“Satin Island” by Tom McCarthy (Knopf, 208 pages, $24)
“Events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now.” So proclaims Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island,” a rather dazzling array of sentences and paragraphs and snippets of memory and thought that aren’t quite sure where they are.
The cover of “Satin Island” bears a number of possibilities: it could be a treatise, an essay, a manifesto, and so on, but each of these is crossed out, leaving only “A Novel.” Anyone familiar with the history of the novel should get that joke.
And “Satin Island” is very funny; intellectually, culturally, uncannily funny, in that way that absurd, dystopian stories about hyper-bureaucracy are funny – think Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and you’re halfway there.
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U. (“You”? Or perhaps “Ulysses”?), is a corporate ethnographer, a job title that at once makes no and yet total sense, tasked with writing The Great Report. “What I want you to do,” his boss says, “is name what’s taking place right now.” He dismisses U.’s questions about form and audience as secondary. “It will find its shape.”
As the novel opens, U. is stuck at the airport in Turin, reading flight departure screens and TV screens and the news on his laptop, following multiple threads at once, from a football match to the airport’s layout, a skydiving accident to an oil spill, while his colleagues text him about work and his girlfriend pings him on Skype.
It’s a normalized scenario made weird, an anthropological exercise. What meaning is gained from these exchanges of information? How does one determine the quality, let alone quantity, of that meaning?
U. latches onto both the oil spill and the dead parachutist, finding in them metaphors for his work, his friend’s cancer and government conspiracies. In my favorite part of the book, he fantasizes about delivering a lecture arguing that oil spills are nature perfected: “When oil splatters a coastline, Earth wells back up and reveals itself; nature’s hidden nature gushes forth.”
Those familiar with McCarthy’s previous work will recognize these themes; I’d wager that anyone unfamiliar but interested in, say, the architecture of information in the 21st century, both as the novel’s subject and its structure, would find this book thoroughly engaging.