Title: Satin Island
Author: Tom McCarthy
Published: 12th March 2015
Genre: Literary Fiction
Body of review:
Thanks to Net Galley and to Jonathan Cape for providing me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Honestly? I enjoyed the book. On the other hand, would I recommend it? Well, it depends.
The book is narrated in the first person by U., an anthropologist working for a global corporation, which at the beginning of the book has secured a project that will change everything. We never quite know what this project is, and it seems nobody else knows either. U.’s contribution to the project is celebrated, although he has no idea what that contribution might have been. His job also consists of creating a report. A report about everything. He’s at liberty to choose how to do it. But how would you go about it?
U. chats constantly about things that might appear unconnected, but his job —in so far as he knows what it is— seems to be to find connections. He talks about Lévi-Strauss and his thoughts about anthropology and tribes, he collects random data (about oil-spills, parachuting accidents, airports and places…), he goes to conferences and gives lectures he seems totally unprepared for, but his search for meaning is thwarted, and it’s difficult to know if it’s the world’s fault or his own. Perhaps, as he mentions, Lévi-Strauss was right, and eventually it all becomes reduced to either new tribes that get absorbed into the everyday and stop being weird, or tribes that are so weird they are completely meaningless and cannot be processed using our current methodology.
The book reminded me of many things, although I didn’t consciously try to find similarities or connections. Perhaps it’s a side effect of reading it. It did remind me of reading literary theory, in particular the French Theorists (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida), and how much I liked them (although I was in a minority position in the American Literature class, I must admit). There are moments when the absurdity of everything made me think of works like Terry Gillian’s Brazil or some of Kafka’s or Orwell’s books (minus the pathos.) There were moments breathtakingly beautiful and poetic, usually found in something mundane. (Wonderful examples are the descriptions of the videos one of his colleagues’ shoots and later watches on a loop. But other things too: traffic, people skateboarding, dreams, even the Ferry to Staten Island…). And even moments where it seemed as if he’d found an explanation, a brilliant who-done-it that later comes to nothing, much as happens with his thoughts of rebelling and disturbing the set order. Flashes of genius in a pan.
Recently I read a very long book, stylistically interesting, trying to be about everything and for me too full of itself and failing. This is a book that possibly is about everything. Or about nothing (the difference might be only one of degree), and thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously.
My opinion. Yes, I really loved this book. With regards to recommending it… Well, it has no plot, not much on the character side of things, it’s clever, it’s beautifully written, and it might make you think, although probably not reach many (if any) conclusions. So there you are. If with all that you want to read it, I hope you enjoy it. And if not, that’s all right too.
By the way, the book is nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
I checked over my notes and it seems I’ve highlighted a variety of things, but not sure any of them are very exemplary.
‘Me? Call me U.’ (wink to Melville, whom I love.)
In describing how his boss, Peyman, talks about the company:
‘If I had, he’d say, to sum up, in a word, what we (the Company, that is) essentially do, I’d choose not consultancy or design or urban planning, but fiction.’
‘Key to immortality: text messaging.’ At this point in the story, a friend of his had died, and he explains that he’d received a text message from his friend’s phone, sent by his estranged wife, to let him know he’d died. His friend had commented how one of the things that bothered him about dying (he was quite ill with cancer and knew his end was near) was that he wouldn’t be able to tell anybody about it. He felt mortified by the fact that when the most important thing that could ever happen to him, finally happened, he wouldn’t be able to tell anybody. U reflects that if one has a system to automatically send messages on one’s name, forever, (Tweets, blog posts, SMS, social media updates) that would be the equivalent of immortality…
Realistic Characterization: 3/5
Made Me Think: 5/5
Overall enjoyment: 5/5
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
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Olga Núñez Miret