Satin Island: A novel
208 pp., $24.00
There is a wrong way to read Tom McCarthy, and there is a right way to read Tom McCarthy. The wrong way is to take McCarthy too seriously; to take him at his word is to miss the critique. The right way is to think of McCarthy as the literary equivalent of the comedic straight man, repeating seriously, "Who is on first, What is on second, I Don't Know is on third," watching the wrong-way reader bluster about like Costello. It's best to be in on the gag.
Samuel Beckett knew this—though his Vladimir and Estragon did not. They waited for Godot anyway, the butt of a tragic, cosmic joke. Andy Warhol knew this, too—though the drug-addled hangers-on in his Factory did not. They performed for Warhol, believing in the oft-promised stardom that never came. Beckett and Warhol are two of McCarthy's most obvious influences, along with James Joyce, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and William S. Burroughs. And like these influential figures of the avant-garde, McCarthy is whip-smart and well read. He challenges conventional literary forms in service of cutting cultural critique.
Satin Island is Tom McCarthy's newest novel. It builds on many of his go-to themes, developed in Remainder, C, and Men in Space—authenticity and repetition, materiality and mediation—to ask readers to consider their abilities to know and experience the world around them. Satin Island follows the intellectual exploits of a man named U., an anthropologist who made his name as a graduate student, writing an ethnography of the London club scene in the '90s. U. embedded himself in London's seediest of bars, cataloguing the exploits of this "tribe" of clubgoers just as Claude Levi-Strauss (his intellectual hero) meticulously recorded the lives and times of Amazonian tribes. U.'s dissertation is an improbable international bestseller.
Despite this early acclaim, we find U. at a desk in a corporation, not at a bar in a club. He has become a corporate anthropologist, working for a multinational conglomerate. The CEO tasks U. with writing The Great Report, a document that, quite reasonably, must capture the spirit of the age. He spends his days creating and filling dossiers, cataloguing anything that happens to spark his interest—oil spills here, parachutist suicide pacts there—uncovering a network of ideas and showing how these seemingly disconnected events are interrelated. In short, he seeks Levi-Strauss's "master patterns." The figure of the anthropologist, McCarthy has argued elsewhere, is a stand-in for the figure of the writer. Both the writer and the anthropologist observe, record, and interpret. Like Levi-Strauss, U. and McCarthy see "parts of larger systems lying behind not just a single tribe but also the larger one of all humanity …. Master-meaning! Concealed revealment!"
The novel follows U.'s curious investigations as he writes this Great Report, leading to his great breakthrough: Present-Tense Anthropology™. While Levi-Strauss happily returned to his study in France to turn his field notes into a book, U. finds that he is unable to fully separate himself from his subjects. The barriers between "the field" and "home" have dissolved; U. is both participant and observer. He develops an anthropology of now, based on the idea of an unmediated study of culture: "What if just coexisting with these objects and this person, letting my own edges run among them, occupying this moment, or, more to the point, allowing it to occupy me, to blot and soak me up, rather than treating it as feed-data for a later stock-taking—what if all this, maybe, was part of the Great Report? What if the Report might somehow, in some way, be lived, be be-ed, rather than written?" (76). This is the central question of Satin Island: what if we lived truly unmediated lives?
As you may have gathered already, readers interested in vivid narration, sweeping plot arcs, and compelling characters would best look elsewhere. McCarthy is not interested in entertaining his readers, but rather in putting them through their paces. In the one truly page-turning section of the novel, U.'s girlfriend, Madison, recounts the bizarre story of her arrest while protesting a G8 Summit. After her arrest and under the threat of a cattle prod, a man forces Madison to assume a variety of poses, repeating them until they become mindless and rote.
What we did for the next couple of hours, said Madison, is that he made me strike up and hold certain postures …. I had to turn one way, then another, then to bend, then hold my arms up, stick my leg out, things like that. This man told me exactly what to do; he was really precise…. It got so I could recognize these sequences, and know which part of them we were in at a given moment, and what I should be doing at this part, and what was coming next. I came to know just what it was he wanted, how I had to move; he didn't need to keep telling me what to do. This made him really satisfied. More than just satisfied, she said: it seemed to move him deeply.