CALLING TO MIND that old saw against hasty superficiality, the cover of Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, defies the prospective reader to judge the book. Between Technicolor splotches, it lists, and strikes through, the genres to which the book does not belong: “treatise,” “essay,” “report,” “confession,” “manifesto.” The maneuver is, like the novel itself, equivocating and coy — is the book conceding its unsettled relationship to the categorical language of commercial and noncommercial publishing, or is it announcing its effort to befuddle readerly expectation? Regardless of intention, the cover tenders a singular generic contract with the reader, one that renders Satin Island a kind of Schrödinger’s cat (a figure central to the book), beheld in conditions under which it is, as a novel, both dead and alive.
If McCarthy — or, at the very least, his publisher — has decided to frame Satin Island as either not fully a novel or so fully a novel that it needs the surrounding of other categories to catch its runoff, this teetering status has nothing to do with the book’s proximity to memoir, a genre conspicuously absent from the cover’s laundry list. Indeed, McCarthy has expressed little interest in the facile fiction/nonfiction binary, which recent critics and champions of Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and Karl Ove Knausgaard have troubled so insistently. As McCarthy states in his recent essay “Writing Machines”: “There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about reality in fiction, or reality versus fiction. […] It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories.” An operative problem for McCarthy, then, is not the constructedness of his characters (which is to say their fictionality), but the constructedness of character.
Satin Island’s narrator, U., is largely indifferent to character qua character, at least as it’s typically individuated in novels. (Regarding his occasional lover, Madison, U. admits, “I hadn’t asked her very much about herself at all — her family, her background, any of that stuff — not back in Budapest when we’d first met, and not since, either.”) Rather, U. concerns himself with the very “social contexts and knowledge categories” whose constructedness McCarthy presumes: he is “the in-house ethnographer for a consultancy” that he calls, for anonymizing purposes, the Company. U. offers a de facto FAQ:
What does an anthropologist working for a business actually do? We purvey cultural insight. What does that mean? It means that we unpick the fibre of a culture (ours), its weft and warp — the situations it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it — and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fibre so that they can introduce into the weave their own fine, silken thread, strategically embroider or detail it with a mini-narrative (a convoluted way of saying: sell their product).
U. limns the customs and dynamics internal to the Company; like any anthropological investigation, with its competing demands of a clinical neutrality and an idiosyncratic curiosity, U.’s entails a simultaneous banalizing of the exotic and exoticizing of the banal. (U. calls this latter aspect “approaching the familiar as a stranger.”) U. also assembles “dossiers” on subjects determined by whim and clientele; the dossiers treat everything from blue jeans to oil spills, and U. infuses them with the language of anticapitalist critique, though his borrowings from French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou seem less to undermine the dossiers’ capitalist purposes than to pervert critical language itself.
The Company operates as a sort of microcosmic academic institution, monetizing, via distribution and sequestration, the production and acquisition of knowledge; its ersatz dean is Peyman, an aphoristic visionary who specializes in the delegation of vague tasks. Peyman has instructed U. to write “the Great Report,” a sweeping ethnographic assessment of the present epoch (“The First and Last Word on our age,” as Peyman, elaborating without clarifying, characteristically puts it). U. is also busy with the Koob-Sassen Project, a similarly opaque and total endeavor on which the Company has recently been contracted to work. U. omits all substantive description of the Koob-Sassen Project — “There are legal reasons for this: sub-clauses of contracts, […] stipulations protecting commercial, governmental and the level that comes one above that confidentiality” — but he assures the reader of its magnitude: “It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or another, touched on, penetrated, changed.” The Koob-Sassen Project and the Great Report are, in their grand irreducibility, effectively reducible to each other; though occasionally uproarious, McCarthy’s profuse emphasis upon their respective scales, compounded by his unwillingness to give either project any narrative specificity, is wearying.
As Satin Island progresses, U. waits for the Great Report to hit upon a proper form. And yet, despite repeatedly mentioning that the Report is “still finding its shape,” he is not altogether passive. Rather, the Report’s form is a primary matter for U., and he exhaustively considers which would best befit the Report’s ambition and epoch. He sees formal possibility everywhere: stationed in Turin Airport during the book’s opening pages, U. becomes fascinated with hub-airports, with their radial design and their function as “transfer points, rather than destinations in themselves.” U.’s general interest in the interstitial gives way to a particular interest in the parachute. The news story of one “parachutist [who] had died jumping from a plane”—“[h]is parachute had detached from him, and he’d plummeted to earth” — captivates U., as it brings the unmistakable frisson of the transitional, the concurrent: the skydiver’s parachute had been sabotaged, leaving him, U. argues, in a Schrödinger’s-cat-like state of contemporaneous life and death during the days leading up to his jump.
A parachute’s literal resemblance to a hub, as well as its irrelevance before departure and after arrival, gives U. a germinal idea of how the Report might be structured. These ideas apply equally to the Koob-Sassen Project, which, U. tells a coworker, “has to be conceived of as in a perpetual state of passage, not arrival — not at, but between.” Yet while McCarthy lavishes the Report’s formal inspirations with attention, he elides the Report’s formal properties — perhaps fittingly, but still frustratingly.
Although McCarthy could easily ironize U.’s fixation on the shape of the Report when the content is itself so inchoately colossal, it’s clear that the matter is anything but trivial. Indeed, in one of his many “shape”-obsessed intellectual flights, U. posits form and content as inseparable, with the two creating one Ouroboros-like entity:
What if, rather than it finding its shape, the age itself, in all its shape-shifting and multi-channeled incarnations, were to find and mold it? What if the age, the era, were to do this from so close up, and with such immediacy and force, that the it would all-but vanish, leaving just world-shape, era-mold? I started to think thoughts like this. They excited me. Beneath their vagueness, I felt something forming — something important and beautiful and momentous.
As narrative, such musings-cum-agonizings float haplessly, unmoored by an absorbing, material sense of how “era-mold” might manifest. “Era-mold” is, of course, hypothetical, and so its ethereality — its “vagueness” — is largely the point, but all the phenomenology exhausts without a culminating, weighty incarnation.
U.’s rigorous treatment of form finds its mirror in Satin Island’s cover. Every genre, after all, has its staid formal templates, and Satin Island’s apparent dissatisfaction with the genres available to it handily bespeaks U.’s hesitancy to commit to a form, or to have his only such commitment be to “still finding.” But while U. examines, even espouses, the formal integrity of transitional objects, the form of Satin Island itself is rhythmically straightforward, report-like, with chapters subdivided into approximately pagelong segments, all of them proceeding with a chronological intelligibility. Though the narrative largely consists of U.’s various reveries and theories — U.’s dying friend, Petr, and lover, Madison, take up relatively little space — to call the structure “associative” would be to miss the book’s discursive tightness. Even the reveries, which are often exquisite and range from the buffering of online video content to the “double-bind” of anthropology, are impressive reworkings of the same idea.
In this sense, Satin Island resembles a genre for which McCarthy has an avowed fondness, one listed on the cover: that brash, repetitious vessel of rousing ideology, the manifesto. In his essay (originally delivered as a lecture at the Tate Modern) “How Marinetti Taught Me How to Write,” McCarthy avers, “[W]hat excites me, as a novelist, about Marinetti, are his manifestos.” Expounding the novelistic lessons to be drawn from Marinetti’s manifestos, McCarthy writes that “literature is neither illustrated thought nor the sum of all its texts, but, ultimately, a space of possibility and of impossible demands, demands that can’t be met but which must nonetheless be attended to.” Exhibiting manifesto-worthy brio, McCarthy essentially summarizes the task U. devotes the text to: demanding of himself, and of a genre, what cannot be possibly completed.
With his admirably “impossible demands,” U. strives toward a location-defiant aloofness. And it is here that the metaphor of the skydiver with the bum parachute takes hold: he jumps, his pack loaded with — he thinks — buoyant grandiosity, only to discover that the parachute is not properly affixed, that he’s stuck in flight at a consistent speed, his death more obviously imminent with each passing second. His simultaneous habitation of the alive and the dead starts to seem immaterial rather quickly.