenty of time to get off the digital yellow brick road and carve its own path, one that harnesses its positive potential for art and social change. This road is best explained by a combination of Walter Benjamin’s “flaneur” and Remainder. Benjamin published The Arcades Project in 1940: an investigation into Parisian life of the 19th century, particularly the mall-marketplace “arcades.” One of the figures in this depiction of the French arcades was the ‘flaneur,” an individual stroller, idler, and walker who is a shopper with no intention to buy. Nothing but an intellectual parasite of the arcade, people-watching and observing as he conjures intellectual criticism.[10] Benjamin explicated the flaneur’s capacity for empathy in a separate 1938 writing:

Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes.[11]

The flaneur floats from person to person, enjoying the empathy of understanding multiple perspectives. Talk about Atticus Finch’s “climbing into another’s skin.” The connection between the flaneur and Remainder is not tenuous; Tom McCarthy borrowed Benjamin’s term when describing the task of the film adaption of Remainder with director Omer Fast. The Guardian wrote in 2016 that “they had fun creating a giant diagram of the novel’s structure on the pristine white wall of the Stockholm studio where McCarthy was staying on an artist’s residency in 2010. ‘One of the terms on it was ‘zombie flaneur.’’”[12]

There is one recurring scene in Remainder that especially echoes this “zombie flaneur”: when the narrator asks for spare change at Victoria Station. The narrator finds himself standing in the train station, people-watching, just like the flaneur. He describes the feeling as “serene and intense,” and proceeds to open his palms to enjoy the full tingling. Perhaps drawing on his dreams of talking with homeless people, he then actually asks people for spare change. It happens out of his control; he is blindly acting, like a zombie (44). Much later, when the short councilor asks which re-enactment had been most effective in achieving authenticity, the narrator thinks of the Victoria Station scene, which was not a re-enactment at all: “I’d been alone: alone and yet surrounded by people. They’d been streaming past me, on the concourse outside Victoria Station. Commuters… so serene, so intense, that I’d felt almost real… of being on the other side of something. A veil, a screen, the law — I don’t know” (242). The narrator feels most real, most authentic, when he’s being most empathetic. He’s embodying the position of the beggar, acting as a zombie flaneur intoxicated by empathy. This scene alludes to the second path for virtual reality.

The flaneur should be the virtual reality audience; the objective of VR must be empathy. VR’s greatest feature is its capacity to put you into another’s skin, to distract you from your interiority and show you another perspective. Look no further than Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze’s 1999 enigmatic film (also the director of Her). A puppeteer discovers a portal into movie star John Malkovich’s head: the film characters and movie viewers see everything from his perspective. He brushes his teeth, talks on the phone, acts in a play, and you see and hear it all. The film takes a negative turn as the users start to control Malkovich and overtake his interiority. But what makes Being John Malkovich a seminal example of a precursor to VR is its status as a film about empathy. It is apt for VR adaptation. The draw to be older (Big) or be a celebrity is more powerful than any trauma-induced high. The draw to be a beggar in Victoria Station was greater than any single re-enactment for the narrator. Further, the New York Times and Google Street View offer VR users the opportunity to witness — not control or participate — another culture or setting. Be that Iceland, Croatia, or Haiti, VR puts you into the shoes of a local. It inspires empathy. This is the positive potential of the new medium — VR films and art at large must take advantage of this feature of the technology. VR offers an advanced feeling of empathy that no silver screen or inked paper can rival.

2017 is the inflection point for virtual reality. Google Cardboard is just the beginning. The path of the realist novel mocked in Remainder, in which re-enactment converges with reality, runs parallel to virtual reality’s trajectory. Remainder’s path for VR is a technophobe’s worst nightmare. McCarthy’s novel conjures a vision in which users choose the utopian virtual reality over their given reality. It warns of the illusion of immortality that VR can illustrate; you feel simultaneously in control and powerless. Remainder treats trauma like a drug; the repetition VR can provide is an analogous addiction. The cautionary tale closes with the convergence of re-enactment and reality, drawing attention to the dangerous prospect that VR can entrap us and blindfold us from our given world. And yet there’s an asterisk. Filmmakers and artists alike can harness the positive empathetic potential of the technology. Virtual reality should make each user a Benjamin-esque flaneur, a floating idler intoxicated by empathy. VR can either be corrosive or constructive: two paths. Now is the time to choose its trajectory.

[1] Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel,” New York Review of Books. November 20, 2008. Accessed May 10, 2017.

[2] Smith, ibid.

[3] Smith, ibid.

[4] “Realism in American Literature, 1860–1890,” Washington State University. Accessed May 17, 2017.

[5] Liesl Schillinger, “Play it Again,” New York Times. February 25, 2007. Accessed May 11, 2017.

[6] Molly Gottschalk, “Virtual Reality is the Most Powerful Artistic Medium of Our Time,” Artsy, March 16, 2016. Accessed May 11, 2017.

[7] “Virtual,” Accessed May 17, 2017.

[8] Cade Metz, “The Rise of AR will Recreate your Filter Bubbles in the Real World,” WIRED, April 20, 2017. Accessed May 16, 2017.

[9] Chris Welch, “Facebook Buying Oculus VR for $2 billion,” The Verge, March 25, 2014. Accessed May 17, 2017.

[10] “The Flaneur,” The Lemming, The Arcades Project Project. Accessed May 15, 2017.

[11] Walter Benjamin, “Selected Writings: 1938–1940,” Harvard University Press, 2003.

[12] Phil Hoad “Remainder: Tom McCarthy and Omer Fast’s Avant-Garde Explosion,” The Guardian, June 17, 2016. Accessed May 15, 2017.