‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy – Not Oprah Literature

‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy    (2015) – 192 Pages    Grade: B

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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.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I have never read McCarthy myself. I do like and read some very avant-garde fiction, but something about Tom McCarthy, when I have heard him discussed or interviewed, just sits heavily in my stomach. Perhaps like he is trying too hard to be the “Oprah fiction” of avant-garde fiction. Or the anti-Oprah. Like her or not, Oprah has introduced her followers to some very solid literature. Your review reassures me that I don’t have to rush out for this one.

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    • Hi roughghosts,
      I was not impressed with Satin Island. It is OK to not like Oprah fiction, I have my own problems with a lot of it. But a writer must still come up with a coherent story that readers can empathize with. In Satin Island he built up this story about the Great Report and then just dropped it, severely disappointing at least one reader, me.

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  2. I have Remainder and C on my shelves – but I admit, I’m a little intimidated by them. I really should give him a try – usually I’m happy to jump into giving avant-garde novels a go, but I don’t want to be disappointed by him…

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    • Hi Annabel,
      Somehow I missed Remainder and C, and now I probably will wait until another of his novels gets excellent reviews. He probably is shooting himself in the foot by his statements about ‘Oprah Literature’, but for me an author being controversial is a good thing.

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  3. There’s a review of Remainder at mine. It’s not at all intimidating and I liked it a lot. He’s an awful interviewee though. Every time he gives an interview I think he deters about half his potential readers. He almost seems to take pride in sounding inaccessible, whereas the writing was anything but.

    I think the great report may be a Borges reference, to a map so accurate that it was coterminous with the territory it portrayed, but not having read Borges yet I can’t swear to that. Arguably the concept is obsolete, since what was once a thought experiment is now an engineering challenge for Google.

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    • Hi Max,
      I do like the idea of a map that exactly matches and is the same size as the territory it represents. If it were three-dimensional it could be identical.

      It probably never pays for an author to be highly critical of others’ works like McCarthy, but in a way I admire him for it. I suppose he is making the opposite mistake from Oprah fiction by being too esoteric and impersonal.

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