Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Penguin Random House, 2015; 208 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
Tom McCarthy's latest novel, Satin Island, is narrated by U, a corporate ethnographer who juggles his days between working on a prestigious report for The Company and writing his own Great Report on modern life in the vein of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss, his hero, “the twentieth century's most brilliant ethnographer” (19). McCarthy has assembled a smart, layered novel that reads in part as an exploration of the obsession to succeed and build identity, an ethnography on our globalized network, and a meditation on ways to navigate the never-ending gush of information.
The ebb and flow of U's constant riffing on oil spills, repetition, buffering, family, narrative, whatever, and his methodical, hyper-detailed, and sometimes maniacal, research process is one of the more interesting threads through the novel. He watches people and records as much as possible, collecting data—“Write Everything Down” (75). He keeps chaotic dossiers on disparate topics from Japanese game avatars to shark attacks to alien sightings to tattoos “like a detective keeping a file on a quarry that's both colourful and slippery, elusive—a cat burglar, say, or quick-change-artist con-man” (35).
U's riffing and research dovetail nicely throughout, and notably when he digs into a local skydiving accident and uncovers an array of parachutist deaths around the world. According to U, there are no singular events, only variations of archetypes, and these deaths are so common that “the parachutist story, in the stark, predictable simplicity of the circumstance that it presented, in the boldness of its second-handness, was refreshing: in its unashamed lack of originality, it was original” (64). Repetition, replication, duplication, and variation are examined further as U becomes more intrigued by the parachutists:
The replication, or near-replication, of these situations started buzzers ringing all over my head—and made the case of my own parachutist, the unfortunate soul whose death had snagged my interest in the first place, all the more gripping: an originally un-original event becoming even more un-original, and hence even more fascinating. (65)
In that, McCarthy draws on other similarly repetitive/replicative examples that form a pattern, a web of sorts, working with some archetype: a friend with cancer, casual sex, approval from a boss. Satin Island reads like water, always moving, mixing, morphing, replicating and creating slight variations of the original, reworking an idea, finding ways to make it fresh, new entry points for examination. A forever changing project/narrative that calls on/out the reader—we're part of The Great Report as participators, contributors, subjects. McCarthy's Satin Island is a splendidly overwhelming novel deep with insight into the patterns and connections running through our past, present, and future collective civilization.