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Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

How many novels can truly be called epoch-defining? Ulysses, obviously. Don Quixote, War and Peace and maybe The Sorrows of Young Werther. Beyond Europe’s insular frontiers, The Tale of Genji defined its epoch way back in 11th century Japan. Though only a handful of novels ever achieve it, something about the genre seems to lend itself to the job of encapsulating or incarnating the eras we live in.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is certainly an epoch-defining novel, at least inasmuch as it revolves around the task of defining our epoch.

Its protagonist, a youngish man named U, works for a bafflingly large corporation, and is commissioned by his superiors to write “the Great Report”. This document, U is told, needs to be “the First and Last Word on our age”, and will “name what’s taking place right now”.

It’s interesting that McCarthy sees this as a task not for a novelist, but for an anthropologist. What qualifies U for this mission is his background in ethnology: he’s a former academic, and a disciple of the great Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology. U’s Great Report, his boss tells him, must “sum the tribe up” – his tribe, our tribe, your tribe. Satin Island, then, is a novel of colossal ambitions.

Once, we expected our novelists to harbour these ambitions as standard. It was simply understood that a Zola or a Steinbeck or an Orwell or a Camus wrote books with the aim of epitomising their zeitgeist – showing us truths about it we all knew, but couldn’t see. Nowadays, our novelists seem content turning out none-too-gripping tales of turbulent lives in Tudor courts, or fantasy kingdoms, or 21st century multicultural Britain. Whatever happened to the sense of a bigger picture?

That’s not to say that Satin Island is a state-of-the-nation saga, in the vein, say, of Jonathan Franzen. McCarthy resolutely deprives his readers of the comforting paraphernalia of conventional plot, memorable characters, and the satisfaction of closure. It’s as if he blames the trappings of fiction for the slump in the aspirations of the novel.

Instead, Satin Island takes its form from the numbered paragraphs of a social scientist’s report, probably because anthropology hasn’t (yet) given up on the idea that it needs to tell us something worth reading about the way people inhabit their world. This is a novel that is sober and clear-sighted about the prospects for fiction in today’s culture – a novel suggesting that today’s novelists are probably the last people you’d seriously ask about such things.

Tom McCarthy. Penguin Random House

Through anthropology, Susan Sontag once wrote, Lévi-Strauss came to see that subjectivity could be translated into purely formal code. Satin Island has the bravery to suggest that our subjectivity can no longer be decoded. I’ve met McCarthy a few times. When our paths first crossed, back in the early 2000s, he was already obsessed with encryption and transmission. This would become the most explicit theme of his last novel, C. Satin Island takes this idea further: U can’t figure out which bits of our world he’s supposed to decipher, and which he isn’t.

And so we follow U on a series of directionless meditations on the beauty of oil slicks, speculations on the existence of a global suicide cult among sky-divers, and recollections of police brutality at the notorious G8 summit in Genoa.

At one point, he muses that the flow of traffic circling a roundabout traces the same pattern as the buffering symbol on his computer screen, which traces the same pattern as the never-ending ouroboros, the ancient cyclical symbol of a serpent with its tail in its mouth, continually devouring and being reborn from itself. That’s not a bad metaphor for the whole book. It’s an odyssey through the debris of today’s world, the episodes of which are as disjointed as an evening spent browsing the web or channel-flicking.

Charged with summing up contemporaneity, U finds the task impossible, for two good reasons. In the first place, no anthropologist or novelist could hope to achieve an overview of the complexity of present-day life. Second, the Great Report on the contemporary is already being written by the software that tracks and tabulates even the most humdrum forms of our activity – but it’s written in a form only readable by other software.

The point is that this epoch – whether we call it “postmodern” or “altermodern” or “digimodern” or whatever the coinage of the month is – won’t allow us to define it. And that is what defines it. U’s Great Report isn’t so much a heroic failure as an anti-heroic one.

The spirit of the age and the role of fiction in it: McCarthy’s subject matter is nothing less than this. Most publishers simply assume that today’s readers don’t want to bother with such things. Most recent Booker judges seem happy with this status quo. If they want to relegate the novel to the status of the glossy celeb mag, they’re going the right way about it. But if they want to make an epoch-defining statement, then they have no choice but to award the 2015 Man Booker Prize to Satin Island.

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