Tom McCarthy is a writer who I find fascinating to read, but I don’t often enjoy his writing. In fact early on in “Satin Island” his narrator makes a proclamation which might as well be speaking directly to the reader: “events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now.” McCarthy comes across more as an essayist than a novelist. The American cover for this book even plays upon the definition of it with words struck through like A Treatise, An Essay, A Report, A Manifesto, A Confession; the unimpeded declaration in the upper left corner insists that this book is A Novel, but I found it to be more like the other forms it claims not to be. That’s not to say there isn’t creativity to McCarthy’s cerebral treatises about the human condition and modern life informed by continental philosophy and post-modern literature. There is story here, but his fiction is definitely more firmly rooted in ideas. The only other book I’ve read by him is his novel “C” which I recall very little of except a particularly vivid séance scene which is revealed to be a total sham. In this new novel too there is a particularly fascinating section where a heretofore scantily-sketched female character named Madison comes to the forefront with an absurdly weird and meaningful story of her own. It’s the scene which I’ll probably take away with me and continue to mull over after having finished this novel where most of the other ponderous theorising will drip away.
The narrator U works at a company as a modern anthropologist where he sells to commercial enterprises their own narrative. He tells them stories about their customers’ relation to their products while borrowing heavily from concepts of structuralism and, in particular, his hero Claude Lévi-Strauss. This portrait of a corporate culture that likes to validate its marketing techniques with a vaneer of intellectualism is well observed. There is an arrogance to their task where the narrator believes “The world functioned, each day, because I’d put meaning back into it the day before.” I particularly appreciated the way U has a general lack of understanding about the multifarious work and developments which make his company successful. The company pioneers a new form of modern anthropology which they dub: “Present-tense anthropology; anthropology as way-of-life. That was it: Present-Tense Anthropology™; an anthropology that bathed in presence, and in nowness – bathed in it as in a deep, bubbling and nymph-saturated well.” The trademark symbol in the name seems particularly important as the driving factor behind all this “pure” research is profit-motivated rather than defining fundamental truth(s) about the culture. However, the narrator takes his profession seriously and sees himself as a scientist gathering clues about the modern age to feed into his larger project.
As a special assignment from his boss Peyman, the narrator’s real task at his company is to compile a great report which Peyman hopes should be “The Document, he said; the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.” Of course, this is an impossible task and no matter how vigorously the narrator follows several threads which he views as significant and make up the bulk of this novel: news of an oil spill, a crime of a sky diver whose tampered parachute never opened, the cancer which afflicts his colleague Petr or a vivid dream of a prosperous city paired with an island of refuse. Ultimately, his ambitious plans to compile a magnificent document crumble as the reader always knows they will from the moment he sits down at his magnificently cleared pristine desk. It seems appropriate that the novel begins with the narrator stuck in an airport. In this liminal space he is neither here nor there which neatly reflects his understanding about the influences which inform the news story which flicker across the screens he studies. Perspective influences all understanding so it’s an impossible task to collate “bundles of relations” into one objective point of view. Meaning remains hidden behind endless layers. All this amounts to narratives which we sell ourselves into believing we truly understand what is happening in the world and where we are going. As the narrator’s boss observes: “Everything, as Peyman said, may be a fiction – but the Future is the biggest shaggy-dog story of all.”
In his acknowledgements McCarthy explains that the gestation of this novel originated in a residency which he spent “projecting images of oil spills onto huge white walls and gazing at them for days on end.” The novel reads like a story formulated by someone who has spent a lot of time gazing at a wall and thinking hard about complicated matters. The narrator isn’t so much a protagonist who goes on a journey to be transformed, but a cipher through which the reader can be intellectually led from A to B to C. Presumably, since the narrator's name is abbreviated to the single letter U, the reader is meant to see himself mirrored there, but I saw little reflection of myself. The crucial difference between this novel and other novels of ideas such as Ali Smith's "Artful", JM Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello", Joyce Carol Oates' "I'll Take You There" or any of WG Sebald's books is that these novels have an emotional crux which makes those ideas urgently relevant to the characters involved. The narrator is so emotionally removed from his quest that it feels he doesn't relate to the ideas he's contemplating other than to get his report into his boss. Personally, I like to feel more heart in the story I’m reading and I didn't find that throughout most of this novel. For the majority of the book, McCarthy is Serious with a capital S. A particular kind of masculine sense of humour exhibited in scenes such as one in a Frankfurt anthropology museum’s archive where Madison calls the narrator to arouse him with talk of “sex scenarios involving poles and savages” fell flat for me. However, the final scene does build to a touchingly climactic moment of indecision and haunting sense of loss. If you’re looking for thought-provoking intelligent debate, McCarthy has some serious and engaging things to say about modern life. But if you want to be swept up in an engaging story, there are plenty of other novels that are more satisfying.