Satin Island – Tom McCarthy

[I have read the novel in three sections. I write about each section before reading the next, so I never know what is going to happen in the rest of the book.]

6 September 2016
Chapters 1-6
Where to start? Does it matter? The narrator, a nameless anthropologist – ‘Me? Call me U’ – working for a nameless company referred to only as The Company, muses about stuff. Airports, oil spills, suspicious parachuting accidents, the smoothness of Parisian streets…. Everything is separate, but – and this is what the charismatic CEO of the Company has charged our man to prove – everything is connected. So alongside his other definition-defying work, U is working on The Great Report. This has been mentioned occasionally before now, but it’s only in Chapter 6 that we hear how Peyman, the CEO, originally put it to him. ‘The Document, he said; the Book. The First and Last Word on our age… you, U, are the one to write it.’ No pressure then. Hah. The Company is already engaged in fulfilling the ‘Project’, a big contract it received right at the start of the novel, and now this new mission ‘sent my general levels of anxiety, already high, still higher.’

Place a character identified only by an initial into a nameless organisation and feeling under pressure and, surely, you’re going to think of Kafka. There might be a kind of wry self-deprecation here – there’s something absurd about that ‘you, U’ – but if you learn anything from reading Kafka it’s that you’ll never get to the bottom of anything. Is our man – and it seems unlikely, even this early in the novel – on his way to some kind of enlightenment? Will the separate pieces connect, as his hero Levi-Strauss used to make them connect? Or will the longed-for pattern fail to emerge?

U likes to point out, in his light-touch, musing way, the connectedness of apparently disparate elements. He’s introduced us to a colleague of his, Daniel, whose films offer visual metaphors of the search for hidden patterns. Or they might not. Just because the vehicle parts in an aerial shot of Lagos look like the carefully arranged colours on an artist’s palette doesn’t mean there’s any pattern really. But there might be. Who would want to be the man charged with writing the Key to All Mythologies – especially for a boss, U has told us, who redefines what the Company is and does every time he talks about it? Meanwhile, looping film of a diver tracking an oil-spill on the sea-bed is both engaging and troubling. The oil, still viscous, behaves almost gently as it spreads over the silt and vegetation, and can be pulled up like a soft carpet. But it doesn’t stop coming, and the edge presses on relentlessly.

What is this a metaphor of, exactly? How would I know? And why does U constantly bring to our attention little scraps of science – Schrodinger’s Cat is in there, and the treatment another colleague is receiving for newly diagnosed thyroid cancer – and almost anything else he happens to notice in his unhurried days? And why has he made a particular issue of the unpredictable effects that researchers have on the very people they are trying to study? And the importance of ‘field’ and ‘home’ for anthropologists? How can he write about a world he’s so much a part of, that he (and the Company), as both he and Peyman like to say, write the world afresh with every new piece of work they do?

Is anything he has told us important? Why, despite the supposed size and influence of the ‘Company’, have we only been introduced to a tiny handful of his colleagues? (And is Petr, the one diagnosed with cancer, going to feature prominently?) Does our man have a social life? He mentions a girlfriend, Madison, with whom he has sex that he never describes beyond that simple statement…. For somebody charged with the task of coming to grips with anthropological undercurrents on a global scale, he hardly seems to engage with the world at all. Hmm. Maybe I just haven’t read enough yet.

6 September, later
Chapters 7-11
By the end of this middle third of the novel our man isn’t in a good place. He’s had a humiliating reception at an international conference after more or less making up his presentation as he went along. Unsurprisingly, he receives only polite applause, and nobody approaches him to talk about it afterwards. In the next chapter he spends every free moment, when he is supposed to be working on the Great Report, imagining the speech he should have given. And his big, leather-topped desk at home, the one he spent some time first clearing and then cleaning – it feels like a preparation for some sacred ritual – is as cluttered as ever. And he still hasn’t made any kind of start. There’s nothing at all surprising about the conclusion he comes to just before the point I’ve reached. Not only is he certain that Peyman knew the task was impossible; he starts to feel a certain paranoia – his word – that Peyman and the insiders in the Company are laughing at him. Ah.

It’s no more of a surprise at the very end of the chapter when his mind turns even further in on itself. He has a eureka moment as he thinks about those four men, on different continents, whose parachutes didn’t open. In each case, the parachute was sabotaged – this much is definite from the news reports – and, at first, arrests are made of those who had access to them before the jumps. But, worldwide, nobody has been charged…. The ‘moment of revelation’ is the one that our man decides is not only going to restore his flagging reputation, but will make him a household name. It’s ‘bigger than the (now defunct) Great Report… on the scale of Schrodinger’s or Einstein’s.’ Well? ‘I saw the truth with total clarity: it was a Russian Roulette pact!’ It’s the Schrodinger-type paradox at the heart of this that really excites him. Earlier, as he’d tried to decide at what moment the crime was committed, he is captivated by the idea that the victim’s fate was sealed as soon as he picked up the sabotaged parachute. For every one of the intervening hours and minutes, whilst showing all the signs of being alive, there would be no difference between him and a dead man. Chapter 11 ends ominously as he contemplates the effect on his life: ‘The year would be a glorious one.’

None of this is surprising because the narrator McCarthy has created has always chosen to believe that random musings represent original thought and that apparently chance connections are significant. The opening chapter, when he is stuck at Torino Airport (not a destination, but a hub, he discovers), is when the parachutist and oil-spill threads begin, in that random way we later come to recognise as his usual way of working. In the chapter following his conference failure, it’s the oil-spill idea he works up, in his head, into a stupendous critique of everybody’s way of looking at the world. The applause, in his head, is almost overwhelming. In fact, as he often reminds us, he works in the basement of ‘the Company’ among the ventilation ducts. His boss is a man who either really does make connections that are far more credible, or who is able to present random aspects of current culture as somehow revealing deep movements within the Zeitgeist. As readers, we don’t know – how could we? – whether Peyman believes the line he peddles, in which case he really does think our man could come up with a key to it all, or if he’s really in the snake-oil business. Whatever, if U can come up with something, great, he’ll sell it. If not… meh.

There are a lot of similarities with the first-person narrator of McCarthy’s first published novel, Remainder. That character, too, had an inflated sense of his own power and value, but in his case he uses a windfall insurance pay-out to fund a crazed project to precisely replicate key epiphanies in his life. He has an excuse – the compensation had been for brain damage he suffered in a freak accident – whereas U has none but a misjudged sense of his own worth based on some happy accidents in his academic career. He knows, at one level, that the work that made his name is far from ground-breaking… but this doesn’t stop him believing that he could be responsible for the next big stride forward in human thought. U, like the narrator of Remainder, lives to much inside his own head.

There’s another similarity. In that novel we are never really sure where we are because, however bizarre, what the narrator tells us sound plausible. Short of a moment of revelation at the end of Remainder – which never comes, by the way – in which I half expected suddenly to discover that this was all a dream, we are never going to know how much to believe. And that’s exactly how I feel now. I don’t suspect that events that U describes might be imaginary, but as for his interpretation of them – Peyman is fooling him, his ‘moment of revelation’ is ground-breaking – we have to take his word for it. Which, of course we don’t. All we know is that we don’t really know anything about the workings of the world our man describes. Is the coming year really going to be glorious after all, against all my expectations?

I doubt it, but I don’t know.

12 September
Chapters 12-14 – to the end
I did know after all. That the Russian Roulette theory was going to lead to nothing. Our man tells us, a page into Chapter 12: ‘I discovered that my parachutist theory didn’t work. It was bogus; full of shit.’ You don’t say. The paragraph (numbered, like all the rest in the novel, as though to present as some kind of ordered report what we increasingly recognise as the floundering of a mind in chaos) follows one in which poor old Petr dies of his cancer. For a moment it looks as though U is going to make some of his silly connections – the smuts on the hospital window are like the dirty bruises under Petr’s skin, and those spreading oil-slicks lurk in the back of our minds – but he gives up on them. He is left impotently complaining, but not out loud: ‘if you can’t save these people, at least clean the windows.’

He flounders about a bit more on the doomed Report, which fizzles out into nothing. But there’s a surprise, and some glory too, of a reflected kind: the Project is received ecstatically and, on the back of it, our man is given all kinds of credit he knows he doesn’t deserve. I’ll come back to that, because it ends up with an all-expenses-paid trip to New York that is the setting for the dying fall of the novel’s ending. He’d had a dream, as significant-seeming to him as the one that led to his ‘bogus’ Russian Roulette theory – you’d think he would have learnt to ignore them by now – about ‘Satin Island’, a variant of Staten Island. Its message seems to have been that the main product of our civilisation, at every level, is garbage and ruination. Even his hero, Levi-Strauss, left behind him cultures that would be devastated by the contact he’d brought.

You can tell that things aren’t going well, despite the accidental recognition that comes his way. When he wonders whether he might be promoted to an office above ground, he finds himself expecting to miss the noise of the ventilation ducts. How we laughed. He decides that at least he can ‘pin down’ his girlfriend on something that’s been troubling him since Chapter 1. When he was stuck at the airport near Turin, she had texted that she had once been stuck there too, and now he decides he has to know the circumstances. So she tells him – she had been on a protest at a G12 conference in Genoa – but her story mutates into an unintelligibly puzzling story of how she was kept against her will for something like two days. It’s the behaviour of an anonymous but clearly high-up politician or civil servant that provides the puzzle. He forces her, under threat of being jabbed with a cattle-prod, to perform a kind of post-Futurist mime while he examines the effect of this on an electronic measuring device and sighs with a kind of pleasure. What? What?

Don’t ask, because like all our man’s attempts to pin things down, we never find out. The story lasts long enough for their restaurant lunch to be dragged on until the late afternoon, waiters ignoring them and having a bite to eat after all the other diners have left. But as for the workings of whatever system have led to her bizarre experience… go figure.

And so to New York. Nothing happens, beyond our man’s drifting, not-quite decision to go down to where the Staten Island Ferry embarks. He’s going to get on, because… who knows? ‘Something would happen if I went to Staten Island. I didn’t know what; but something would. And something would make sense – if not the whole caboodle, at least something.’ That word ‘caboodle’ has the ring of hopelessness about it. All his projects, his castles in the air, his theorising, have come down to this, a ‘caboodle’. And when the ferry arrives, he doesn’t get on. ‘To go to Staten Island – actually go there – would have been profoundly meaningless. What tangible nesting space would I have discovered there, and for what concrete purpose? None. Not to go there was, of course, profoundly meaningless as well.’

In these last pages, U has tried to convince himself of the tangibility of things, looking for confirmation in the real world of some of his ideas. It hasn’t come. The thrusting, boat-shaped ferry terminal urging him on, the random covering of letters on the signage so that he actually sees, with gaps, the letters of ‘Satin Island’ before it morphs, bathetically, into ‘Stain’ – they only mean what we want them to mean. Perhaps he realises when the approaching ferry creates the illusion that the terminal is moving towards it. So he waits behind, amid security men, an announcer, and a homeless man trying the pay-phones for coins. (As he asks, who uses pay-phones these days?) He walks back, ‘past the growing stream of people, out of the terminal and back to the city.’ The end.

Following this, hidden among end-pages stained with oil (no comment), we get the Acknowledgments. McCarthy thanks somebody for giving him an office ‘in which to sit and think about the general impossibility of writing a novel about the general impossibility of etc.’ Here’s McCarthy confirming that none of it means anything – and I can’t be the only reader who would like to yell at both him and his self-deluding creation that I could have told him that a long time ago.