Book review: Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy. Picture: Adrian Lourie
Tom McCarthy. Picture: Adrian Lourie
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TOM McCarthy is one of the very few novelists currently working in English whose work makes the form of the novel itself buckle, yaw, cleave, meld and fuse into new forms entirely.

His novels may be influenced by certain continental trends in philosophy, but he is not that etiolated creature, “a novelist of ideas”.

The novel of ideas in English, even in the hands of a writer as remarkable as Iris Murdoch, has a regrettable tendency to be full of dinner parties where different characters represent different philosophical positions; it is generally just a languorous symposium. McCarthy’s books make you think, rather than tell you what people have thought.

His first novel, Remainder, was about a damaged amnesiac’s quest to recreate perfectly the one memory he thought he had: it was about repetition and compulsion, and was almost an interrogation of Einstein’s dictum that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It was followed by Men In Space (in a typically McCarthy twist, his sequel was written before his debut), a picaresque chase after a stolen icon in post-communist, post-history, post-ideology Mitteleuropa; a kind of Good Soldier Svejk with former astronauts and anarchists.

When C – his novel about noise and signals, interference and silence, which featured homages to Modernist writers such as Thomas Mann, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Ford Madox Ford – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, McCarthy was already established as a leading light in experimental fiction, not least as he was Exhibit A in a weird literary custody battle for the soul of the novel between Zadie Smith and James Wood. (Exhibit B, by the way, was Joseph O’Neill).

Any honest reviewer occasionally has an odd emotion: a kind of dull pang which combines delight, fear, giddy expectation and aching nausea. The excitement at the proof arriving was tempered by that old worry – what if it’s no good? Maybe it would be better not to read it. Sydney Smith, the great writer for the Edinburgh Review, once quipped that he never read a book before reviewing it, as it tended to prejudice him so. But I opened Satin Island. Then I read it in a sitting. It is probably McCarthy’s most accessible work, but that does not diminish its intellectual glint and rigour nor its stifled empathy and halting humanity. It is a bit like going from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to his Eighth: the vaulting grandeur is replaced with nervy elegance, the sheer ambition cedes to sly precision.

Satin Island begins with U, an anthropologist working for the Company, which has just secured the Koob-Sassen Project, a project “formed of many other projects, linked to many other projects – which renders it well nigh impossible to say where it began and ended, to discern its ‘content’, bulk or outline”. U is integral to the Company – he can go anywhere, observe anyone, write anything – and marginal; stuck in the basement listening to the ventilation pipes.

U has written a book on 1990s rave culture which became moderately popular. He is a man who knows about the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the jeans-maker Levi Strauss: more importantly, he knows the connection between them. As the novel progresses, he makes more and more connections. An oil spill, a sabotaged parachute, roller-blading in Paris, the Turin Shroud, crowds in Mecca and Lagos, cargo cults and corporations; they all begin to cohere, as if there were an understandable pattern behind everything. This kind of hyper-hermeneutics, a vertigo at how enmeshed, imbricated and interwoven things are, and a parallel fantasia that one pull of one string unravels every knot – is becoming more and more prevalent in fiction. It’s in China Miéville and Nicola Barker, Will Self and Scarlett Thomas, Lauren Beukes and Andrew Crumey. Is it a response to our world of webs, and a fear that it is made by spiders we cannot see? Time will tell.

What makes Satin Island different to McCarthy’s previous work is that he seems to be channelling a very different series of influences. If C was a paean to Modernism, this work seems to be a quiet panegyric to those other Edwardians. The scene where U’s girlfriend finally reveals what happened when she was in Turin is as eerie and shuddering as the end of GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, another novel haunted by conspiracies veiled in paradoxes. EM Forster’s Howard’s End memorably pleaded “only connect”, while his more seemingly conventional later novel, A Passage To India, had, in the Marabar Caves, the meaningless horror of everything connecting.

Finally, there is the title. U dreams of Satin Island, “the feeder, filterer, overflow-manager, the dirty, secreted-away appendix without which the body-proper couldn’t function; yet it seemed, in its very degradation, more weirdly opulent than the capital it served”. Waking, he connects it to Staten Island, once the world’s largest landfill. When he ends up there, he is already thinking about statins that lower cholesterol, and as people pass in front of the sign, reading it as “State is here”, “Sans land”, “Stain”. There’s one word he doesn’t see: Satan. Yet who offered all knowledge?

Simon Critchley, McCarthy’s long-term collaborator on their “semi-fictional” movement, the International Necronautical Society, has recently been writing about the “infinite demand” of Christianity and the “faith of the faithless”. Is the radical swerve now away from materialist, secular, comprehensible, mechanistic world-view and towards the ineffable? McCarthy, having dealt with the machine of Modernism, now has to face the ghost in the machine as well. He is the man to do it.

Satin Island

Tom McCarthy

Jonathan Cape, £16.99