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.

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