I have now finished Tom McCarthy‘s new novel, Satin Island. This was one of the shorter novels that I have collected so far, short in pagination – long in thought. It has a single person narrator, U. U is an anthropologist who has been engaged by Peyman (are these puns intentional? Probably) as an entity in a company of ideas. It is never clear whether this is for promotional purposes or a think-tank or a corporate symposium, whatever this company does, they have just secured a huge contract to create the Koob-Sassen Project. True to the rest of the puzzle, we are never told what this is.
U sits in a basement office compiling random dossiers – would we all had such a task! His dossiers cover every conceivable topic, related topics or tangential non-related topics. Of the ones he has currently on the go, one is the incidence of death-by-failed-parachute-drop, which he started because of a two line notice in a free paper picked up on the way to or from work. Someone has died falling from a plane when his parachute failed. Suicide? Murder? In later reports it appears that the lines that engage the parachute, the safety parachute and the drag had all been severed. U compiles a dossier of similar incidents world wide. Another concurrent dossier is on oil-spills, one has just occurred as the novel begins…
Parts of this book have a dream-like sequence and parts are actual dreams that U has had, one of which is a dream about the titular island, an off-shore waste disposal ground not, U comes to realise, dissimilar from Staten Island off the shores of New York and which he is tempted to visit one day when he is attending a symposium there after the preliminary launch of the first part of the Koob-Sassen Project.
Apart from Peyman, who we meet briefly and occasionally, there are very few other characters in this novel. Madison, a girl friend with whom U is having an intermittent affair, Petr and a couple of colleagues, one also in a basement office whose entire working life seems to be viewing You-tube videos, variously of Lagos from the air, a roller-blading event and others.
While this is probably an extremely clever, original and startling piece of writing, thought-provoking and different, I found it even more impenetrable that his previously long-listed novel C about which I wrote in 2010:
“Compelling by its very strangeness. Odd to have missed the sinking of the Titanic when so much else is included. Many threads lead nowhere but the narrative drives forward nevertheless. All encompassing” This was in the days when I only kept a Reader Diary, so these notes will not mean very much to anyone who has not read C. But there is a theme here which follows into Satin Island, the all-encompassing nature of U’s random dossiers…
The synchronicity however lies in another source all together. Just before I started Satin Island, I was reading a review of a new book by Caroline Levine called Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. This is not a work of fiction but it slots in beside McCarthy’s novel with a perfection that is sublime. Both of them rely heavily on the works of Levi Strauss. Levine’s book is all about formalism as opposed to structuralism. I am not well-versed enough to fully explain the philosophical differences of these two, neither have I read the book, but only the review. But that was enough to tell me that these two books are inhabiting a related universe, one in which connection – whether threads of thought or processes of research – is the over-arching trajectory of living/working/being. The review, in The London Review of Books is by Michael Wood [27 August 2015]. What most attracted me to this book was the information that Caroline Levine devotes the last chapters to Bleak House by Charles Dickens compared with The Wire television series (HBO). There is much that I would like to quote from this review but will restrict myself to the following passage in which Michael Wood and Levine explain the connectivity of life in that narrative:
But Levine goes well beyond the story of disease in Bleak House. The law is a network in the novel, and so is philanthropy. So are “economics, class, gossip, the family tree, city streets, rural roads”: it’s a book, Levine suggests, that is organised “around networks rather than persons”. Some figures are “simply proximate – in the right place at the right time – while others become unconscious bearers of connectability.” And some, of course, are impeccably in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the Irish woman in Carlyle, [this was the seed of Dickens’ novel – a woman with typhus is denied charitable help and goes on to infect a whole community] or indeed many people in the novel.
So, launching myself into the void so to speak (because I have not read Levine’s book) compare that with one of the opening sections of Tom McCarthy’s novel Satin Island (this is U writing of his place in the Company):
What do I do? I am an anthropologist. Structures of kinship; systems of exchange, barter and gift; symbolic operations lurking on the flipside of the habitual and the banal: identifying these, prising them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light – that’s my racket. When these events (events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now) took place, I found myself deployed not to some remote jungle, steppe or tundra, there to study hunter-gatherers and shamans, but to a business. Deployed there, what’s more, not by the austere dictates of a Royal Anthropological Society or National University, but by the very business to which I’d been despatched: I was the in-house ethnographer for a consultancy. The Company (let’s continue to call it that) advised other companies how to contextualise and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas – to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.
In other words, U is there to create the systems and networks, the ideas and practicalities that underpin the philosophies of business. The reader has to keep remembering that this is fiction, but in actuality it is spookily like the work done by someone I know. The ideas in this book are immense and a bit frightening because they are so plausibly real. There is one dream-like sequence between Madison and U that is part real and part horror story, it is especially strange because the two of them seem to be in a situation of suspended animation.
This is a strangely engrossing novel, much of it was way above my pay-grade as they say. I enjoyed it and it is going to be a brave judge who admits they did not understand a word of it. The short-list beckons!