Review

Tom McCarthy keeps protagonist and readers guessing

In 'Satin Island' Tom McCarthy continues his exploration of the search for meaning in the modern age

In his first novel since "C," nominated for the Booker Prize in 2010, Tom McCarthy continues his exploration of the search for meaning in the modern age while subverting what a novel can be with the story of a nonexistent text and how it doesn't come to be written.

The protagonist of "Satin Island," who goes by the name U., works in the corporate sector, but his duties are a bit of a mystery.

"What do I do? I am an anthropologist. Structures of kinship; systems of exchange, barter and gift; symbolic operations lurking on the habitual and the banal: identifying these, prying them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light — that's my racket."

At the novel's opening, U. is assigned to the Koob-Sassen Project by his boss, Peyman, a man who keeps the lights on and the wheels greased by uttering cryptic aphorisms: "Some spaces of ignorance do not need to be filled in." Indeed. U.'s role in the project is to author a document known informally as "The Great Report" that will capture the zeitgeist of our times — whatever that means.

In "Satin Island," McCarthy gives the trope of the reluctant detective a fresh turn. Like a clerk in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," U. works in a cramped basement office with an enormous ventilation system. He compiles "dossiers," some for clients, some for his own amusement, hoping that a flash of insight will cause them to "hove into alignment."

When U. goes to see Peyman for clarity about "The Great Report" he is told that "It will find its shape," which U. finds less than reassuring. "As I listened to him talk about Koob-Sassen, it all made sense, even if it didn't. Even the fact that it didn't quite make sense made sense, while he was talking."

When he's not working, the narrator sleeps with a woman named Madison and drinks with a friend dying of cancer. For an anthropologist, he is remarkably incurious about these people. To say that U. spends a great deal of time in his head would be an understatement. Like Leopold Bloom (does U. stand for Ulysses, a postmodern everyman?), U. has a rich fantasy life. Here he is basking in the applause to a talk he imagines giving:

"Thank you. Thank you. I'd step back from the lectern and begin to leave the podium, but the cheering would be so clamorous that I'd be forced to come back time and again to take another bow. Delegates would be surging forwards, address books open, business cards stretched out towards me, their numbers overwhelming the security personnel who tried to hold them back. Thank you, I'd say. Thank you once again. I'll see you in the sauna. Thus passed the week."

U. doesn't have a deadline, but he knows that Peyman will want to see something sometime soon: "… the Great Report would not be something that was either to-come or completed, in-the-past: it would be all now. Present-tense anthropology; anthropology as way-of-life."

McCarthy's style is at times reminiscent of David Foster Wallace's stories of characters caught in the gears of consumer capitalism coupled with the whimsy of Jean Philippe Toussaint's literary situational comedies in which every detail is microanalyzed. "Satin Island" also owes something to the dot-com-era work novel; an air of catastrophic contemporaneousness hangs over the proceedings as U. is sustained by and trapped in a system he knows cannot possibly last. "The Company's logo was a giant crumbling tower. It was Babel, of course, the old Biblical parable."

Frustrated by the impossibility of his project, U. turns to Madison, who is just as unknowable and happy to stay that way.

"If knowing everything about a person were the be-all and end-all of human interaction, she said, we'd just carry memory sticks around and plug them into one another when we met. We could have our little ports, slits on our sides, like extra mouths, instead of talking or screwing or whatever. Would you like that, Mr. Anthropologist?"

Madison's refusal to be anthropologized, if you will, signals a dark turn in the novel. Until this point, U.'s investigations have been imbued with the accouterments of corporate ease: sleek hired cars, anonymous conference rooms and airplane tickets that arrive with little fanfare in one's email inbox. But as any anthropologist knows, where there is commerce there is inequity, and where there is inequity there is violence.

As U. insists on peeling the layers and unpacking the system, he uncovers a truth that doesn't fit the shape of the narrative he has been hired to create and could very well bring the whole apparatus down. And wouldn't that be a shame? McCarthy seems to say with a wink and a nod.

Ruland is the author of "Forest of Fortune."

Satin Island
A Novel

Tom McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf: 208 pp., $24

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