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The First and Last Word

Aiden O’Reilly

Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, Jonathan Cape, 2015

What makes Tom McCarthy’s fourth novel so unique is not the prose style, nor even the intellectual speculations it is peppered with, it is the narrator’s sensibility. Take a look at this extract.

One of the huge cranes building the bank’s HQ was turning as we drove; the box from which the cables carrying the crane’s load descended was sliding along the jib-arm, which itself was swinging horizontally across the air. The box was sliding fast, and the arm was swinging fast, and we were driving fast as well; and it appeared, just for a moment, that the box, though hurtling along the moving arm, was staying quite still.

Such writing makes us aware that most novels are written by, well, writerly types of people. People who have studied English lit and love words more than geometry or art. In this work McCarthy displays what might be termed a da-Vincian sensibility. He has heightened awareness of structure, architecture, choreographed motion, covert physical laws. It is far more common to read writers with a special sensitivity to nature, or who have a good ear for dialect. Sections of McCarthy’s novel beg to be transmuted into the visual arts. (When this review was almost complete, I checked online and there has indeed been such an art show. Tom McCarthy himself collaborated in an exhibition at the ICA in London last year.)

The novel opens with the narrator U. waiting interminably at an airport for a delayed transfer flight. Nothing for him to do except browse the web and look about himself. He notices the myriad of screens around him: laptops, informational displays, screens showing reports of an oil spill. He is immersed in a media-saturated environment: when his girlfriend calls him on Skype, the video image is just one more window open on his laptop screen, itself competing with the TV screens around him. This atmosphere of distracted attention, “meandering along corridors of trivia” is deftly accomplished. Here, as occurs repeatedly in later chapters, we are plunged into a wholly synthetic environment which threatens to overwhelm the merely human. This sounds as though it is heading towards a familiar depiction of alienated-man-in-a-technological-age. However U.’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder lift him, and the story, from any nihilistic thoughts. Meanings may evade him, but he does not doubt they are there. Fascination is the dominant mode.

Besides, U. is in his natural habitat. He is a master of dealing with the deluge of information and compiling it into dossiers. This is the first novel I have read where instant access to information is not represented as disruptively new, but as a self-evident background. At no point is there a reference to the pre-internet era.  

U. is an anthropologist working on a world-changing project for a multinational corporation. We never learn the precise nature of the Koob-Sassen project – at one point U. pictures it as a Tower of Babel rising in the desert, at another point he has a vision of it as an inscrutable black box, perhaps like a mausoleum or perhaps like a child’s toy.

U.’s role in the project seems to be a kind of concept-generator, a blue-sky thinker. His boss Peyman assigns him to prepare The Great Report. “The Document, he said; the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.”

This notion of “The Report” is a powerful metaphor. It is the both the yearning for meaning and the meaning itself. The drive toward Logos is one that is rarely depicted in fiction. (As suggested above, perhaps those with such proclivities tend to become something other than writers.) There are however precedents, for example in Bruno Schulz’s frantic searches for The Book once glimpsed as a child. Or Pawel Huelle’s stories, which again and again revisit the metaphor of a book – in one story the perfect correlate of U.’s Report is an immense mail order catalogue.

The novel has several threads: the mysterious project progresses, U.’s friend Petr is dying of cancer, and U. gets sidetracked into theorising about a parachutist’s death he reads about online. But the main driving force of the narrative is not plot as such; it is the way it enlists the reader into its search for hidden architectures and master-meanings. The reader’s speculations will at times pre-empt and become intertwined with those of the narrator. This absence of a plot will no doubt annoy some, but others will barely notice in their search for a thematic unity to the various obsessions and recurring imagery.

One such recurring image is that of a ceaseless flow of humanity. U. watches a birds-eye view of traffic chaos in Lagos. Another time it is roller-bladers skating past the camera. And then later he finds himself watching a clip of Muslim pilgrims performing the Hajj; later again a glimpse of those zombie walks which have inexplicably sprung up in all major cities in the last decade. A dialectic at work in the novel seems to be a toggle between the conviction that there is an esoteric logos, and a view of humanity as a meaningless flow.

Satin Island touches on several live nodes of contemporary culture: corporate ability to commandeer the grassroots, alienation of office work, new-age remedies, frantic seeking for the new cool, and the abandonment of rational argument in favour of following the confident leader. In short, the novel itself is a fair stab at fulfilling U.’s brief for his Great Report.

U’s flitting thoughts are always wired to the absurdities and contradictions of the age. (It’s obvious progenitor in this regard is DeLillo’s White Noise, and there are several parts which are strongly reminiscent of that novel.) The reader will often be in doubt whether the narrator has stumbled on a brilliant insight, or whether he is swallowing his own snake oil. At other points the reader will be jumping up to check facts on Google. (Is it true that there are no Starbucks in Seattle, only stealth outlets owned by the company?)

Rarely have I read a book so visually intricate and intellectually stimulating, and it well deserved its place on the shortlist for the Man Booker, and more especially on the shortlist for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction.

1/3/2016

Aiden O’Reilly’s short fiction collection Greetings Hero is published by Honest Publishing UK.

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