Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Satin IslandA catastrophic oil spill. A dead parachutist whose rig has been sabotaged. Rollerbladers in Paris. The hypnotic buffering symbol, whirring round and round endlessly on a screen. What do these things have in common?

“(events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now)”

Meet U. He’s an anthropologist, hired by the enigmatic Company to write the Great Report on our times. His job, according to the Company’s head honcho Peyman, is to “name what’s taking place right now.” This is a vague task, and U. is quite aware of that. As the novel progresses, he lurches from obsession to obsession (the oil spill, the parachutist, the rollerbladers, that endless, endless buffering) and tries to understand how – if at all – these images encapsulate or explain the age in which we live.

“Forget family, or ethnic and religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe.”

Trying to understand culture or surroundings or modernity is not novel, in itself. What is striking about Satin Island is the corporate context in which is takes place. U. attempts to see the modern world through the lens of the classic anthropologists he reveres and through the rituals and behaviours of groups he has read about in the past. There is a particular focus on Vanuatan rituals, such as land diving, and the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

For all that U. tries to rationalise his approach through comparing company life to modern tribes, the thought-processes gradually break down. What starts out as somewhat believable, if a bit laboured, analogous thinking increasingly becomes more and more desperate until even U. himself is aware that the Great Report is barely writable. He is asked to speak at a conference, waffles for 15 minutes, and leaves the stage, the audience silent. He knows, deep down, it’s all basically nonsense. Real life, meanwhile, continues around him: the woman he’s sleeping with reveals her past; his best friend has a sinister lump investigated.

“Even the fact that it didn’t quite make sense made sense, while he was talking.”

Satin Island is short, but do not be deceived. It isn’t the easiest read – it isn’t meant to be – and there were definitely paragraphs I read several times to try and figure out what was being said. I was initially thrown by all the paragraphs being numbered (1.1, 1.2, and so on) but then I realised that this is fairly standard practise in academic report writing, and indeed gave the discombobulating effect of reading a Report about the Great Report.

“Fiction was what engendered them and held them in formation. We should view all propositions and all projects this way.”

Discombobulating is probably the most apposite word, now that I think about it, and can be truthfully applied to most things connected to this book: the plot (such as it is), the act of reading the novel, the protagonist, and of course the modern age itself. We are all adrift around Satin Island.

It is a striking book, and I can see why it was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Did I enjoy it, though? I honestly don’t know. I don’t even know if I was meant to.

Tom McCarthy: Satin Island (London:  Jonathan Cape, 2015) ISBN 9780224090193. RRP £16.99.

One comment on “Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

  1. Cath Murphy
    November 4, 2015

    Oh the cult of the difficult book. I guess we need them, to push the envelope, but then again do we? Really?

    Discombobulating is a great word. We should all use it more often.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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