Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy
When I started Satin Island I already knew it was Booker-nominated. I’d read multiple glowing reviews, and I remembered absolutely loving McCarthy’s first novel Remainder. Everything then, every authority including my past self, told me that it was a significant book. Perhaps it is, significance after all is a collective judgement. Having finished it though I’m not persuaded it’s a very good book.
U is a corporate anthropologist (“Call me U”), working for “the Company” on the “Koob-Sassen Project” – a project so huge and complex that it will touch the lives of almost everyone in the developed world (perhaps beyond) and yet that will be so subtly pervasive that nobody will even notice it. The Company is a kind of advertising/marketing/strategy consultancy, headed by a gnomic corporate guru whose every sentence seems weighted with meaning and whose every recommendation is received with gravity and respect.
U’s role in the Company is an ambiguous one. Years previously he wrote an anthropological treatise on the club scene, one where he was as much participant as observer, and this brought him to the guru’s attention and now U works in the Company basement putting together files of possible phenomenological observations that somehow transmigrate into sellable product.
Currently U’s obsessed with a possible murder case involving a parachutist whose chute didn’t open. He spots an apparent pattern of similar crimes with similar investigations each unfolding in similar ways but across multiple jurisdictions. At the same time he’s fascinated by a major oil spill and sits absorbed by rolling news footage of the oil blossoming out, coating and transforming all that it touches. McCarthy is good on the curious sterility of modern news reporting and the odd juxtaposition and equal weighting of car bombings, earnings reports and natural disasters:
I popped the news page open as I talked to her. The airspace lock-up was announced halfway down, adjacent to and in the same font-size as the marketplace truck bombing. Above it, slightly larger, the oil spill, with a sequence of photos showing tugs, oil-covered men wrestling with grips and winches, those black-ringed outlying islands, the giant oil-flower and so forth. The editor had chosen a “fade” effect to link the shots together, rather than the more abrupt type of succession that recalls old slideshow carousels. It struck me as the right effect to use, aesthetically speaking.
U himself is a cipher, which is fine because this isn’t a novel of character. He’s a coldly distant narrator fond of a kind of pseudo-French style philosophising which involves a great deal of placing interpretative significance on the world but shows little evidence that any of it has any meaning to anyone beyond those indulging in it. Here’s an example of how that feeds into his work:
I got really into creases. Jeans crease in all kinds of interesting ways: honeycomb, whisker, train-track, stack … I catalogued no fewer than seventeen different crease-types, each of which has slightly different innuendos. To frame these—that is, to provide a framework for explaining to the client what these crease-types truly and profoundly meant—I stole a concept from the French philosopher Deleuze: for him le pli, or fold, describes the way we swallow the exterior world, invert it and then flip it back outwards again, and, in so doing, form our own identity. I took out all the revolutionary shit (Deleuze was a leftie); and I didn’t credit Deleuze, either. Big retail companies don’t want to hear about such characters. I did the same thing with another French philosopher, Badiou: I recycled his notion of a rip, a sudden temporal rupture, and applied it, naturally, to tears worn in jeans, which I presented as the birth-scars of their wearer’s singularity, testaments to the individual’s break with general history, to the successful institution of a personal time. I dropped the radical baggage from that, too (Badiou is virtually Maoist). This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company from then on in: feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that re-weaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero would have called a master-pattern—or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.
As ever, we’re into issues of authenticity. We’re back into the exploration of repetition which McCarthy manages so well in Remainder, and in many ways this novel is itself a repetition of Remainder, save with a less interesting execution. Beyond that, well, just because one can say that ripped jeans represent birth-scars of the wearer’s singularity doesn’t make that interpretation a thing in the world. It’s just words. We could say anything, apply almost any meaning we can create, but the jeans remain the same and I doubt any of it reflects why someone actually buys a pre-ripped pair of jeans.
The difficulty with a novel of ideas is that once you’ve jettisoned character and plot what remains had better be pretty damn good. It’s a common issue in SF, albeit for a very different sort of idea. You want to write a novel about some bizarre implication of contemporary physics, but to sell that to the typical SF fan (in which for these purposes I’d include myself) you need characters and plot.
That by the way is why it’s often a category error to criticise big SF novels for weak characterisation. The characters aren’t the point – they’re just the sugar-coated pill that the big idea sits inside. Take away that sugar coating and the ideas have to sell themselves. That’s McCarthy’s challenge here.
So, the first half of Satin Island is a novel of ideas examining issues of authenticity and the imposition of meaning, narrated by a protagonist who utterly fails to persuade of the validity of his own insights. It’s also a sort of corporate satire, though not a successful one as I got the distinct impression that McCarthy knew as much about modern corporate life as I do the life of Amazonian rain forest tribes. I’ve seen a bit on tv, but I’ve never met anyone from those cultures. On the other hand, it’s not quite the same since I’m aware I know nothing of those people and I don’t write smug books about them.
U refers to “sub-clauses of contracts sitting in the drawers of cabinets” which is a lovely sentence but bears no real resemblance to how things actually work (we have electronic filing these days). The depictions of meetings and workplace conversations seem to owe more to how characters behave in sitcoms than in real offices. None of the work can be described save in the blandest generalities, and while that seems to be intended as satire I found myself wondering if it also reflected a simple ignorance of what most people actually do in their jobs.
Perhaps the best example is the descriptions of the Koob-Sassen Project, which mimic real corporate conversations about how lives will be revolutionised by some new process or design. Unfortunately, I actually work on multi-billion pound projects in real life and while from a distance I can see how it might sometimes sound like nothing real is being discussed that doesn’t make it so. In reality large projects tend to have very concrete anticipated outcomes, and if those don’t materialise very hard questions start to be asked very quickly.
I’m at risk of being a car-enthusiast criticising a Virginia Woolf novel because it references a make of car that didn’t come out until a year after the time in which the novel is set. It’s another form of category error to complain of a novel not getting details right where those details aren’t the focus of the novel. Still, if you’re going to have an element of corporate satire in your book it does help to give the sense that you’ve at least spent a day in an office.
[Edit: After writing this I found a review on a consultancy firm’s blog where they comment on the accuracy of the depiction of their business. I’m not changing what I wrote since I don’t like editing pieces once written, and it remains true that I wasn’t persuaded, but it seemed fair to flag the contradiction. I link to the consultancy piece at the end.]
By about the halfway mark I was very close to abandoning Satin Island, but then McCarthy does something clever. U gives a Ted talk in which he waffles on in his usual unconvincing fashion about issues in contemporary anthropology, and something wonderful happens:
To understand that question fully, though (I concluded), what we require is not contemporary anthropology but rather an anthropology of The Contemporary. Ba-boom: that was my “out”. My talk was met with silence, then, when my audience realized that I’d finished, a smattering of polite clapping. No one approached me to discuss it afterwards. Later that evening, in the “wet” or Turkish sauna, I recognized one of the other delegates. He recognized me too, but broke off eye-contact immediately before slipping away into the steam.
Until that point, I’d taken U largely at face value. Suddenly it became apparent however that within the fiction others had much the same reaction as I did. U spent his 15 minutes on stage saying nothing that means anything, and the audience recognised that, which means that McCarthy recognises it and which means U isn’t to be trusted. If that’s the case then U’s patterns, his borrowings from French philosophers and impositions of meaning, none of it can be trusted.
Soon U is fantasising about how his talk might have been received; about the talk he might have given and how he would verbally crush a dissenter and win rapturous acclaim from all present. It’s a bit pathetic, and as it marks a return to U’s uninterrupted voice it resonates with most of what’s gone before and calls it all into question. Since U is the narrator he’s able to present each of his ideas as being somehow incisive and intelligent, but it’s not at all clear that anyone agrees with him save possibly his boss (and even he seems to regard U primarily as a form of corporate mascot).
With that I read on with renewed interest, but as I did so I ran into another difficulty. Satin Island is a novel of ideas in which the vehicle for those ideas himself undermines them by his own unpersuasive advocacy. It becomes terribly meta, as we’re examining questions of authenticity through a character who is himself inauthentic, both in that he’s (intentionally) not a convincingly drawn human being and in that even to others in the novel he’s quite evidently talking bollocks. That’s clever, but I’m not sure it’s interesting.
In his fantasy Ted talk U says “Nature is senseless.” That’s true. U’s boss commissions him to write a great report; a definitive anthropology of our age. It’s no spoiler to say that the task is impossible. U is trying to capture reality in words, and the task is beyond him (Lee Rourke grapples with the same idea to an extent, though for me more successfully, in his Vulgar Things). U philosophises, finds apparent patterns, interprets, but none of it means anything because beneath it all the raw stuff of reality just continues.
If you wished you could read say the Deepwater Horizon spill as a metaphor for how capitalist realism consumes and transforms our relationship with the natural world, drowning the real in the commercial. Perhaps that metaphor might be useful in some contexts, but it doesn’t save a single bird or fish. We can describe the world however we like, but if we confuse our descriptions for the thing itself we commit a worse category error than any of the others I’ve mentioned so far in this piece.
Where does that leave me? The second half of Satin Island undermines and validates the first, making the whole a much better book than its (initially disappointing) parts. For all that though, McCarthy already wrote a better book on these issues and there’s nothing he does here that he didn’t do better in Remainder. I don’t regret reading Satin Island because McCarthy can write and because at his best he does capture something of the strangeness of our age, but so does William Gibson and frankly I think Gibson does it better.
While this had massive press attention (generally favourable, save the FT which was much closer to my take), I don’t think it’s received quite the same interest from the blogosphere. In fairness, if I were McCarthy that’s the way round I’d want it. David Hebblethwaite wrote a couple of short pieces on it, one of which is here. Trever Berrett of the ever-reliable mookseandthegripes blog (which desperately, desperately needs a search box Trevor) writes a fairly favourable review here, though I note that he says he admired it more than he loved it. I’m sure I’ve missed others, so please alert me to them as usual in the comments.
Edit: I also found this review from what I think is a consultancy firm’s blog, which is much more positive than I am about the depiction of the corporate environment. Perhaps then McCarthy does know what he’s talking about in terms of this world, and it’s me that’s wrong in extrapolating from my different form of advisory business experience. To be fair to McCarthy this seems to be a real outfit, and yet their mission statement reads “River dives in to the trends, needs, experiences and expectations of consumers. We use these immersion platforms to create new opportunities for our clients’ products and brands” which I suspect wouldn’t look out of place in U’s Company. Also, in fairness to McCarthy, after poking around their site for a bit I honestly couldn’t tell you what they actually do.
If anyone reading this is wondering why I didn’t make any comparison with DeLillo, it’s because I’ve only read one DeLillo and only know there are comparisons to be made because people have mentioned it to me. The comparisons tend to be unfavourable.
Finally, I received this as a free review copy from netgalley. I don’t think however that inclined me to be unduly kind to it.