“The City and the state are fictional conditions; a business is a fictional entity. Even if it’s real, it’s still a construct. Lots of company’s projects have been fictions that became real”
I’m not sure I’ve ever quite forgiven Tom McCarthy for his 2010 novel, C. It was booker nominated, so of course I read it. I loved the ideas in it, but found it ultimately annoying and full of itself. I finished it certain that if I looked up ‘Self-satisfied’ in any kind of reference book, the entry would be accompanied by a picture of Tom McCarthy. His ability to show off as a writer totally eclipsed that story and was little more that literary masturbation. It annoyed me so much it almost made me want to re-read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh again … ok, so it wasn’t that tedious, but it (as you can tell) let a lasting impression.
My non fandom continued when he managed to annoy me even more a couple of years later with a mere introduction to someone else’s novel – Deborah Levy – Swimming Home.
As a result, I think it was fair to say, I wasn’t really looking forward to reading McCarthy’s latest when the Booker’s came around again.
But … come on, you knew there was going to be a but … I have to admit that I really enjoyed Satin Island.
Once again, we have a novel that is more about ideas than it is storytelling, but that’s ok this time around, because at least here we are not pretending there is meant to be a story.
Our protagonist is U (ha ha very funny) a talented ‘corporate anthropologist’ who hires himself out to organisations and governments to help them some up with plans to, well, rule the world essentially. He is currently employed as in-house ethnographer for ‘the Company’ . He is there to help narrate an epoch-defining project : Koob-Sassen. “The project was supra-governmental, supra-national, supra-everything – and infra-too”. But this doesn’t concern him – at least not at first.
He spends most his time awaiting instruction – waiting to be told what he should write. In the meantime he procrastinates – thinking about oil spills; parachute deaths/murders; customs in Vanuatu; why his girlfriend stopped off once at an Italian airport; a friend with cancer, and also dreams of his own personal end goal: the realisation of ‘Present-Tense Anthropology”. But the more he thinks and the more he procrastinates the more he starts to believe the report is unwritable and the goals of the project are perhaps less harmless that he might have thought. There are moments when he feels is about to grasp “the plan, formula, solution” but in the end it is unquantifiable and indescribable and he wakes with a jolt, and watches “it all evaporate, like salt in a quiet breeze”.
McCarthy himself says Satin Island contains hundreds of borrowings, echoes, re-mixes and straight repetitions. That seems a fair description. On the face of it could have been as self satisfied as ‘C’, but, not this time. There seems more fun here. There is a knowing humour at the literariness of the book, and a real playfulness – the scene of the minster undoing and re-doing her shoe is classic. U, himself is a darkly comic character. This is a playful novel of ideas, a novel about modern anthropology, a novel about looking for meaning. It’s about everything and nothing; and it is one of the best books about everything and nothing I’ve read in a while. Tom McCarthy’s rehabilitation starts here.