‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy (2015) – 192 Pages Grade: B
Tom McCarthy writes avant-garde fiction. He has also written dismissively of “Oprah literature” which he characterizes as “candid confession and exposure of personal peccadilloes”. He goes on to say “the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over” were hopelessly “simple-minded”. I have read a fair share of the better Oprah-recommended books, so I was quite curious about exactly how Tom McCarthy would do things differently. Thus I read ‘Satin Island’.
The narrator of ‘Satin Island’ is a young anthropologist who has been hired by The Company to work as an “in-house ethnographer”. His boss challenges him to “write the Great Report … the Book. The first and last word on our age … What I want you to do, he said, is name what’s taking place right now.” The Great Report would be part of the all-pervasive Koob-Sassen Project which like all modern projects is boring and inscrutable.
An up-to-date satire with an anthropologist studying the modern corporation could have been quite humorous, but nothing is finally done with the idea. Our anthropologist realizes that such a Great Report is impossible to write. Thus the writing of the Great Report is just dropped. I would have much preferred it if our guy had made specific attempts to write the Great Report before he gave up. That could have been funny.
Instead we get riffs on a variety of subjects ranging from a major oil spill to the sudden death of a parachutist whose strings were cut. Our narrator sees on an airport TV a man wearing a Snoopy T-shirt surveying the carnage and death in a marketplace that has been bombed. Some of the riffs worked for me; many of them did not. I suppose all these side stories relate to the modern world in some way, but this constant changing of subject lacked coherence for me. Sometimes it seemed that pointlessness was the point of ‘Satin Island’.
I do feel at a disadvantage not having read what apparently is McCarthy’s masterpiece, ‘Remainder’.
Avant-garde fiction is a good thing. ‘Ulysses’ is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I could name many other experimental novels that I have loved including ‘White Noise’ by Don Delillo, ‘Nazi Writers of the Americas’ by Roberto Bolano, and the novels by Stephen Wright. At the same time, it seems to me that throwing out characterization and a coherent plot is like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Even the most daring novels need these elements.