A Satin Island of the Mind

By Christopher UrbanMarch 24, 2015

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

TOM MCCARTHY’s new novel Satin Island, like his previous three books, is difficult to describe. The plot, as much as there is one, concerns a “corporate anthropologist” named, simply U. — “Call me U.,” says the narrator, playfully evoking Moby Dick’s famous opening line — who has been tasked with the vague but significant job of writing a new document, referred to in all seriousness as the “Great Report” by his oft-absent boss, Mr. Peyman. This immediately causes our protagonist a great deal of anxiety. What exactly is the Great Report? According to the “visionary vagueness” of U.’s boss, it’s “The First and Last Word on our age.” And later, he explains to U., that it’s not just some “standard ethnographic paper that would sit gathering dust, or cyber-dust.” No, his boss “wanted something different and surprising: something bigger, more ambitious and, above all, new. It will find its shape … I leave all that to you.”

U. procrastinates on the project, getting distracted by his conspiracy theories concerning a parachutist’s death; about an oil spill that’s taken over the news, his occasional hook-ups with his not-quite girlfriend, Madison; his friend Petr, who’s dying of terminal cancer, and, of course, his own mind, which ruminates on influential twentieth-century anthropological thought in a rather facetious manner, from the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss (his hero) to Bronisław Malinowski.

U. works for what is only ever generically referred to as “The Company.” The idea that U., a serious-minded anthropologist, would find himself working in the corporate sector is perhaps not as strange as it might sound. Back in 2007, “The Rise of Corporate Anthropology” was the title of a Harvard Business Review blog post, and in a recent interview McCarthy stated that as many as 50 percent of anthropologists now work for corporations. I’m sure if other humanity fields were included in that study, that number would be even higher, for there are innumerable instances of a student gaining command of French theory not to shape the world or themselves, but a brand’s identity. Satin Island has satirically taken the pulse of our current situation.

It begins in an airport. One can’t help but point out that Hergé, creator of the Tintin comics and one of McCarthy’s heroes, had planned to set the action of the last Tintin adventure entirely in an airport longue. Satin Island expands well beyond the airport of Turin (birthplace of the famous Shroud of Turin, mentioned in the first sentence), as U. visits or recalls past visits to other cities: Frankfurt, New York, Stockholm, Paris, London, Budapest. Nevertheless, the action of the book barely strays far from its theme of interim places and intermediary states: airports, ferry stations, traffic jams, subways, U.’s procrastination, the in-between state of his dying friend, the buffering Skype calls.

Satin Island is easily McCarthy’s most formally inventive novel. The decimal numbered chapters (for example, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3) recall everything from a kind of a philosophical doctrine, like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, to a manifesto, or even an instructional manual. Its structure usefully reinforces to readers the way U. see the world, not as a whole, but in a postmodern, fragmented way. No quotation marks are used for dialogue, no indentations for paragraphs; each new block paragraph begins the next decimal section.

I would like to suggest that the most satisfying reading of Satin Island is one that considers U. not as an anthropologist working on his Great Report, but rather a writer trying to compose the next Great Book, the Great American (or Global) Novel, something that will sum up our “current age,” to use the language of U.’s boss. After all, the job of depicting the way we live now has traditionally been the territory of novelists. U. has gained a certain reputation in his field at The Company. Like McCarthy, he’s famous, but, as U. says: “A famous anthropologist, even one with a real book out, is about as well-known as a third-division footballer.” The same could be said for most authors. And U., like a good novelist, also promises not to talk about his project, and instead philosophizes about Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, and the Vanuatan tribe that made U. chose his field in the first place.

In Satin Island, McCarthy has found a way to tell a familiar story in a new way, that of a writer struggling with his material, his next book. But it’s impossible to tell that story now; it’s been told so many times. In this light, I think of David Markson’s fragmented, collagist novels, which to me simultaneously express the anxiety of a writer working under the impression that the best literature’s already been written, using precisely that notion to create something new. Like many writers, U. keeps getting sidetracked; he’s a chronic procrastinator, putting off his Great Report for another day. And even when he does finally sit down to make an effort, something else comes up. “It was time, I told myself: time to begin this in earnest. Not the Report per se, but rather its schema, prolegomena, what-have-you.”

But first he has to clean his desk! It’s one of my favorite scenes in the book. It goes on for about a page.

One day, I’d told myself, I’ll need to clean it properly and thoroughly, transform it into a tabula rasa upon which I might compose a great, momentous work. I’d been right: that day was now. I cleaned it, then I dried it with a tea towel.

Finally, the desk-cleaning scene ends comically on a note of false hope, with U. saying, rather ambiguously, “It was definitely time.”

One of the many pleasures of Satin Island is seeing how U.’s attitude toward the Great Report changes as the novel unfolds, first little by little, until finally he experiences a “sea-shift” and threatens to sabotage the whole thing. At first, a reader may worry that U. can’t see through the kind of pseudo-intellectual, guru-mumbo-jumbo crap that his boss keeps spitting out. But eventually he comes to see the Great Report as “un-writable,” and the entire project causes him nothing but frustration. The problem facing an anthropologist in a world of late-capitalism is that the lines between “Home” and “Field” have been thoroughly blurred. That dichotomy or distinction is all but lost now, U. tells us, thanks to the interconnectedness of the global economy. To counter this, U. decides to “write everything down” in the spirit of Malinowski. U. still fears the Great Report has already been written (no doubt a serious fear for all novelists), complicated by “the truly terrifying thought” that it had been written “not by a person, nor even by some nefarious cabal, but simply by a neutral and indifferent binary system that had given rise to itself, moved by itself and would perpetuate itself.” Related to that “grotesque realization” is the fact that, as U. points out, subjects behave differently when they know they’re being watched, and we are all of us being watched all the time: phone GPS systems, browser histories, past purchase-tracking capabilities, etc. The result: we see things through a kind of “over-pixelated screen.”

Like McCarthy’s previous works, there’s plenty of word play and puzzles to be discovered, not least of which includes character’s names, like Madison (a references to the famous advertising avenue). Perhaps it’s just a coincidence but the peculiar name Koob-Sassen, the company that hires “The Company” to carry out the Great Report, shares the name of an experimental video artist living in London, just a bit younger than McCarthy. Koob is also obviously “Book” spelled backward, and Sassen could be Nessa, which in Greek translates to “Pure” or “Holy”, which fits in with the “virginal central palace” in the epigraph by Mallarmé that begins the book. In other words, Pynchonian puzzles are in abundance for those who wish to play along.

The novel takes its title from a dream U. has about flying in a helicopter over a city’s harbor.

It was a great, imperial city, the world’s greatest — all of them, from all periods: Carthage, London, Alexandria, Vienna, Byzantium and New York, all superimposed on one another the way things are in dreams.

U.’s description of his strange dream continues as he sees an island with buildings on it, “huge, derelict factories whose outer walls and rafters, barely intact, recalled the shells of bombed cathedrals.” Hovering closer, he notices the island is actually a trash-incinerating plant and pauses to watch mountains of trash burning in the glowing fire.

If the city was the capital, the seat of the empire, then this island was the exact opposite, the inverse — the other place, the feeder, filterer, overflow-manager, the dirty, secreted-away appendix without which the body-proper couldn’t function; yet it seemed, in its very degradation, more weirdly opulent than the capital it served.

He wakes up saying the words, “Satin Island,” just as McCarthy did in real life, according to interviews. One envies the kind of author who has absolute confidence in his unconscious, who can wake up from a dream and know what his next project is. After U.’s dream, while out to eat with Madison, he learns of her activism at the G8 Summit held in Genoa in 2001, of the violent police raids that injured hundreds of protestors, including some fatally. Madison was held overnight by the police, and a bizarre S&M torturing scene ensues that reads like something straight out of Gravity’s Rainbow. Here, McCarthy has found an interesting way to include politics in the novel, what Stendhal likened to a gunshot going off in the middle of a concert. U. had never heard of the protests before, because, as Madison explains, it occurred right before September 11. “After that, all news was blown out of the water: no one was interested in what had gone on in Genoa, or anywhere else.”

With his previous novels, the underground sensation Remainder, the “fake historical novel” C., and Men in Space, an extraordinary novel about early-1990s’ Prague, McCarthy now has a sizeable body of work behind him, and even a lay reader will notice that each connects with the others in innumerable ways, or at least too many to list here. But consider just one example in Satin Island: what causes U.’s delay at the airport is “Some kind of private jet, which ignoring all instructions, was flying in idiosyncratic patterns over Southern England and the Channel.” Isn’t that “rogue airplane” clogging up the airspace the very same private jet flying around in a figure eight at the end of Remainder?

A characteristic of a good (and usually difficult) novel is that it teaches you how to read it as you go along. Satin Island does so without even having to open its pages. On the cover of the book, five of the subtitles: “Treatise, Essay, Report, Confession, Manifesto,” are crossed out, leaving only “A Novel,” and rightly so; for Satin Island is indeed all those things, but it is first and foremost a novel. The colorful foil jacket is a great piece of cover art (a co-worker picked it up after seeing it on my desk all day, and asked if she “Could just look at it?”), and it, too, offers numerous possible interpretations. Easiest of all is to connect the dots of oil (or ink?) to see a stick figure, an effigy, a Christ-like crucifixion of the shroud mention in the book’s beginning, cutting sideways, right to left, across the top of the graph-paper background. But turning the book horizontally and (touching on a soccer analogy made in the book) one sees the figure as a goalie, protecting the “grid-like” net, the streaking dots as the projected path of the ball, the “goalie’s anxiety at the penalty kick,” to take a line from Handke.

Tom McCarthy is “the standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel,” according to Adam Kirsch, and seconded by Zadie Smith and others. As with previous avant-gardists, the first rule, whether its the Surrealists, the Dadaist, the Futurists, and so on, would seem to require one to call one’s art avant-garde, as McCarthy does, if only, speaking of his project, the International Necronautical Society, as “semi-fictitious avant-garde.” Through interviews, essays, manifestos, and his books themselves, it’s clear that he’s not only arguing for a certain type of literature but that he feels there is only one type of literature worthy of being created, of being read. Even if one disagrees with him, it’s this sort of fascist approach to making art that aligns him with the singular vision of other avant-garde movements.

What’s operating against McCarthy’s avant-gardism, however, is a lack of political-historical significance. This political-historical context, or lack of it, rather, is key, I think, for a deeper understanding of Satin Island. Reading McCarthy’s new novel, I was reminded of something another fellow Brit, the film documentarian Adam Curtis, said in a 2012 e-flux interview about “our age”, that “we’re in the years of stagnation” artistically, culturally, economically speaking. Our “music, TV, and avant-garde art — is being used to shore up the present, reconfigure the past to somehow give a foundation to the present that can’t imagine another kind of future.” Curtis, who has convincingly traced the ways in which power has manifested itself in the 20th and 21st centuries, suggests our artists now are like archeologists mining the recent past, unable to look to the future. (It’s a trap Curtis himself admits to having fallen into a bit, but that’s another story.)

McCarthy is very much aware of this predicament in Satin Island. Hence what he’s depicting with U. and his comically named “Present-Tense AnthropologyTM” is not only the frustration mentioned above, of a writer wrestling with his next book, but of a writer struggling with the impossibility of finding a new way to create art in a world where we find it hard to imagine an alternative future, culturally or economically. All the interim places in novel, the buffering, the stagnation, his failure in the end to complete the Great Report, or to achieve meaning near Staten Island, all of it adds up to, maybe not the novel of our age, but unquestionably a novel of our age, which is much more than can be said for most.


Christopher Urban has written for the Paris Review Daily, The Millions, Rain Taxi, Open Letters Monthly, This Recording, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Urban has written for the Paris Review Daily, The Millions, Rain Taxi, Open Letters Monthly, This Recording, and elsewhere.


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