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Review: “Satin Island” by Tom McCarthy

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Tom Mccarthy’s recent novel Satin Island (2015), is a Kafkaesque tale narrated by a corporate anthropologist named U who has been tasked to produce the Great Anthropological Report of our times. Instead, or perhaps because of his task, he becomes enamoured with the aesthetics of oil spills, the possibility of a serial killer of skydivers and the buffering of video streaming

It is a dense little book that inspires intrigue for and some and animosity for others 1. As the back cover states, it is only to be considered a novel after all other possibilities of what this text could be have been (a report, a manifest, a dossier etc.) have been eliminated. This ‘reluctant’ novel is full of strange insights about the absurdity of the present but written in cold tone that suggests an ambivalence towards the impending collapse (ecological, financial or semiotic) of the world as we know it. Indeed, the book reads, at times, like a plea for us all to relax and look forward to how shiny the new oil-covered pelicans might look.

For U, everything is collapsed into streams of images running across his monitors in his basement at the bottom of the non-place of the corporation’s London offices. U is bombarded by advertisements and 24-hour news as he travels through the non-place of the airport to the non-place of the conference centre, where he is met by an apathetic audience unable to look up from their phones. From this, U is filled with a hubris that belies the sense of tragedy that permeates the book. The world he inhabits is one that has limped on long after Baudrillard’s semiotic apocalypse.

While the world U inhabits is strangely overloaded with signification, U, on the other hand, is, aside from the occasional brag about sexual prowess, mostly devoid of characteristics. With a name like U, he is clearly, on one level, an audience cypher. But his apparent blankness may also stem from his commitment to corporate anthropology, which is such that he seems to have made himself a mere conduit, wherein his employer’s desires and the facts of reality as perception can meet. All he does is inject anaemic theoretical frames into capital. He compiles a report to help Levi’s sell jeans by referring to Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the fold and uses Alain Badiou’s concept of the rip to help Levi’s understand their consumers’ fickle attachments while removing all the “revolutionary shit” and any attribution to the authors, as this is not of interest to corporations.

What can meaningfully be concluded from the realisation that the medium on which you are reading this, and on which Justin Bieber became famous, requires hundreds of millions of years of life and death?

Such is the tone of dry satire that infuses the book. It is occasionally worth a chuckle but also if often feels a little too easy. The real strength of the book lies in the sections that read more like disquisitions. As U stumbles across the ephemera of mass media, he attempts to deploy Salvadore Dali’s “paranoiac critical method” of analysis, which holds that, the nature of reality is based on connections between seemingly disparate things, which, in turn, form spectacular constellations of meaning. These exercises of selection bias are fascinating as they provide a semblance of meaning but are in fact so insubstantial that they all they actually do reproduce the hunger to find more forced connections.

Tom McCarthy

When we recently recorded a podcast on this book, I found it incredibly difficult to articulate the central thesis of the novel, because it appears at once obvious but also has something far more subtle to say. Of course, it is impossible to produce the Great Report of our times because this requires us to have faith in the writers reading and retelling of reality and we have too much evidence around us for faith to be possible2. More than this though, we are faced with a question of scale, particularly in U’s preoccupation with oil spills. Here we have a noxious sludge that we actively bring back from the literal dead to power our world. The flickering light of a smartphone runs on the compressed corpses of dinosaurs. A liquid that is the precondition for contemporary life but also able to nullify it on contact, covering us in a jet black sheen. Despite being able to write this in a few sentences we are incapable of interpreting such a statement meaningfully, much like as is expressed in the work of philosopher Timothy Morton. What can meaningfully be concluded from the realisation that the medium on which you are reading this, and on which Justin Bieber became famous, requires hundreds of millions of years of life and death? Any attempt to produce a Great Report of these times would have to be performed by a being able to conceive/encompass such a vast conception of our reality in the same way that U or I can consider the branding of Levi’s jeans. Try as he might adopt a cold and disinterested anthropological eye on the world around him, this grand perspective is not one of which U is capable.

Markets and governments have put in place the most advanced recording systems ever devised to record that which is deemed important. Thus, anything that is lost along the way must not have been important.

A few years ago I read Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II. It had been highly recommended to me but I found every sentence dragged like treacle across my consciousness. By the end, I was convinced that not only had I not enjoyed the book but that it was overrated. But months later, little by little, I found the ideas and images conjured by the novel returning to me, as they became the starting point for new trains of thought and inspiration. For me, Satin Island falls into this camp. Just as our world, and the world of the novel, is haunted by images of the past in which meaning was a possibility, this feeling of being haunted lingers in the mind far longer than the dry satire of humanities intellectualism in the boring dystopia of neoliberalism.

What stays with me after reading this book is the spectre of our own documentation haunting our world. U quotes the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski: “Write Everything Down”, only to remark on the fact that this dictum is no longer necessary as each moment and each gesture, each word and intention is captured and stored in one way or another. What McCarthy, through his narrator, is pointing to is the manner in which our time’s assertion of ever more perfect memory actually takes us out of time. The biological processes that still mark it are now little more than a hangover from a well documented past and is itself soon to be resolved. Markets and governments have put in place the most advanced recording systems ever devised to record that which is deemed important. Thus, anything that is lost along the way must not have been important. We have been left, much like U waiting in an anonymous airport departure lounge, floating in the stasis of a buffering ring that looked so much like the future. Haunted by all that we need to know.

You can listen to the Ark Audio Books Club podcast right here.

The cover image is a photo of Richard Willson’s 20:50 at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

  1.  From Goodreads: “What an utterly boring and navel-gazing novel. This was longlisted for the Man Booker!? In this novel we follow a character named U, no really, he’s called fucking U, while he wonders and ponders for 200ish pages. I applaud this novel on its brevity, any longer and I would have literally died of boredom. 85% of this novel is just full scientific hokum that will just baffle and confuse any casual reader. Not to mention that it did one of my ultimate peeves. At some parts it reminded me of… Palahniuk… and once that happens it’s game over for me, the red flags rise and I get the fuck out of dodge. Ugh. This is a literary Hindenburg.”
  2.  Thanks to Snorri for this point, who also has much more to say on this book’s relationship to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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