Sunday, 8 March 2015

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy Review

One of the most pretentious people I ever met was an anthropologist (the person would literally sniff and turn their noses up after making a point), so it’s no surprise to me that a novel featuring an anthropologist would turn out to be a load of pretentious crap. Because Satin Island is essentially a narrative about narratives (sniffs, turns up nose). 

Our main character is U, a corporate anthropologist working for a major London consultancy firm that advises global corporations and governments on how to spot trends and manipulate them for future gain. U is hired by Peyman, the head of the firm, to write the “great report” on the age we’re living in - an extraordinarily abstract and humongous project and one that U unsurprisingly fails to accomplish. Nevertheless he attempts to write it by focusing on seemingly random events like parachutists who plummeted to their deaths after their chutes didn’t open, oil spills, and internet buffering and trying to find connections between them(!).

I think the narrator “U“ is Tom McCarthy’s way of putting “you”, the reader, into the same position as the protagonist. You are reading this novel and, in the reading, you are looking for clues as to what it’s about: its themes, meanings, etc. in much the same way that U is looking at random events and trying to figure out how it comes together as an understandable narrative. U and you are one and the same, and the effect is like reading a novel about someone experiencing a novel. Reading fiction is as much a way of understanding our world as an anthropologist taking random glimpses of humanity from various sources and teasing a narrative from them. 

At least that’s what I took to be the point of the book. Because despite the meandering tangents on zombie parades, Amazonian tribes, the Shroud of Turin, and a hundred other things, McCarthy never really brings it all together into anything meaningful. There are no insights into our modern age and we’re no clearer to understanding it by the end of the book. 

Then I realised as I was sitting there thinking about what I’d just read, I was doing what U does for much of the book: sitting in his increasingly Beautiful Mind-esque basement room trying to understand the information presented to him. Like the mirror effects of certain aspects of the story - the cancer that spreads through Petr’s body likened to the oil spill that spreads across the surface of the world - U and the reader are meant to be made parallel.

Which isn’t to say that that interesting-ish approach to a novel makes it worth reading or even enjoyable because it doesn’t and isn’t. It’s written well though it’s such a slight book because it’s all style that doesn’t leave much of an impression that I doubt it’s something I’ll remember for very long or return to ever again. Because like most self-consciously literary novels, Satin Island is unbearably tedious most of the time. It has an enormously dull protagonist with unconvincingly portrayed non-characters making up the rest of the small cast, a non-plot and a non-story to keep you from really connecting with the book, and a purpose that could be described as self-serving and self-satisfied at best. 

Literary novels tend to have a thoughtful concept at its base, a few well-written lines, an idea or two worth pondering, and little else besides. I’d say at least 90%, probably more, of Satin Island is pure guff. That Tom McCarthy writes in the acknowledgments that “I spent (my artist’s residency in Stockholm) projecting images of oil spills onto huge white walls and gazing at them for days on end” and was paid to “sit and think about the general impossibility of writing a novel about the general impossibility of etc.” makes me want to slap him - assuming I could reach his head stuffed firmly up his arse! 

I suppose some fans of Nicholson Baker might find elements to enjoy in Satin Island. Baker famously writes two kinds of novel - the ridiculously overtly sexy kind (House of Holes, Vox), and the most determinedly mundane ones possible. Box of Matches is about a man sat in front of a hearth staring at a fire; The Mezzanine takes place during an office worker’s lunchtime as he eats a hot dog; The Anthologist (probably the one closest to Satin Island) is about a poet attempting to put together a poetry anthology. 

That readership plus anthropologists will probably enjoy this. Anyone else though is unlikely to know or care what the hell is going on.

Satin Island

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