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Satin Island: A novel
Satin Island: A novel
Tom McCarthy
Knopf, 2015
208 pp., $24.00

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Laura McGrath


Satin Island

The adventures of a corporate anthropologist.

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While Madison's experience is confusing and terrifying, it is also a useful master-narrative for understanding the novel. The reader of Satin Island—and, indeed, all of McCarthy's work—is similarly made to adopt a variety of readerly postures, adapting to the not-so-subtle cues provided by our author, who is armed not with a cattle prod but with an encyclopedic knowledge of critical theory. And—for the reader as for Madison— these poses become automatic: now Levi-Strauss, now Derrida, now Baudrillard.

It's no surprise that the novel should feel rehearsed: McCarthy's literary interests have been consistent, and very public. Remainder was a breakthrough novel (and his best, for my money), made famous by Zadie Smith in her essay "Two Paths for the Novel." Since then, McCarthy and has published manifestoes, performed conceptual art, and given a variety of lectures in his capacity as General Secretary of the semi-fictitious avant-garde network, the International Necronautical Society. He publishes literary criticism in the London Review of Books (articles conveniently coinciding with the release of his novels). He is a willing and frequent interviewee. He consults on screenplays. Like the Technicolor grid that emblazons the novel's cover, McCarthy's work to date has provided us a grid on which we can plot and understand Satin Island.

Predictable or not, the central question of Satin Island is an important one. Many readers may earnestly endorse U.'s Present-Tense Anthropology™. Likely, these same readers will take a selfie with the book, to prove it. The pursuit of an authentic form of existence often produces even greater inauthenticity. So, too, does our fervent, ferocious desire for knowledge often impede understanding. T.S. Eliot springs to mind:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The lenses through which we see, the theories that we read: these shape the ways that we can be. McCarthy has put us through our paces in order to show us that, so long as we refuse to acknowledge this, the joke will always be on us.

Laura McGrath is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, currently at work on her dissertation. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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