The task is ambitious, amorphous, maybe the tiniest bit impossible. In Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island,” a London anthropologist by the name of U. is asked to write a document called the Great Report.
“The First and Last Word on our age,” explains his boss, Peyman, a global player who hires others to feed him ideas, which he then feeds into the culture. “What I want you to do,” he tells U., “is name what’s taking place right now.”
“To name it?” U. asks. “[L]ike the princess does with Rumpelstiltskin in the fairytale?”
As it goes for our narrator U., so it goes for McCarthy in “Satin Island,” a strange, seductive, many-tentacled new novel that manages in barely 200 pages to name rather a lot of what’s taking place right now — which is to say, what ails us.
Part social critique, part satire, it examines the peculiar disconnectedness that infects our ultra-wired world, and it casts a gimlet eye on colluding forces that, unbeknownst to us, are shaping the way we live.
The plot, insofar as there is one, concerns U.’s efforts to write the Great Report. He is, however, a great procrastinator, and his job at the Company — a high-end consultancy that spins narratives for clients around the world — leaves him plenty of time for “drifting around websites” and assembling dossiers on whatever interests him: parachute accidents, say, or buffering.
That’s despite the Company’s big new contract for a project that is “supra-governmental, supra-national, supra-everything — and infra- too: that’s what made it so effective, and so deadly.” U. declines to provide details, though “there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed.”
McCarthy’s milieu is cerebral complexity with a sense of humor. Here it brings to mind both Gary Shteyngart, whose “Super Sad True Love Story” (2010) is similarly unsettled by technology, and Michael Frayn, whose “Skios” (2012) so deliciously skewers Davos. The hands-down funniest section of McCarthy’s book is a caricature of a TED conference, though he doesn’t call it that. “The theme of the conference was — for once! — not The Future. It was The Contemporary. This was even worse.”
“Satin Island” is a highly digressive read, with one seemingly unrelated thought leading to the next, none for very long. The book is organized into short chapters, each subdivided into chunks of text nicely sized for our distracted age. But as McCarthy plows ahead, he also loops back and back, and patterns begin to form.
U. is a cool, detached narrator, at least at first. Later, losing it a bit as he grasps for a form for the Great Report, he lights on the notion of Present-Tense Anthropology, to be perpetrated by a secret band of ethnographic agents. At this point he becomes a bit rakish.
Other characters are sketched barely at all. The woman U. is sleeping with? We meet her repeatedly, but we have no sense of her — and if that’s deliberate, it’s still distracting. A couple of conversations between U. and others are transparently means to a narrative end. Even the most sympathetic character, his stricken friend, is included to make a larger point about environmental toxins.
It ought to be more of a disappointment when the payoff we hope for at the finish never materializes. But
McCarthy, like U., relishes systems, schemata, esoteric information; he has some arguments he wants to make. Those take precedence in determining the book’s form, and its rather forced ending is in keeping with that.
Nearly absent, save for the occasional spoken exchange, is sound, a major element in McCarthy’s 2010 novel “C.” To read “Satin Island” is to feel as if you’re observing its story through a pane of glass — which makes odd but perfect sense. It’s the same remove from which we experience so many things in our multiscreened lives, our senses averted from the messiness of human life.