Category Archives: McCarthy, Tom

(events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now)

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.

Satin Island

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.

Other reviews

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.



Filed under Booker, McCarthy, Tom, Modernist fiction

Everything must leave some kind of mark.

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy couldn’t get Remainder published in the UK at first. He eventually sold it to a French house who marketed it through art galleries rather than bookstores. It proved a critical hit and so was then picked up for a more traditional UK release.

I wrote recently in the context of Elif Batuman’s article about how I feel there’s a degree of conservatism to contemporary publishing (of course there is; they’re businesses). Remainder’s difficulties are as good an example of that as any. I don’t wholly blame those publishers for rejecting it though. It’s a disturbing and unsympathetic work richer in ideas than emotion. To be blunt it’s deeply uncommercial.

In the afterword to his Gentlemen of the Road Michael Chabon argued that much contemporary literary fiction fell into a genre of late 20th Century naturalism (and that it was essentially genre writing). I have mixed views on that argument. On the one hand it’s easy to see what he’s talking about. On the other while never as popular authors such as Alasdair Gray, Will Self, Haruki Murakami and here Tom McCarthy show that the literary novel and naturalism are not the same thing.

So what is Remainder? Plotwise it’s fairly simple. The narrator has suffered a terrible accident. Something fell out of the sky and left him in a coma from which he’s only recently recovered. He has had months of reconstructive surgery and physical therapy. Due to brain damage he’s had to relearn how to control his own body; how to make the simplest movements of lifting a carrot to his mouth or walking.

He doesn’t remember the accident itself. In a way that’s a good thing though as the £8.5 million settlement he receives requires as one of its terms that he never discusses it. He can’t discuss it: both legally and practically.

Initially this premise felt a little unlikely to me, but acceptably so. Books often ask us to take something of an initial leap of faith with respect to their premises. Anyone who reads science fiction in particular is used to being asked to give the author at least one or two impossible things before breakfast without quibbling too much. What I had yet to realise was that likelihood wasn’t the point.

Remainder quickly gets into yet stranger territory. The narrator’s settlement is celebrated by his best friend and a woman he knows and was previously hoping to be romantically involved with. He no longer has any interest in either of them though. In fact he finds them vaguely irritating. It’s soon clear that he’s no longer really the same person as he was before.

He’s troubled too by feelings of inauthenticity. Having learned how to do everything nothing feels fluid. He is conscious of everything he does. He reflects that in films people just do things and those things happen; without mess or self-consciousness. When Robert de Niro opens a fridge the fridge just opens. In life when he opens a fridge the fridge sticks or some part of him thinks “here I am, opening a fridge” (that’s not a direct quote).

That struck a chord with me. I live myself in a constant state of self-awareness. Sometimes I go to gigs to see a band I love and while I’m jumping up and down I can’t help observing myself jumping up and down being a person at a gig enjoying a band they love. I’m not really there in the moment; I’m there observing myself being in the moment. There’s a remove.

The narrator complains to his friend that the accident has left him inauthentic; more artificial than everyone else. Unusual. His friend replies that on the contrary everyone is inauthentic. The narrator isn’t unusual, he’s “more usual than everyone else”.

Soon afterwards a chance vision of a crack in a bathroom wall at a party sparks a memory of a time when he wasn’t separate from the world. It was a time when he lived in an apartment and moved through it unconsciously and smoothly. The fridge door didn’t stick. Is it a real memory? Possibly not because he can’t think of a time in his life when he’d have lived in a place like that he remembers, but real or not he decides to recreate it. After all, he has £8.5 million. He can afford to have the whole building recreated together with the view from his apartment window and re-enactors to play the parts of the others he remembers living there.

Other re-enactments follow. He takes quotidian events and sees meaning in them and has them re-enacted in painstaking detail in full-scale replicas of the places where these scenes happened. He employs a large and full time staff and a logistical specialist named Naz to ensure that his re-enactments are precisely realised. He moves into his recreated might-be-memory and has his hired neighbours recreate the fragments of life he remembers from his time there.

The scale of all this is incredible. The whole exercise is incredible. McCarthy approaches it though in a very naturalistic way. The problems of sourcing the buildings, finding the actors, recreating the remembered surfaces, all these are described and the sheer amount of work required for each re-enactment is clearly detailed. Much of the book is the nuts and bolts of these pointless reconstructions of trivia.

There’s a fascination to all this and because McCarthy is a good writer it doesn’t bore. Alongside all this though are more disquieting elements. The narrator feels a sense of euphoria connected with these events as if through them he’s becoming more real. He becomes obsessed with repetition, patterns, systems, communications, and grids. He shows no empathy. He is a monomaniac obsessed with breaking through the shell of awareness that surrounds us all so that experience and action are no longer separate but one.

The narrator becomes obsessed too with the recalcitrance of matter. He wants to be effortlessly in the moment, but the universe makes that hard to achieve. Stuff makes that hard to achieve. He wants to transend the physical but the physical is while the transcendent may well not be. “…physics wouldn’t let him carry out the plan: it tripped him up.”

He’s also not trustworthy. He narrates how when in his coma he dreamt of being a commentator at a racetrack. Now he is awake, but is he? Everything suggests he is (it’s possible to interpret the whole book as a dream or as him being dead and in purgatory, but it’s a tedious interpretation) but he is the only source of everything that is described and at one dizzying juncture he admits that a conversation he just described didn’t actually happen. I was so taken aback by that admission I read it twice. I re-enacted it. I felt a sense of vertigo and uncertainty – what the narrator feels through much the book (or claims to feel).

Later he’s dogged by a smell of cordite. Nobody else can smell it except for one man, but later still nobody else seems to be able to see that man and this unseen person becomes a meta-narrator commenting to the narrator on the narrator’s own actions. Does the man exist? The narrator can see and hear him and early on it seems at least one other person can, but we can’t trust the narrator and by this point in the book he’s clearly mad anyway.

Some books are comforting. Brooklyn was for example. Brooklyn for me was a hugely enjoyable read that I relaxed into. It was beautifully written with a clear and engaging story (if not much plot). This isn’t that kind of book.

Remainder is a novel of ideas. It was clear to me quite quickly that to have any chance of understanding some of what it might be about I had to pay attention much more to themes than to events. I’ve talked about some of those themes here: repetition; the barrier of consciousness from direct experience; the intransigency of matter. Another theme is that of cutting away to the truth of a thing.

Recently I went to an exhibition in London titled Modern British Sculpture. By chance I got talking to one of the curators of the exhibition; himself also a sculptor. I mentioned that I was reading Remainder and it turned out he’d read it too. That’s not as odd as it might be because sculpture too is a theme here. More precisely the cutting away of stuff until what remains is revealed. Michelangelo spoke of the statue being inside the block of marble already. His job was just to cut away the excess material until the statue revealed itself.

The narrator re-enacts experiences but then cuts away at them looking to reveal the remainder that they already contain: the core of the experience or perhaps the act of experiencing. The moment is locked within the stuff, but if the stuff can be bypassed or made to disappear the remainder can be brought into view.

It’s not all flawless. Oddly the book worked least well for me when most realistic. McCarthy/the narrator’s description of Brixton as a place filled with young men dealing drugs to each other didn’t mesh with my own experience of living there and the description of Soho as filled with spray tanned gays doesn’t much match my experience of there either (I spend a lot of time in Soho, spray tans aren’t unusually noticeable). Both are cliches of those places rather than their realities. They’re re-enactments of them which don’t persuade.

Similarly, part of the re-enactment of the building and old apartment includes the view from it of a sloping tiled roof on which cats would lie in the sun. This part doesn’t work out so well as the cats placed on the roof keep falling off it and dying. For me that rang false because cats in fact very rarely fall off sloping surfaces unless they can’t stay on to begin with and anyway cats aren’t killed by long falls – they’re killed by short ones (I grew up with cats, and in fact had one accidentally fall fifty feet from a tower block window onto concrete. It made a full recovery which I later learned was what I should have expected).

None of that matters. The point of the cat exchange is the narrator’s lack of empathy as this shows:

“What do you want to do?” asked Naz. “Get more,” I said. “How many more?” “At a loss rate of three every two days, I’d say quite an amount. A rolling supply. Just keep putting them up there.” “Doesn’t it upset you?” Naz asked two days later as we stood together in my kitchen looking down into the courtyard at one of his men sliding a squashed cat into a bin bag. “No,” I said. “We can’t expect everything to work perfectly straight away. It’s a learning process.”

It’s ironic though that in this least natural of novels the only parts I balked at were those parts most rooted in reality. I noticed once or twice that many of the characters talked in ways that seemed to me more what I’d expect of a modernist novelist than what the characters were supposed to be, but given the general tone of the novel that wasn’t a problem at all.

Other than those rather pedantic caveats it’s also fair to say that the book lost some of its force in the final third and for me went into more conventionally unconventional territory (increased use of violent imagery and images of death which just aren’t as interesting as what’s gone before). The actual ending is very good, as good as it could be really, and there’s still new material of interest but it wasn’t as strong overall as the earlier two-thirds.

I said up above that Remainder is disturbing and unsympathetic. It is. It’s a novel that made me work and I’m sure there’s a vast amount in there in terms of symbolism and references that I missed. It’s dense.

It’s also though extremely good. It’s well written. It’s fascinating. It didn’t just let me sit back and watch but instead required me to think about what I was reading. It’s also quietly funny as it contrasts the peculiar obsessions of its narrator with the reactions of those around him. I’ve not quoted a huge amount in this post so I’ll end with one that I rather liked. The narrator becomes obsessed with cofee store loyalty cards which promise a potentially endless loop of coffee purchases punctuated by free coffees and new cards. Here he realises he’s near the end of a card:

I’d forgotten about the loyalty-card business. Now I’d been reminded I was really excited by it. I was so close! I gulped my cappuccino down, then strode back to the counter with the card. “Another cappuccino,” I told the girl. “Heyy!” she answered. “Short cap coming up. You have a…” “Of course!” I said. “I was just here!” “Oh yes!” she said. “Sorry! I’m a zombie! Here, let me…” She stamped the tenth cup on my card, then said: “So: you can choose a free drink.” “Cool,” I said. “I’ll have another cappuccino.” “On top of your cap, I mean.” “I know,” I said. “I’ll have another one as well.” She shrugged, turned round and made me a new one. She pulled out a new card, stamped the first cup on it and handed it to me with my two coffees. “Back to the beginning,” I said. “Through the zero.” “Sorry?” she asked. “New card: good,” I told her. “Yes,” she said. She looked kind of depressed.

The ideas make this a rewarding read. The wit helps make it a fun one too. It’s never easy but it is remarkably original and it’s no surprise that two books later McCarthy was shortlisted for the Booker (giving hope to rejected authors everywhere).

I was persuaded to read Tom McCarthy by Will over at Just William’s Luck. His review of McCarthy’s second novel, Men in Space, is here. While writing this I also found this interesting article about McCarthy which sheds some light on him and on his thoughts about contemporary UK publishing.



Filed under McCarthy, Tom, Modernist fiction, UK fiction