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Oct 18

Book Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Bottom Line

Bereft of a plot or a defined character arc some will think that Satin Island is pretentious and pointless, but I loved it to bits.

Representative Paragraph

Video Buffering as a metaphor for life…

We require experience to stay ahead, if only by a nose, of our consciousness of experience—if for no other reason than that the latter needs to make sense of the former, to (as Peyman would say) narrate it both to others and ourselves, and, for this purpose, has to be fed with a constant, unsorted supply of fresh sensations and events. But when the narrating cursor catches right up with the rendering one, when occurrences and situations don’t replenish themselves quickly enough for the awareness they sustain, when, no matter how fast they regenerate, they’re instantly devoured by a mouth too voracious to let anything gather or accrue unconsumed before it, then we find ourselves jammed, stuck in limbo: we can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of it. Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything.

Commentary

There’s something remarkable about Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island.  With its obsessions about impossibly large projects and malfunctioning parachutes and the minutiae of modernity, it’s a book that deliberately refuses to provide a clear character arc for its protagonist or have a defined beginning, middle or end.  And yet it’s also an utterly compelling and gripping read, so good that it came close to nudging aside Marlon James’ The Brief History of Seven Killings as my favourite literary novel for 2015.

Tom McCarthy’s fourth book is structured like a memo or briefing, with each paragraph and thought bubble assigned a number (e.g, 1.1, 1.2… 2.1, 2.2 etc).  The author of the report is an anthropologist named “U” – possibly his real name but more likely a pseudonym – who works for a London-based consultancy firm run by the enigmatic and charismatic Peyman.  U begins his briefing by telling the reader that while stuck in a Turin airport he received a message from Peyman informing him that the company had been awarded the contract for the Koob-Sassen Project – a piece of work so large and complex that it is “impossible to say where it began and ended, to discern its “content,” bulk or outline.”  Aside from Koob-Sassen, U also explains that he’s been employed by Peyman to develop and publish the “Great Report” an all-consuming analysis of society that would ultimately be the first and last word of our age.

Both these plot hooks suggest a novel that will either explore the byzantine and complicated world of Project Management, or use the Great Report as a means of shining a light on the idiosyncrasies of the modern world.  And the novel does have a bit of that.  U, as I say above, is an anthropologist, and both in discussing Koob-Sassen and his work on the Report, he can’t help but make observations about modern life.  But unlike comedians of the 90s and their fascination with airplanes and peanuts, U’s critique of the 21st Century ranges from the environmental impact of oil slicks, the mystery of malfunctioning parachutes and how buffering during a download is really a metaphor for time and memory (see the quote above).

What does become clear as you progress through this short novel is that the Koob-Sassen Project, the Great Report and all of U’s idiosyncratic observations are a random collection of dead-ends, red herrings and cul-de-sacs.  To some this might all seem either incredibly pretentious or just a less funny version of Dilbert.  And yet, what elevates Satin Island beyond a “post-modern” critique of corporate culture is the way the book treats U’s relationship with Madison.  For a good chunk of the novel Madison is simply the woman U has sex with.  On the rare occasion Madison features in a scene she’s either ordering U to come over for some sex, or sleeping next to U as he ruminates over his life and decides that sex with Madison is a little disappointing.  If Madison had remained a reflection of U’s anxiety about his work, rather than a fully fledged character, than I’d have been less enamoured with McCarthy’ novel.  However, throughout all the unsatisfying sex, and dirty phone calls there’s a mystery surrounding why Madison once visited the same Turin airport where we first met U.  I assumed that Madison’s reluctance to answer the question would be one of the books many unresolved threads, except in the novel’s penultimate chapter Madison finally explains to U why she doesn’t like to speak about it.  What starts off as a harmless enough story about a woman in her youth demonstrating during a G8 summit in 2001 becomes something all the more strange and frightening and totally unexpected.  I don’t want to say much more because the less you know, the better, but the uncomfortable, unsettling nature of Madison’s story not only adds depth to her character but makes a mockery of U’s attempt to deliver a report that is the first and last word of an era.  If he was in doubt about his Project before this moment, Madison hammers in the final nails.

Madison’s tale is not the only reason I adored Satin Island.  The novel’s deadpan style lends itself to some very funny moments including U fantasising about the kick arse speech he should have given at a conference instead of the boring one he actually delivered and how just like George Costanza’s work on the “Vanderlay file”, U has become an expert in a project he doesn’t understand.  But more than that I’ve barely touched on so many of the other insights, points of interests and factoids that feature throughout the novel.  Yes, it may be a book that deliberately eschews tidy resolutions and epiphanies, that avoids character arcs and plot; and some might call it pretentious or self-aware or annoyingly ‘po-mo’.  Frankly though if the purpose of good literature is to make us stop for one moment and see the world in different light than Satin Island does that in spades.

1 comment

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  1. Max Cairnduff

    Nice piece, and you’re definitely right to talk about Madison who I completely skipped over in my review but who is central (being absolutely honest, I forgot her, I don’t find it a memorable novel).

    Madison to me is an other example of the impossibility of words capturing reality, a theme I talked about a bit in my review. U has his project, but how can it encapsulate something like Madison’s story (actually, I did have a quote from the book about it to use in my piece, but I forgot why I’d marked it, oh well)? It’s reality is too strange for narrative, and ultimately as the ending shows all his attempts to impose meaning are meaningless because the real is too strange and meaningless for all of them.

    Thanks for linking me to your review by the way. Much appreciated.

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