Book Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

February 18, 2015

Satin IslandThe book jacket for Tom McCarthy’s new novel Satin Island contains several subtitles—treatise, essay, report, manifesto, confession—all of which are crossed out in favor of “a novel.” It’s an appropriate conceit, because the book is at once all of these things and none of them. Satin Island is the first-person narrative of U., an anthropologist working for a nameless corporation. U. has been commissioned by his boss to write “the Great Report,” an all-encompassing document: “the Book, the fucking Book, that was to name our era, sum it up.” He is given an office in the basement where, engulfed by the vibrations of the building’s ventilation system, he is to complete this Great Work, this book-to-end-all-books.

Satin Island is not that book. As U. begins to realize, after his initial ambition has had its way with him, this Great Report is an impossibility: “un-plottable, un-frameable, un-realizable: in short, un-writable.” This ambition to somehow compress the contents of the universe into a book has been an impulse at least since God took up his pen and dropped The Bible—perhaps even before. With Satin Island, McCarthy has found a novel way of reenacting the writer’s age-old predicament—how to authentically transpose the entirety of a moment, of a feeling, of an era, into a medium which is by its very nature inauthentic. He should be commended, or perhaps committed, for even trying.

A few caveats before you rush to order the book off Amazon: it is not for everyone. If you do not see yourself being entertained by 192 pages of almost pure interiority—pages of pensive musings on things like the history of theoretical anthropology, the aesthetics of oil spills, and what video buffering implies about our experience of linear time—look for another purchase. Vestiges of plot are taken up—U. investigates a possible conspiracy involving parachuting deaths and wonders about the mysterious backstory of his casual lover Madison—and then dropped as irrelevant or too inscrutable to fully understand. In a world overloaded with information, the book seems to be saying, plots can be seen just about anywhere, if one is looking hard enough. If you are partial to books and stories in which events unfold rather than turn inward to be stewed over and reconfigured by the protagonist’s mind, try something else. “Events!” U. writes, “if you want those, you’d best stop reading now.”

McCarthy’s previous two novels, while highly experimental, both told stories which were fairly straightforward in structure. Remainder was about a man’s response to a traumatic accident and how his behavior escalates into repetitious absurdity; C was a more traditional bildungsroman, albeit one laden with Joycean puns and Pynchonian set pieces. While engaging many of the same themes, Satin Island is less concerned with telling a traditional story than in evoking the disorienting experience of being alive in the twenty-first century.

There are a few other characters, but rather than taking an interest in them as individuals in their own right, U. seems mostly to take their presences as prompts for his meditations, fodder for his Great Report. Sitting in a hospital room where his co-worker, Petr, is dying of cancer, his thoughts drift from the “various smudgy, dark lumps pushing up beneath the skin” to the room’s windows, which are also smudged and blackened: “This upset me, much more than the fact of Petr’s illness did. For crying out loud, I felt like shouting to the nurse, ward manager, whoever, if you can’t save these people, at least clean the windows.” When Petr dies, U. learns of his death via text message, sent by Petr’s ex-wife from Petr’s phone. Rather than thinking “the thoughts you’re meant to think in such a situation,” U. thinks about the implications of receiving a text from a dead man, in one of the book’s best moments of droll humor. This is all in service of McCarthy’s project: to portray a world in which even our most basic emotions seem inauthentic and rote, mere data points being compiled toward some mysterious end.

At the heart of Satin Island lies a garbage dump. U. dreams of flying over an island that has been given over to a trash-incinerating plant. It glows “like embers when you poke them . . . oozing a vermilion shade of yellow . . . ooze which hinted at a deeper, almost infinite reserve of yet-more-glowing ooze.” As he bears witness to the spectacle, he hears a voice announcing, “clearly and concisely: Satin Island.” The garbage dump (or rubbish heap in the Queen’s English) as a motif has been seen before—namely in both Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and more recently in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest—and its presence here serves to announce both McCarthy’s influences and his intentions as a writer. The garbage dump on Satin Island is a symbol of another sort: it’s the oozing core of the dreamer’s mind, the writer’s mind, the pulsating contents of the un-writable book. All the writer is left to do is to sort through the detritus. McCarthy has given us his latest haul from his own personal rubbish heap, and it’s a beautiful mess.

Publisher: Knopf

Publication Date: February 17, 2015

Reviewed by Alex Fulton


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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