Back in 2010, Tom McCarthy’s strange, resistant book C (my review here) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, showing that the prize is not always about books that zip along. C is a book of ideas about human connection and how that connection is enhanced or subverted by environment and technology; indeed, humanity itself is enhanced and subverted — outlived — by the communication technology. Well, that’s something the book is about. So Tom McCarthy is doing this to us again in his new book Satin Island (2015) (the play with Staten Island, Stain Island, etc. is all deliberate and ultimately explicit), only this time the narrative, a term I use loosely, is even more mundane, the narrator himself even less interesting on the exterior, the book even more resistant. Still, somehow, the book had me enthralled — the ideas, the ideas — even if, now that I’ve finished, I find I admire it more than love it.
Our narrator is a man named simply U., a “corporate 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, kicking and wriggly, to the light — that’s my racket.
He’s been tasked with writing The Great Report for his employer The Company. Those generic names help the reader quickly understand just what this is: U.’s job is to pick apart the code of humanity and digest it and articulate it in the report to be sold to the client for various marketing and branding purposes. Oh shoot, McCarthy has a beautiful style, so here’s how he puts it:
It means we unpick the fibre of a culture (ours), its weft and warp — the situations it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it — and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fibre so that they can introduce into the weave their own fine, silken thread, strategically embroider or detail it with a mini-narrative (a convoluted way of saying: sell their product).
This may seem quaint or simplistic — after all, isn’t this what happens to us every time we get online, and don’t we, at least on the surface, engage in the ethics of this every day — but this is not a book about that kind of data and that kind of “privacy” or “corporate” issue. Rather, it’s a book that’s much more deeply concerned with the enigma of humanity. There are patterns out there and there is chaos. The book’s corporate premise, while spot-on, is mostly functional: it allows McCarthy to repudiate conventional meaning in order to examine the nature of “meaning.”
Much of this is discussed in the first section, during which U. is waiting at the Turin airport. He thinks about the Turin shroud:
The image [of Christ] isn’t really visible on the bare linen. It only emerged in the late nineteenth century, when some amateur photographer looked at the negative of a shot he’d taken of the thing, and saw the figure — pale and faded, but there nonetheless. Only in the negative: the negative became a positive, which means that the shroud itself was, in effect, a negative already.
This shows how U. thinks: negatives and positives, shapes and designs, patterns of movement in space. But it also allows him to briefly explore the quest for connection, which in turn lends itself to a sense of structure:
A few decades later, when the shroud was radiocarbon dated, it turned out to come from no later than the mid-thirteenth century; but this didn’t trouble the believers. Things like that never do. People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality, of time: memory-chambers and oblivion-cellars, walls between eras, hallways that sweep us on towards the end-days and the coming whatever-it-is.
There are two miasmic events that inspire U. to look in unique places for connections and patterns and meaning: an oil spill that he hears about on the news while waiting in Turin and the death of a parachutist that he reads about in the newspaper. We follow these events as they develop, and we also follow a few narrative strands from U.’s own life: his friend who is dying from cancer and his girlfriend who refuses to tell him why she was in Torino-Caselle. This is as strong as the book gets when it comes to conventional narrative, and even these elements are there primarily to serve as the fabric of U.’s own life, which he unpicks.
While biblical imagery is prevalent in the book, I do want to bring up one more: the Tower of Babel, which is the Company’s logo. U.’s boss explains that this symbol is not used because it represents man’s hubris:
This ruinous edifice (he’d say), which serves as a glaring reminder that its would-be occupants are scattered about the earth, spread horizontally rather than vertically, babbling away in all these different tongues — this tower becomes of interest only once it has flunked its allotted task. Its ruination is the precondition for all subsequent exchange, all cultural activity.
There’s a symbolic point zero for U.’s job. While the boss may not think failure constitutes the Tower’s primary symbolic heft, failure, tempered by the fact one is reaching for the unattainable, underlies U.’s project. He knows from the beginning The Great Report cannot be written, but the project makes for an intriguing
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