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Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (Man Booker Shortlist #4)

(For other Man Booker shortlist reviews, see: A Spool of Blue Thread, The Fishermen, and The Year of the Runaways).

Satin Island is Tom McCarthy’s second grab at the Man Booker ring – his book C was shortlisted in 2010 but lost out to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.

Satin Island is, in my view, a better book than C, but is nonetheless cast in the same mould. McCarthy’s fiction is characterised by layered, theory-dense, emotionally detached prose, which both gestures at ultimate meaning and also mocks the very notion of coherence in understanding the world. It’s a clever, ambiguous, and frequently irritating style; perhaps intentionally, McCarthy often seems to tremble right on the cusp of a big reveal, only to pull back into absurdity at the last moment.

Satin Island is the story told by U, a “corporate ethnologist” working for the Company. U’s Company, through its charismatic boy genius CEO, Peyman, has successfully bid to be part of a large corporate-governmental project, Koob-Sassen, the dimensions and objectives of which are left vague and unspecified, but hint at a kind of global reprogramming of human behaviour.

As well as contributing his ill-defined insights to Koob-Sassen, U is working on a Grand Project, a kind of unifying ethnology of the present, a blueprint of meaning to explain the contemporary. This hubristic exercise, urged by the mysterious Peyman when U is hired, is, you will not be surprised to learn, destined to fail. Nonetheless, in arriving at the final failure, McCarthy diverges down some tantalising side-roads that seem to promise enlightenment before petering out to oblivion.

The book is, essentially, a bead-stringing of random things, themes, insights, that fail to make, at the end, a useable necklace. U is interested to the point of obsessiveness in strange or seemingly random events or themes that he gropes at in a search for an uber-meaning. This is most strongly demonstrated in his fascination with, and counter-normative interpretation of, oil spills, but there are other, less momentous, examples.

U is intrigued, for instance, by parachute accidents, his interest piqued by a news report of one, and goes on a hunt for similar incidents over the past years. His carefully evolved theory that the “accidents” are rather the result of a strange, unearthly Russian roulette pact among skydivers unravels in a mess of contradictory facts, serving as a neat and pointed emblem of the ultimate futility of most of U’s attempts to impose an organising narrative on stuff that is, really, just random stuff.

All of these sub-themes and explorations – U’s dossiers on parachutists, oil spills, airports, Staten Island, scam emails, newspaper obituaries, post-game interviews, Japanese game avatars – are reaching towards the master-gloss that he will one day (and yet, the reader always knows, will inevitably never) place on it all, to create The Report. In one sense, Satin Island is a lengthy, linguistically clever way of saying something quite simple: There is no answer. It cannot be found because it cannot exist.

Along the way, McCarthy runs two fairly strange sub-plots, which feel like they are supposed to connect to the master plot and say something profound about it, but fail to quite do so.

Firstly, there is the illness and death of U’s friend, Petr, who contracts an untreatable form of thyroid cancer. U’s detached tracking of his friend’s decline, his almost casual recasting of Petr as a mere symbol of mortality rather than a person in himself, sharply underlines U’s essential coldness and indifference to the world. Perhaps that is, after all, the point of Petr – to highlight the ways in which U fails to be a fully rounded human.

Secondly, there is U’s sterile, unsettling relationship with Madison, the woman he is sort-of seeing. The Madison plot arc takes a genuinely disturbing turn in her narration, near the close of the book, of her alleged role in the G8 protests in Italy, and the horror-movie tortures to which she claims to have been subjected – all delivered in a voice that somehow manages to make it clear that Madison is an untrustworthy narrator, despite U expressing no ostensible doubts about her veracity.

This is a book that does not lack thought, but does lack emotion, unless ennui can be considered an emotion. It would be hard to care about U as a person (or Peyman, Madison or even Petr), and I think this is absolutely McCarthy’s intent, just as it was in C. His is a novel of ideas and postmodern twists and turns; it is not a human story, and I get the sense that McCarthy didn’t want it to be. His well-publicised disdain for what he calls the “naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over” (“Writing Machines”, London Review of Books, Vol 26 No. 34 18 December 2014) is on display in spades in Satin Island.

It’s not easy to define what it is that makes McCarthy’s book at once intriguing and frustrating. It’s not afraid of big ideas or theory – Levi-Strauss’s structuralism plays a key role in U’s narrative, as does some thinly-veiled Freudianism and a few grab-bag borrows from the postmodern and poststructuralist canon.

This is all very interesting, but, whether intentionally or not, McCarthy’s love affair with symbology pushes him oftentimes to the very edge of nonsense, that tipping point where the effort to find meaning and connection in every random mundane thing becomes risible. Perhaps I can explain it best by saying that the book smells a bit like it might have come out of a 1990s cultural studies department – everything is valid, nothing is meaningless or just plainly what it appears to be, and there is literally no tiny object in existence that cannot be improved with a thorough theoretical sandbagging.

Of course, this doesn’t make it a bad book – quite the contrary, it’s a very good book, although its lack of warmth means most readers will find it a slow starter until the ideas start to grip. Despite its world-weariness and cynicism, it’s also a very capable display of how theory can create wonderful literature, and evidence for McCarthy’s own proposition that realism is not the only lens (he goes further and says it’s not even a good lens) for writing the world and the human struggle to put our sentience to some kind of use.

This could win the Booker, although I think A Little Life is still the more likely winner. Satin Island would be an unconventional choice in a vein that none of the other shortlistees would be. Ultimately, it’s a good book, maybe even a great book, even though (or perhaps because) it is also frequently irritating. It settles in the mind and stays there, which may, after all, be the best recommendation possible.