Satin Island by Thomas McCarthy review: A story that doesn’t believe in stories
Despite its lack of a narrative thread, says Kevin Gildea, this novel of ideas is hugely impressive
In Zadie Smith’s brilliant essay Two Directions for the Novel, she looks at Joseph O’Neill’s Netherworld as an accomplished example of the lyrical realist novel – the traditional novel that describes a world with the human subject as central. She contrasts this with the postmodern novel tradition that calls into question the existence of the human subject itself, positing it as an illusion. Her example for this is Tom McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder.
For McCarthy, the human subject projects meaning on to the world of things, only to have meaning reflected back, so confirming the world as a meaningful place with the human subject as the centre. According to this perspective, there is no human subject outside the process of generating meaning – the grid, the matrix – through which we view the world.
McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, continues his postmodern project, but it is the most explicit expression of his ideas. Each chapter has sections numbered (1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and so on), more the format of a manifesto or a philosophical tract than of a novel. The central character is called U, an anthropologist of the present day who works for a corporation. His job is to spot the trends of modern society and package them in a Great Report that he is compiling for the enigmatic Koob-Sassen Project. This project is never defined and U’s contribution to it remains mysteriously unquantified, even to himself. His Great Report references the Bible and other all-encompassing attempts to ascribe meaning to the world.
What’s instructive in the title Koob-Sassen is the dash between the words, suggesting connection but also absence, a missing word, the Citizen Kane Rosebud of human existence. Here is McCarthy’s thesis: there is no ultimate meaning inherent in the world, there are only endless connections that the human mind makes, creating a web woven about the illusion of a centre, the “I” of the human subject, which is really a void.
Of his boss, Peyman, U says: “. . . he connected us, both individually and severally, our scattered, half-formed notions and intuitions . . . fields of research which would otherwise have lain fallow . . . he connected all these to a world of action and event, a world in which stuff might actually happen; connected us, that is, to our own age.’
On the verge
Throughout the book, U is constantly on the verge of discovering some great meaning – in various subjects of his report, in the news story about the parachutist’s death, or his girlfriend’s visit to a particular airport – only for all to deflate eventually into non-meaning. The sheer proliferation of information in the modern world-wide-web world lends itself to a frenzied personal appropriation, whether of sport, atrocity, weather or oil slick. All information becomes flattened to the same valency. McCarthy brilliantly shows this.
At the end of the book U goes to the Staten Island Ferry terminal but then decides not to take the ferry. He abandons the illusory meaning of the narrative thread. Thus the story peters out, concluding successfully as a book of ideas but perhaps fading as a satisfying novel.
There is one story that his girlfriend tells of her bizarre interrogation by a strange man that, in its expression of ideas, its odd tone of mystery and potential violence, echoes Roberto Bolano or Javier Marías. It is an excellent merging of story and idea. Here is the mystery that McCarthy would seek to banish, yet he performs it brilliantly himself.
As befits a story that does not believe in stories, there are stretches of slackness in the story as a story, one that is basically as follows: young intellectual man works as a cultural anthropologist in the city on a project that remains vaguely defined.
However, there is much that is hugely impressive. It is a book of ideas, both original and borrowed; a book that is hugely playful, with great jokes, observations and some fantastically funny set pieces.
It is a genuinely challenging book. McCarthy is experimenting, pushing the boundaries of what a novel can be. Despite his position that there is nothing original, he is an original.
Kevin Gildea is a writer and comedian