Author(s): Tom McCarthy
Meet U. – a talented and uneasy figure currently pimping his skills to an elite consultancy in contemporary London. His employers advise everyone from big businesses to governments, and, to this end, expect their 'corporate anthropologist' to help decode and manipulate the world around them – all the more so now that a giant, epoch-defining project is in the offing.
Instead, U. spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there, U. wonders, a secret logic holding all these images together – a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our age? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news? Perhaps; perhaps not.
As U. oscillates between the visionary and the vague, brilliance and bullshit, Satin Island emerges, an impassioned and exquisite novel for our disjointed times.
“What actually matters isn’t the attempt to reach the heavens. No, what matters is what’s left when that attempt has failed.” When reviewing this book, short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, I will assume that McCarthy maintains a careful authorial distance from the narrator, U, a ‘Present Tense Anthropologist™’ employed in the service of the enigmatic Koob-Sassen Project (a behaviour-control project so all-pervasive it cannot be perceived (being, I suppose, synonymous with reality itself)), a cod-intellectual who spouts a pastiche of cultural theory – an admixture of the obvious and the dubious - to the point of (presumed) satire. Interviews with McCarthy suggest that the distance I am assuming may not in fact be that wide (although McCarthy-the-interviewee is of course another of McCarthy’s fictional constructs) but I am giving McCarthy the benefit of the doubt because it makes the book more interesting. I have no mandate, perhaps, to speculate upon the author, neither to cast aspersions nor to defend him from such aspersions; regardless of his authenticity or otherwise, this book perfectly delineates the type of feckless poseur (of which McCarthy may or may not be another example) who ostentatiously play with the handles of doors they do not have the intellectual strength to open. Mind you, it may in fact be the conflation between the author and the narrator that makes this book more successful (or ‘successful’) than some of McCarthy’s previous books: McCarthy’s shortcomings and pretensions have here become voided upon the narrator and thereby tolerable and interesting. U’s inability to write his report until he realises (or at least speculates) that whatever happens is the report (that the report is a report on the report), suggests that this novel is about the writing of this novel, the author overcoming the seeming impossibility of achieving his intention (to write a novel (a novel that is the novel of the novel (experimental in form if not in style))) by removing the distance between the observer and the observed. This is a violation of anthropological methodology but one which, time and again in the field, has proven inescapable. U removes the distinction between ‘field’ and ‘home’, leaving us in a world of jumbled signifiers in which all data is flatly equivalent (“Write everything down,” said Malinowski!), capable neither of making authentic contact with reality nor of achieving the distance from it necessary to ascertain meaning. Of course, McCarthy does not believe in either reality or meaning, so jumbled signifiers are the best we can be left with. To remove oneself is as meaningless (and impossible) as to immerse oneself. The book ends with U at the Terminal resisting the surge of the crowd onto the ferry to cross the Stygian waters to the “grey lump” of Staten Island, yet reluctant also to return to the land of the living: “I found myself struggling just to say in the same place, suspended between two types of meaninglessness.” It is this suspension, sustained throughout the book, achieved by the narrator and offered to the reader, that makes the book coldly, lip-curlingly enjoyable. - Thomas
>> Before the book was published I watched this memorable trailer. The narratorial voice perfectly fits the book.
A novel for our times, from the Booker-shortlisted 'master craftsman who is steering the contemporary novel towards exciting new territories' (Observer).
2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist
"Smart, shimmering and thought-provoking...McCarthy isn't a frustrated cultural theorist who must content himself with writing novels; he's a born novelist, a pretty fantastic one, who has figured out a way to make cultural theory funny, scary and suspenseful - in other words, compulsively readable." New York Times "Should you read the new Tom McCarthy book? (A: Yes. Always yes.)" Huffington Post "Dazzling and elusive... a magisterial ethnographic portrait of our overstimulated, interconnected, simulacra-addicted times." Atlantic "The kind of strange and ambitious fiction that you feared might have died with J. G. Ballard. ...Provokes and beguiles and, at the point of revelation, it withholds. On finishing it you will have the powerful urge to throw it across the room, then the powerful urge to pick it up to read again. And that's what's so brilliant." -- Duncan White, 5 stars Daily Telegraph "Confusing, clever and about to be massive." Stylist
Tom McCarthy is the author of Tintin and the Secret of Literature and three internationally celebrated novels: Remainder, Men in Space and, most recently, C, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural Windham-Campbell Literature Prize by Yale University. His creation, in 1999, of the International Necronautical Society has led to installations and exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world, from Tate Britain and the ICA in London to The Drawing Center in New York.