Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Satin Island opens in an airport. U., the narrator, is waiting for his plane. Beginning with a sense of delay in transit perfectly sets the tone and displays the care with which this novel’s strands have been woven together – any opportunity for form and theme to mirror plot is cleverly exploited.

U. is an anthropologist pilfered from academia to form part of the corporate machine – though his boss, Peyman, reminds him that universities are no longer anything more than failing businesses. He’s kept busy compiling dossiers for clients, looking into the symbolic meanings behind breakfast or certain styles, fabrics and folds of clothing, but his real project, casually offered to him by Peyman, is to create The Great Report on our times.

At the airport U. learns that the company he works for has just won a huge contract making them part of an unexplained project that is already insidiously changing society. We don’t know what this project is as such, or how U. is contributing to it. He certainly doesn’t feel that he is contributing anything.

U. continues to follow his interests and instincts, desperate to get to grips with The Great Report. He fills his walls with pictures of oil spills, diagrams of parachute manufacture, lines of connection across maps and ideas that create a kind of web in which he loses himself; his ability to see meaning in his findings or interests always moments away from realization: buffering.

‘Staring at this bar, losing myself in it just as with the circle, I was granted a small revelation: it dawned on me that what I was actually watching was nothing less than the skeleton, laid bare, of time or memory itself. Not our computers’ time and memory, but our own. This was its structure. We require experience to stay ahead, if only a nose, of our consciousness of experience – if for no other reason than that the latter needs to make sense of the former, to (as Peyman would say) narrate it both to others and ourselves, and, for this purpose, has to be fed with a constant, unsorted supply of fresh sensations and events. But when the narrating cursor catches right up with the rendering one, when occurrences and situations don’t replenish themselves quickly enough for the awareness they sustain, when, no matter how fast they regenerate, they’re instantly devoured by a mouth too voracious to let anything gather or accrue unconsumed before it, then we find ourselves jammed, stuck in limbo: we can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of it. Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything. The revelation pleased me. I decided I would start a dossier on buffering.’ (p68-9)

As U. continues to work on his report, he challenges the rules of anthropology, rewriting it into narrative, fiction, a story we tell ourselves to configure or ascribe meaning, in this instance, to contemporary life. The book is full of clever ideas and those tiny nagging, repeating details that seem insignificant and yet so important, pertinent. I found myself desperate to get in touch with Tom McCarthy and tell him that the inventor of the parachute himself died when his parachute failed (the narrator becomes intrigued by what he perceives as a spate of parachute sabotage), though his parachute wasn’t tampered with he just forgot to calibrate for the weight of the material of the parachute itself as well as the weight of its human load and plummeted to his death from a hot air balloon witnessed by an audience of skeptical Victorians.

This factual web of connection and coincidence casts a very pleasing hold over me, and I imagine many readers, because this reading of the world is something we all do all the time and something we simultaneously filter into words, anecdotes and stories that we intend to narrate to others.

Two happenings in the book spring to mind at the mention of this filtering, connecting, narrating web: one is the death of U.’s friend from cancer – his friend claims that the most frustrating thing about death is that he has never lived anything of significance without also imagining how he will turn in into a story he tells others but this time he won’t be alive to tell anyone; and the other is the narrator’s claim that The Great Report has already been and is being written all the time by the interconnected web of cameras and electronic signals created by security and computer cameras, phones, emails, text messages, web page visits, credit card transactions etc. etc. In some senses this very slight book is a version of The Great Report, or at the very least a nod towards encouraging us to look more carefully and consider the importance of compiling and transforming data. Hence the Satin or Staten Island conjured in U.’s dream (at one point U. plays with the letters and I wonder why he doesn’t suggest Satan Island): the Island grown from everything we’ve thrown away, cast out, excreted, is like our very own oil spill in the making; it holds condensed within it the very essences of our cultural heritage.

Satin Island is a thought-provoking and exciting book told in near aphoristic snippets that ferrets down into our underground warren and comes back with shreds of our flesh in its teeth.

Next week I’m reading The Chimes by Anna Small.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

The book begins with Boy, a young girl stuck at home with her abusive rat-catcher parent. When she takes off and forges a new life for herself in Flax Hill, the birth of her daughter, Bird, sheds new light on the origins of her husband’s family. Snow, his first daughter was white and mesmerizing in her beauty. Bird is something quite different.

But the Whitmans aren’t the only family with secrets and an ability to see ‘technically impossible things’ (p237), especially in mirrors. Catching your reflection, seeing it step beyond the frame, missing your reflection completely, these are all possibilities for Boy, Snow and Bird and trying to understand what that means is part of the fairytale mythstery of the novel. The Pied Piper, Snow White, The Nightingale, The Golden Bird, Cinderella, Ananzi stories and more old tales weave their magic into these technically ordinary lives.

Apart from reminding us that prejudice is laughable and despicable, whether it is based on gender, race or anything else, Oyeyemi also suggests that magic and metamorphosis are always there if only you choose to look for them.

‘… a whole lot of technically impossible things are always trying to happen to us, appear to us, talk to us, show us pictures, or just say hi, and you can’t pay attention to all of it, so I just pick the nearest technically impossible thing and I let it happen.’ (Bird writes in a letter to her sister, Snow, p237-238)

I enjoyed reading Boy, Snow, Bird. I read it with a kind of avarice, mostly because the fairytale weave was so pleasing to follow, searching out different threads, unpicking the origins of certain plot lines. I would, perhaps, have liked to feel more bound in these characters lives, but even watching them from the surface was fascinating.

Next week I’m reading Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. If you haven’t yet seen my interview with Guy Ware on Author QH, do have a look. He says some interesting things about the world of work and how to create thematic and stylistic tension in your work.


New Author QH Interview with Guy Ware

Heading down to South London on a perfect September morning was made all the more enjoyable by the prospect of talking writing with Guy Ware, author of The Fat of Fed Beasts (Salt Publishing) and You Have 24 Hours To Love Us (Comma Press). You can see the results of this conversation about his work in the Guy Ware page on the Author QH section of my website.

You can tell I’m learning on the job, but I’m really enjoying learning the art of getting people to talk about what interests them most. I hope you’ll be inspired to read Guy Ware’s work and to take a look at my other interview with the dazzling Heidi James.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

As soon as you turn to the first page of Lila, you remember why Marilynne Robinson is such a celebrated author. There is a stillness to her prose, a careful attentiveness that is never affected but always affecting. She follows the turns of a young woman thinking over her life, its hardships and its blessings, with brilliant clarity. There is something profound about her ability to slip into character so wholeheartedly. All our worries about life – what it means, why we exist at all, the simple bodily urge to breath even when we feel despair – are laid out in these pages like little gifts.

Though Lila is set in Gilead, Iowa, a place at the heart of her novels Gilead and Home, you can read this novel without knowledge of either of the other two. This is a novel about one woman’s experience and our journey through it. We feel her walking and working through the landscape of old America. We understand the call of the sunlight, the river, the bounty and hardship of the soil. We know her fear of love and the anxiety and confusion it can bring to the fundamental business of staying alive.

And this is what is so beautiful about the book. Lila has only had one year of schooling but the depth of her thoughts and questions show education to be useless without observation and reflection. Learning letters can teach you how to read but not always how to question. Being able to reflect on the world around us is perhaps our most valuable human gift and Lila has an abundance of it.

‘You can say to yourself, I’m just a body that thinks and talks and seems to want its life, one more day of it. You don’t have to know why. Well, nothing could ever change if your body didn’t just keep you there not even knowing what it is you’re waiting for. Not even knowing that you’re waiting at all.’ (p179)

Remembering always felt almost guilty, a lingering where there was no cause to linger, as if whatever you loved had a claim on you and you couldn’t help feeling it no matter what.’ (p242)

I don’t want to dwell on the plot because its unfolding is such a pleasure to read. Though I should mention that Lila is also a love story, one that reminds us that daring to love another requires some love of the self. Lila is drawn to remain in Gilead in order to see the old preacher, whose wife and child died and whose garden needs tending. The warmth of the old preacher, seemingly living in a way so at odds to Lila, is a touching grace that relieves the loneliness in both of their lives.

I can’t recommend Lila enough. You won’t want it to end.

Next week I’m reading Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyememi. I’m also delighted to be interviewing Guy Ware tomorrow for Author QH. As soon as the video is ready, I’ll let you all know.


The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen is one brother’s tale of how he and his three eldest brothers lived through many manifestations of the fisherman role. When their father is forced to leave home for work in an unsafe town to which he will not bring his family, the boys encounter the dark prophecy of the local madman, Adulu, supposed to have killed his brother after a car accident left him mentally deranged who now roves the streets naked and either desperate to have sex or to pass on his powerful visions.

To say more would ruin the plot, but I can say that what is most beautiful about this novel is its belief in the power of story. At every turn it is the tale that twists through characters’ lives urging them to act in the face of well-worn narrative paths, their own dreams, the stories of the past, of gods, literature, myth, or prophecy, all play their part in presenting us with choices. Do we believe or not? Do we follow one story or another? How do we shape the story of our future in the face of these conflicting narratives of our past?

The Igbo language has a part to play in this love of story. Even though we read in English, phrases of Igbo are explained to us, their proverbial and narrative bent essential to an understanding of the need humans have to understand the world around them, to interpret it into a cohesive, graspable whole. Story offers one solution and Chigozie Obioma’s novel is full of story-telling power. Repetition, the use of fable, parable, myth, a sense of the oral tradition in which every telling is nuanced by current events like a fisherman gathering the same net with different fish everyday, all flow through this story so powerfully that its web is a mesmeric joy. It allows a simple story to hold multiple layers as these Nigerian boys mirror the turmoil of their country, everything enacted in the name of brotherhood.

Writing like this is powerful and provocative. With so many narratives to choose from – do we pick the narrative of family, country, God, wealth? – anything that forces to hone our abilities to interpret is essential. There are no easy answers and lots of questions all prompted by a desire to continue being able to tell the tale.

Next week I’m reading Lila by Marilynne Robinson, another novel on the Booker longlist.