Not long into Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the narrator, U., offers a piece of advice about the sort of book Satin Island is: “events!” he scoffs, “If you want those, you’d best stop reading now.” And even before the first page is turned, the cover acts as something of a warning. Set sharply against brightly colored inkblots, the worryingly dull words “treatise,” “essay,” “report,” “confession” and “manifesto” are all crossed out before finally settling on “a novel.” Yet as it progresses, some sort of generic hybrid emerges that manages to cast doubt even on the most trustworthy of labels.
Satin Island is McCarthy’s fourth book, coming after the Man Booker Prize nominated C. As well as being a writer, he’s also the general secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious organization he started with a friend. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, his work has been criticized in the past for seeming a bit too pleased with itself or, at times, a bit too indulgent. Fully ignoring these criticisms, in preparation for his latest venture he took up residency at the International Artists Studio Program in Stockholm, as noted in his acknowledgements, where he dedicated a few days to sitting around staring at projections of oil spills on big white walls. Then he spent a while in New York, thinking “about the general impossibility of writing a novel about the general impossibility of etc.” By most sensible presumptions Satin Island should probably be left well alone. But, as it happens, this is a book that takes these sensible presumptions and has a clever, slightly crazed dance with them, leaving little choice for the reader but to gape at what McCarthy has done in this “novel.”
The narrator of Satin Island, U., is an English anthropologist who briefly shot to fame with a book about modern clubbing culture. So he is not, as he explains, an anthropologist in the studying exotic tribes in Papua New Guinea sense of the word, but one who collates and synthesizes the patterns, rituals, and—most importantly—the narratives of the contemporary: put differently, an incredibly vague discipline, which is exactly the problem that U. encounters during the course of the book. He works for a mysterious company, which he aptly calls The Company, where he puts his ethnographic talent to use in order to sell the product of a given client. The Company has recently won a contract, the Koob-Sassen Project, of which the reader learns little due to “legal reasons.” Despite McCarthy neatly sidestepping a more revealing description, the Koob-Sassen Project is clearly a pretty big deal, so much so that following this apparent coup, Peyman (the boss of The Company) tasks U. with writing the Great Report, or, more precisely, the Great Report. In Peyman’s mind, the Great Report is the “Document,” the “Book,” the “First and Last Word on our age.” U. is posed with an all-encompassing ethnographic task to collate and synthesize everything. Of course, the question soon arises: how the hell do you write about everything?
McCarthy considers this tricky question through a series of recurring images, events and asides, primarily grounded in the language and various philosophies of anthropology. If not for his solid grasp of the discipline, the novel would quickly fall apart. Instead, the multifaceted symbols that U. identifies in the familiar, yet strangely alien, world of Satin Island, which he then carefully picks apart, are deftly conveyed. For instance, the news story of an experienced parachutist who fell to earth after his parachute detached from him mid-air is considered with forensic detail:
Yet, as at least one article I had read stated, the man’s death was, in this instance—in this country devoid of tall pine trees, this terrain quite unamenable to upgusts, this snow-less season—a foregone conclusion from the moment the cords had been cut. Thus, although he hadn’t actually been killed until the moment of his impact, to all intents and purposes, he had.
U. attempts to squeeze every last drop of sense out of such tropes in a comparably obsessive, compelling, manner. This desperate search for meaning sometimes results in McCarthy falling victim to somewhat desperate descriptions (the page and a half dedicated to the “carnivorous and booming” ventilation system comes to mind); but what develops is an impression of a man enveloped by the paranoia of failing to complete his Great Report, and so, in his mind, failing to truly understand the world.
Attempting to defy these likely failures, U. enlists an entire tradition of anthropological thought that informs much of the narrative. In a recent article for The Guardian, McCarthy explains his draw to the figure of the anthropologist: “What he or she embodies for me is a version of the writer minus all the bullshit, all the camouflage or obfuscation—embodies, that is, the function of the writer stripped down to its bare structural essentials.” Despite the lofty ventilation system descriptions, Satin Island is drawn to this clean style of writing, even the novel’s structure resembling an ethnographic paper with its academically numbered subsections.
Of particular interest, though, is what anthropology has to say about the contemporary writing process. U. contemplates the principle of Bronisław Malinoski that the ethnographer should write everything down, no matter how irrelevant something might initially seem. Quickly, however, he realizes that in this modern world of live streams, social networks and digital clouds, one way or another, “it is all written down.” In a world of multiple narratives that are forever being systematically mapped onto various platforms, what is left for U. to write about? And what about the poor novelist? Another famous anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, writes in The Interpretation of Cultures that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” As for actually trying to read these webs, most are probably not worth the bother; McCarthy’s Satin Island, on the other hand, is a web worth reading.