Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy

>> Saturday, September 12, 2015

TITLE: Satin Island
AUTHOR: Tom McCarthy

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

Meet U. - a talented and uneasy figure currently pimping his skills to an elite consultancy in contemporary London. His employers advise everyone from big businesses to governments, and, to this end, expect their 'corporate anthropologist' to help decode and manipulate the world around them - all the more so now that a giant, epoch-defining project is in the offing.

Instead, U. spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there, U. wonders, a secret logic holding all these images together - a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our age? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news? Perhaps; perhaps not.

As U. oscillates between the visionary and the vague, brilliance and bullshit, Satin Island emerges, an impassioned and exquisite novel for our disjointed times.

Another book from the Man Booker Prize longlist. U (yes, just "U") is an anthropologist working for a consultancy. His big, overarching project is to deliver a Great Report, which will use cutting-edge anthropological theory to decode the world. And while he's supposed to be hard at work on that, he muses on stuff. Nothing much really happens to U. He becomes fascinated by a series of news stories about parachutists having accidents. He delivers a lackluster presentation and fantasises about what he should have said instead. He gets involved in a project where he doesn't really do anything and yet he gets fĂȘted. His tepid relationship with a woman limps along, and she tells him a weird anecdote. One of his colleagues dies.

It's been a week or so since I finished this book, and I really don't know what to make of it. On one level, it's exactly the sort of modernist crap I detest: pretentious, self-indulgent, uncaring of the reader. But on another, at least it's not actively hostile to the reader. While the themes are modernist and avant-garde and the form is somewhat experimental, at least it's accessible. Also, I found quite a bit of the content strangely compelling. There were images that stuck in my mind, and some moments that felt true. The Minister in her tiger-striped shoes, rubbing them together to button and unbutton them all through a boring meeting. The rocks made more rocky by an oil spill. Parachutist mysteriously falling to their deaths. A man dying of cancer speaking of how he'd always lived interesting and important events in his life thinking of how he was going to tell people about them, and disturbed that he was about to go through the biggest one, death, and wouldn't be able to tell anyone. Those moments were what kept me reading.

Sometimes U would go on and on about something and I'd struggle to make sense of what on earth he was on about. But some of U's ponderings were actually quite interesting. The thing is, even that didn't feel comfortable to like, like I wasn't meant to find them interesting. Was McCarthy genuinely interested in this or were these sections merely telling me about U and about his world? I got the feeling somehow that they were supposed to be making the point of just how banal and stultifying these sorts of anthropological disquisitions were, and that by finding them interesting, I was proving just how bourgeois and intellectually puny I was. There's a line in the Guardian review that resonated with me: "Perhaps McCarthy’s primary purpose after all is to expose as an empty delusion the bourgeois reader’s pitiable need for alluring characters, emotional heights and narrative closure." Well, who knows.

MY GRADE: A B-. Not mediocre, but very mixed.


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