Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy’s latest book Satin Island exists in a glorious new realm of writing between a novel, a narrative manifesto, a treatise, and a test. Written in the form of a bureaucratic report, Satin Island is equal parts Franz Kafka, Claude Levi-Strauss, and a ream of terms and conditions small print, and McCarthy is the sly sort of genius that can make it all work.“U.” is the nameless narrator of Satin Island, or maybe it’s us: you and me. He works as a “corporate anthropologist” for an eerily omnipresent business (hereafter referred to as “The Company”). It takes U. all the way to section 2.2 of Satin Island to fully reveal his protean occupation (his report repeatedly derails with tangents of data, news, and statistics):
“What do I do? I am an anthropologist. Structures of kinship; systems of exchange, barter and gift; symbolic operations lurking on the flipside of the habitual and the banal; identifying these, prising them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light – that’s my racket.”
McCarthy gives his readers just enough data to accept and drift past; U.’s profession makes sense, somewhat, maybe, but perhaps not at all. How does this actually work? U. reports to a man named Peyman on how his observations of systems might synergize with The Company’s agenda. The Company, too, hums with a dizzying, inconclusive confidence:
“The Company… advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas – the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.”
It’s with this allusion to narratives that Satin Island begins to resonate at a remarkable new frequency. Could literature itself, or reading, or writing an experimental novel be some sort of modern-day anthropology? What is literature but our collective cultural narrative? Satin Island is an airtight novel, suffocating at times, but every tangent contributes to an intoxicating system of experience, history and reference. The plot of Satin Island begins to fade away into its boring self and something bigger emerges, about the core of books and how we experience information.
Every Kafkaesque allusion or neo-sci-fi tease has its role. In section 4.1, U. unravels for a moment to marvel at one of his heroes, the renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who “zapped from continent to continent, culture to culture, traveling through worm-holes of association till he’d remade the entire globe into a collage of recurring colours, smells and patterns.” McCarthy, too, is zapping between literary classics, through similar worm-holes of association. U. asks for a “grid that we could lay across it all” to “establish a grand pattern of equivalences.” Satin Island attempts to be that patterning.
Halfway through the novel, Peyman calls U. up to his office to reveal his role in an important step forward for The Company. U. is to write the Great Report (which we readers may already be halfway through), about “present-tense anthropology” and our current cultural existence. From section 6.9:
“What I want you to do, he said, is name what’s taking place right now. To name it? I repeated; like the princess does with Rumpelstiltskin in the fairytale? Yes, he said: exactly. What do you want this Great Report to look like? I asked. What form should it take? To whom should it be addressed? These are secondary questions, he said. I leave it to you to work them out. It will find its shape.”
A Gordian task, but expected, and accepted. Suddenly all of U.’s tangents spin together: a parachutist in the news who may have died from foul play, the half-formed face of his girlfriend, buffering, during a Skype chat, a recent oil spill, a video of Nigerian traffic patterns. Might all these be part of the Great Report? They possess a common thread, which reveals their parity: all of these instances can be conjured in seconds from a phone, streamed, even projected on a wall.
U. ruminates on our glut of information and our dearth of knowledge: “Write Everything Down, said Malinowski. But the thing is, now, it is all written down. There’s hardly an instant of our lives that isn’t documented.” “…The truly terrifying thought,” U. thinks, “wasn’t that the Great Report might be un-writable, but – quite the opposite – that it had already been written.”
Maybe we’re all writing it, still, you and me. Past McCarthy’s ominous cultural critique, there’s something that U. is missing in his Great Report that McCarthy expounds on at length in Satin Island: the conversion of data into art might be something close to that present-day anthropology that Peyman seeks. Information is everywhere, and soon will be accessible by everyone. It’s what we see in that array that may define our culture. Just as U. sees a haunting beauty in a viral news story, or senses patterns in the rampant dots of a Nigerian rush hour, we see a furious balance of life and art and data in a book slyly crafted to make itself seem as boring and impenetrable as possible. We break through to find something revelatory.