Man Booker Challenge 2015: Satin Island

Satin Island coverMan Booker Challenge 2015 Book 3: Satin Island, Tom McCarthy

Set in contemporary London,Satin Island is a work reflecting disjointed times. 

A story about U. – a ‘corporate anthropologist’ working for an elite consultancy.  U.’s employers have set him two tasks. First, he must assist in the launching of a great, epoch-defining project which no one, least of all its own architects, fully understands. Second, he has been asked to compose the seemingly impossible: the Great Report – an ethnographic document to sum up our age. Instead, procrastinating, meandering, drifting through endless buffer-zones of information, U. grows obsessed with the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there a secret logic holding all these things together – a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our times? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news? Perhaps; perhaps not.

I had read one previous book by Tom McCarthy before – C, which was nominated for the Booker in 2010. I remember that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of C: it was one of those books that left me thinking that it was certainly very good and very clever, but without a real sense of what it was actually trying to say.

I have much the same impression of Satin Island. It’s very well written, the descriptive passages throughout are superb. It’s a very visual book, whether describing the flows of oil spills or the fall of a parachuteless skydiver – McCarthy is excellent at taking what could be a banal or horrifying image and making it beautiful. I enjoyed reading it from that point of view.

However it doesn’t really have much of a plot or much characterisation. We never really get to know our narrator, U, although that could be deliberate – but we never get much of a sense of any of the people he interacts with either. It doesn’t help that none of them really have a distinct voice, they all sound more or less the same. In the dialogue, it is frequently difficult to work out who is speaking because of this.

Our narrator, U, works for a company, only ever referred to as The Company, whose purpose is unclear. U was hired as a “corporate anthropologist” following brief success and a sort of fame after publishing an anthropological study on 90s club culture. His work for the Company is undefined, as is the major project the Company is working on throughout the course of the book, the Koob-Sassen project: we are told the Project will impact on everyone’s lives, but most will be unaware of it. We get the impression that no one working on the Project really understands it. Towards the end of the novel we are told:

The Project’s first phase had gone live…Its implementation had been deemed a great success. By whom? I don’t know. Deemers. And the Company’s contribution had been praised, by praisers, as quite brilliant.

I think all this hollowness is deliberate. The plot meanders and never really goes anywhere; U procrastinates at work, and on writing his Great Report, and eventually concludes that it is impossible; U’s boss, Peyman, appears to run the Company by flying around the world, giving inspiring but essentially meaningless keynote speeches and coming up with vague aphorisms that are quoted endlessly by the press. This is all contrasted with a couple of genuine events in the plot: a friend of U battles with terminal cancer, and U’s lover recounts her time as a political protested involved in violent clashes with the police.

I suspect this novel is trying to make a point about the essential hollowness of modern life. The Company, and the Project, and a few interludes such as U’s unsuccessful attempt to launch a new kind of “present-tense anthropology” via a talk at a conference that sounds very much like TED, all put me in mind of the accusation that the modern British economy is largely based on bullshit. We lead the world in creative financial instruments (and look where that got us…), marketing and PR, and other parts of the “knowledge economy”, but we don’t actually invent or manufacture anything very much any more. I could be misreading it, but I think that’s what the book is trying to comment on.

And it mostly succeeds, but ultimately the hollowness of it made it very difficult to care about any of the characters or plot (such as they are). It’s an excellent piece of writing, and certainly deserves to be shortlisted, but I’m not a big fan of pure “ideas” novels. I did enjoy it, and got through it quite quickly, but I don’t think it’s left much of a lasting impression on me, and I think there are far more deserving winners on the shortlist.


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