Tom McCarthy, Satin Island

Satin Island: A NovelSatin Island: A Novel by Tom McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine DeLillo or Ballard without either of those writers’ command of language. Imagine prose in the style of successful young humanities academics today, who write as if they have read every novel, played every video game, grasped every political theory, and can now proceed to shuffle them around in a snide and knowing way meant to flatter or intimidate a like-minded audience. Imagine a novel that postures as avant-garde, yet wastes a page telling its readers about Schrödinger’s cat, as if this bit of pop-science trivia, which has been a running joke for years on America’s most popular sitcom, were the latest word in cutting-edge theory.

All good reasons to be impatient with Satin Island, a novel (or whatever) narrated by a man who cutely asks us to call him U. (because, I guess, we are all in his predicament, at least if we’ve bought the new Tom McCarthy novel). U. is the resident anthropologist for a mysterious global corporation, tasked with writing a Great Report that will sum up the age. McCarthy’s narrative is of course about the ultimate impossibility of such an act, due to the waste products generated by all systems, from language to the global economy. At the linguistic level, U. is struck with a kind of apophenia that makes him attentive to wordplay and the slippage of signifiers; at the level of political economy, U. becomes aware of corporate utopianism’s undersides in environmental degradation, damaged health, and political repression, all of which the novel describes. Since ordered systems, from capitalism to writing, issue in unstable meanings, oil spills, cancer, and police brutality, any attempt to master the age will prove futile or, worse, provide a moral justification for all the wastage. Anthropologically, this proves that “we”—the modern world, the western world, etc.—are not the superiors of other or prior cultures and may be their inferiors insofar as we deny, in ways they do not, the contingency and death-adjacency of all human action.

The foregoing is the “point” of the novel, as I understand it—and it is not inappropriate to speak of McCarthy’s point, since he has deliberately written a discursive and even didactic text that eschews the character depth and dramatized viewpoints that would mitigate the propositional content in a traditional novel-of-ideas, such as those of Dostoevsky or Bellow. I find this relatively refreshing; Satin Island is a kind of monologue that does away with much novelistic detail and, in so doing, reminds us of how little we need conventional reality effects. The novel’s brevity and suggestiveness provide a model that we would do well to consider; I enjoyed Satin Island more for not having to be troubled by some intricate melodrama or social panaroma when ideas and imagery are obviously McCarthy’s strengths.

But then we have a right to question what those ideas are, even if we agree to treat them as a character’s utterance. As I hinted above, the ideas in Satin Island are derivative, popularized versions of 20th-century anti-humanisms that have long ago migrated into popular culture. I don’t understand why philosophies I first encountered in comic books when I was 12 are now being discussed as potentially revolutionizing the literary novel. Moreover, these concepts, or anti-concepts, strongly resist narrative or drama. U. argues that the essence of the world is some tarry black substance, whether oil or cancer or dirt, and that it will claim us all eventually. This is a dark gnosticism in the guise of materialism, a transcendent worldview simply turned upside down like a teenager’s graffiti pentagram, and it flattens all interest anybody might take in a text of any sort. While I was sufficiently charmed by U.’s erudition to keep turning the pages, I did not care about much else in the novel, and I doubt I will remember it.

I am of two minds about Satin Island, then: on the one hand, I missed in it the appeal that even the most daunting and nihilistic works make with their animating if disavowed passion (Beckett, Bernhard), of which McCarthy’s text is wholly void. But in the current cloying literary atmosphere of aggressive sentimentality (St. DFW, empathy exams, insistence on how we’re all “human”), McCarthy’s refusal of any redemptive promise or beneficent emotion or advocacy for political progress might be a corrective scourge. Maybe that is the historical use of anti-humanism in all periods: to recall us, when we have inflated ourselves with windy rhetoric, back to the common dirt. Even so, others have done this before Tom McCarthy, and they have done it better.



  1. Interesting. With all the other books on my list to read, I think I will skip this one. It does make me want to reread Bellow though. My favorite author for a long time years ago.

    • Thanks, Deborah! It will be no great loss to you if you don’t read this. McCarthy would regard Bellow’s ultimate humanism (and stunning prose) as hopelessly uncool. In fact, Satin Island is sort of a re-write of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, which is sort of a re-write of Bellow’s Seize the Day, and with each iteration, more and more emotion gets pressed out of the story of how to live amid the signs and complexities of capitalism.

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