Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: Review

As much as I wanted it to, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy did not win the Booker Prize. Having read it all I realise it was a long shot. However it is an interesting book that deserved consideration, even if it does have some flaws.

Normally I promise that there will be no spoilers. Not this time. There are some spoilers here. Because it took me so long to work out what I thought Satin Island was actually about, I want to use this post to explore those ideas. I promise to keep the amount of plot exposed to a minimum. Given that at first glance the novel appears plotless, I shouldn’t have too much trouble. However, please read the novel before you read this review, unless you don’t intend to read it.

If you search for Satin Island on Amazon, the first six books you find are it and its five co-nominees for the Booker. Satin Island even comes sixth on the list! Its rating of two and a half stars out of five is poor compared to the four out of five given to most of the other nominees. (I note that Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways has four and a half out of five, making it the most popular Booker nominee on Amazon. Perhaps that’s the book I should read next…)

The point is “Satin Island” does not have universal appeal. It is pretty hard to “get”. Some of this is down to its rarefied subject matter: it’s a first person narrative by a “corporate anthropologist” who refers to himself as “U.”. As in “call me U.” - one of the novels many feints and tricks.

He - and it was a fair way through before I was certain that U. is a man - works for a shadowy consultancy on a top-secret project called “Koob-Sassen” that involves multiple agencies, including the government. The project seems to echo the work of Carter-Ruck for Trafigura, which culminated in the Guardian revealing the existence of super-injunctions in 2009. McCarthy structures the novel in numbered sections like a legal document (1.1, 1.2, etc) or like a philosophical treatise à la Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” with its propositions and sublevels thereof. While this structure is not particularly welcoming when you flick through the book in the bookshop, it is a useful device for driving you through the book once it draws in.

It is worth mentioning what a super-injunction is. It is a legal document that not only prevents named individuals from talking about an ongoing legal case but also prevents them from talking about the fact they cannot talk about it. That such documents exist, things that are almost guaranteed to exist because the fact that no one can talk about them, seem to me to put the world out of kilter. The nature of U’s philosophical and ethnographical peregrinations hint at similar constraints.

“U.” has to somehow sum up the Koob-Sassen project for his masters. He has to come up with an idea that names “the spirit of the age”. His boss Peyman pops up from time to time to issue mots justes that border on self-satire. Somehow, despite almost never being directly included in the action, Peyman manages to ooze the same menace as an antagonist from a Ballard novel.

U’s task mostly ends up with him musing on the issues of the day (an oil spill, an aeroplane incident that leaves him stranded at Turin airport, the death of a parachutist, a football match betwen Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and so on…) and surfing the internet. This is woven between interactions with his girlfriend Madison and the death of his friend Petr from cancer. These personal events are narrated in a detached fashion. Discussion of sex is dispatched in short perfunctory sentences such as “we made love”. As U. relates his conversations with his dying friend to the reader, he also describes simultaneous thought processes, showing how his mind is always working away to make connections between things - no matter the situation. He comes across as detached and the writing has a similar quality to Nicola Barker’s “Darkmans” (as I mentioned last time I wrote about “Satin Island”), wherein the narrator decides to hop from one thing to another in the search for a plot.

That is pretty much the entirety of the novel.

So what does it all mean? I came to the conclusion that one interpretation of the novel is that it could be a meditation on suicide. First of all, the Satin Island of the title is a reference to a parachute. U. muses for a long time on the case of the parachutist who has the cords of his chute cut. He comes to the conclusion that it was a bizarre form of thrill-seeking Russian roulette amongst the victim’s parachute club. He finds out that this would be impossible. Eventually he comes to realise that the only person who could have cut the cords is the dead parachutist himself. This is confirmed when he starts to see similar stories of other parachutes around the world.

U. also describes an anthropological ritual involving falling that he remembers learning about an re-enacting as a child. Along with U’s detachment from the world, perhaps the obsession with parachute deaths is his ideation for how he will kill himself.

In the final chapter U. visits the terminal for the Staten Island ferry in New York. He thrills at the arrangement of broken letters that from one angle appear to spell SATN ISLND. However he doesn’t board the ferry and visit the island, knowing already that there is little there for him to see. He observes the crowds and withdraws, against the grain. You could see this as U. rejecting life and refusing to reach his destination, but given the echoes of the river Styx in the narrative, it’s also possible to view it as U. rejecting the chance to accept death. He walks away from it instead.

This may not be the true meaning of Satin Island. It doesn’t really explain the bizarre tale related in chapter 13 by U.’s girlfriend Madison, among other things. I’m ok with that, because with such an open-ended tale you won’t find a theory to fit everything no matter how you try. It’s the author’s prerogative to know whether there’s a meaning and whether to disclose it. It is more like that the author’s intention is open-endedness and because Satin Island is a modern novel about modern people doing modern things and thinking in modern ways, ambiguity is always likely. It’s the reader’s prerogative to read attentively and discern meaning: at least it is in these times with every narrative fractured into a multiplicity of viewpoints.

Of course there is the problem of legitimacy: if Satin Island has a plot that exists only in the mind of the reader, is it good writing? Is it a good novel? I would say yes because throughout the writing is excellent. It is difficult for a writer to convey the thought processes of an invented character and I think McCarthy does this very well. But then again, as those Amazon reviews suggest, some people respond badly to this and have a very different idea of what a novel is. At the end of the day, this is what will determine whether you love or loathe Satin Island. Which is perhaps as it should be.

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