Satin Island by Tom McCarthy review: a novel for the Google generation

Full of great insights and humour, this innovative, well-crafted and challenging work is written for all those restless readers who search, scroll, tweet and befriend online

Tom McCarthy: Satin Island’s protagonist U has been patiently waiting for someone like him to come along and put him under the microscope for some time now

Tom McCarthy: Satin Island’s protagonist U has been patiently waiting for someone like him to come along and put him under the microscope for some time now


I came away from this novel knowing, like the fakir of old, that I was merely touching the flank of the elephant. So, my review, if such it is, like all reviews is limited and very subjective. I’m reminded here of the acerbic comment of John B Keane, the great playwright from Listowel, Co Kerry, who once remarked about critics and reviewers of his plays, that, “they are like eunuchs – they see it happening each night in front of their eyes, but they can’t do it themselves”.

The chief narrator of this novel is called U. He is an anthropologist, an ethnographer working for a nameless, faceless corporation and he is answerable only to the almighty Peyman (sic). As an anthropologist, U doesn’t like corporations: “Forget family, or ethnic or religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe.” U’s assorted, seemingly unconnected, ramblings, dreams, visions and hallucinations are presented to us, the reader, as learned treatise/thesis/dissertation/official report with their accompanying sections and clauses and sub-clauses.

U is a loner, he is obsessive, highly intelligent and a perfect cipher for our modern age. He is, of course, an expert in all things IT, and is surrounded by the latest gadgetry at all times, laptops, phones, TVs, servers. He spends his days in the bowels of this giant corporation, clicking and scrolling and buffering his way to new, seemingly unconnected, pieces of information, which he then gathers in dossiers for inclusion in his Great Report. This report has been commissioned by his boss, Peyman, and the mysterious promoters of the Koob-Sassen Project.

Like many a modern protagonist before him, U’s life is narrow and relatively unexciting. The novel has a number of recurring touchstone motifs; his only friend Petr, his workplace colleague Daniel, his lover Madison and his obsessive building of dossiers on oil slick occurrences across the globe, coupled with the strange recurring incidents of parachutists being killed when their chutes don’t open.

Despite its formal appearance and structure, the novel often reads like a dramatic monologue, a very modern stream of consciousness, akin to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. There are long, almost Biblical-like tracts of visions, revelations, fantasies and dreams – and the ever-present references to The Great Report. So, despite appearing like a report, what we have here is a narrator who has the skills and the training of an academic report writer who decides to cut loose and in the guise of a report, he writes a novel of substance – what we are presented with here, therefore, is a novel masquerading as a report!

In Chapter 11, U recounts a very germane anecdote, which may go far to explaining this conundrum and also the mercurial mindset of the novel’s narrator: How come this very official looking Report/Treatise/Thesis is full of dream sequences, chance meetings and sometimes barely credible events? U tells us that in his book, Tristes Tropiques, his hero, Levi-Strauss (with a hyphen!), the famous anthropologist, speaks of having spent months with the Nambikwara tribe deep in the tropical jungle, with no prospect of an early egress, marooned by the onset of the rainy season, rivers flooded and un-navigable, all food, wine, bottled water, cigarettes consumed or traded. Then bored out of his skull, he says he fell prey to what he called “a mental disorder” that can sometimes affect anthropologists – he started to compose an epic drama on the back of the sheets of paper containing his research notes. If I could use a rather dated analogy: what U produces here is a vinyl B side – while he psyches himself to compile his Great Report, which will define his career, and be the report to beat all other reports; while he flounders in the urban jungles of Stockholm or New York or London, waiting for inspiration and motivation and for this bout of procrastination to abate and before The Big Idea for The Great Report takes hold – he gives us Satin Island!

U has been patiently waiting for someone like Tom McCarthy to come along and put him under the microscope for some time now. Who is he? He is an urban anthropologist of the NOW, the Present, The Contemporary. He is, like the Jesuits of old, a master of the art of discernment. U is essentially a Discerner of the Zeitgeist. He tells us himself: “I am an anthropologist. Structure of kinship; systems of exchange, barter and gift; symbolic operation lurking on the flip side of the habitual and the banal: identifying these, prising them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light – that’s my racket.” He tells us that his modus operandi is to feed, “vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine”. He sees his role as one of purveying cultural insight. By this he means, “that we unpick the fibre of a culture, its weft and warp – the situation 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 [Satin?] thread, strategically embroider or detail it with a mini-narrative, ie sell their product.”

U is a proponent, maybe the inventor of the term Present-Tense AnthropologyTM, “an anthropology that bathes in presence, and in nowness – bathed in it as in a deep, bubbling and nymph-saturated well”. In Chapter 9 he goes to a conference in Frankfurt to deliver a paper, “on the anthropology of The Contemporary”. He delivers his paper and gets an underwhelming response from those attending. Typical of his character, he returns to his underground lair in London and in a powerful dream-like sequence delivers the paper he should have delivered in Frankfurt to great imagined acclaim – his 15 minutes of fame?

Throughout the novel we are treated to glimpses of U’s viewpoint and his wry humour. By his own admission, anthropologists are two-a-penny, “A famous anthropologist, even one with a real book out, is about as well known as a third-division footballer”. As already mentioned, he is a firm believer in the Present, the Now. According to U, “the Future is the biggest shaggy dog story of all”. Elsewhere he gives us this chilling reminder of our Now world: “Walk down any stretch of street, and you’re being filmed by three cameras at once – and even if you aren’t the phone you carry in your pocket pinpoints and logs your location at each given moment. Each website that you visit, every click-through, every keystroke is archived: even if you hit delete, wipe, empty trash, it’s still lodged somewhere, in some fold or enclave, some occluded avenue of circuitry.”

So U is both a product and a student of our age and this novel is aimed at the many bright, highly qualified, trapped individuals, who do the work for faceless corporations, quietly in the background in their little well-organised, disconnected cadres, in their underground offices, the underworld of bandwidth, servers, computers, cables, bits and bytes and megabytes, memory banks, satellite dishes – and of course, the constant curse of buffering!

As you can see, my focus has been, and rightly so, on U, the main protagonist. Where then does the title, Satin Island, come from? If anything the novel should be titled Staten Island, but maybe that’s already out there! Satin fits in with his overall obsession with the soft, velvety viscosity of oil and the earlier references to the weave and warp and weft of the work of an anthropologist. Anyway, the title comes to U in “a splendid dream” in Chapter 12! In this dream he flies (like Icarus?) over a harbour, by a city. Later, he describes beautifully the frenetic movement around, “the half-completed Freedom Towers” where “the thrum of a sight-seeing helicopter.... its glass nose sniffing the ground...... the intermittent beep-beep-beep of reversing buses broke up the chopper blades deep gut-vibrating frequencies”. He makes a rather pointless journey to Battery Park and South Ferry to take the ferry to Staten Island only to balk at the very last moment, deciding, rather annoyingly, not to take the ferry after all.

However, I hope you can see that I’ve enjoyed reading Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. The book feels good, and it looks good and oily and velvety! I even liked the typeset Dante MT – all these things are vitally important for booklovers and readers!

There are odd moments in the novel, let’s be honest, when you feel like the little boy who announces that the emperor has no clothes - but these are very rare. I haven’t been as excited about a shortlisted Booker novel since Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark in 1996 – so my run of honourable runners-up continues! McCarthy’s novel is innovative, well crafted and challenging. It contains great modern insights, great humour and the odd “epiphanic tingling” along the way.

It is, in effect, a novel for the Google generation. (In fact, how did he write the novel without mentioning that corporate word!). It is written for all those restless readers who scroll and search and tweet and like and befriend online; those users of WiFi and 3G and 4G – their iPhone and iPad at the ready to comment, to blog, to email their Nowness to the world.

I predict this novel will be a runaway success in the airport bookstores at Torino-Caselle and all the other homogenous airport hubs around our restless world, wherever people like U and his contemporaries bide their time between connecting flights!

This novel is breaking new ground, a breath of fresh air, at times a tour de force. I highly recommend you to be bold and to venture forth and feel the elephant’s flank!

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy is published in paperback by Vintage later this month. Vincent Hanley recently retired after 37 years teaching English in Scoil Mhuire agus Ide in Newcastle West, Co Limerick

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