Terms of Endearment: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

by Will Chancellor

Tom McCarthy’s fourth novel, Satin Island, asks us to consider what’s left in the absence of feeling. McCarthy writes in the tradition of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose collection of essays, For a New Novel, argued that repeating geometric structures should replace psychological depth and the outbursts of passion found in the bourgeois novels of 1950’s France. As an heir determined to invest rather than squander his inheritance, McCarthy has shown, with each book, how to advance the nouveau roman without betraying its core tenets. In fact, we can take the title of McCarthy’s debut, Remainder, as indicative of what’s left over after the plump cake of potential literature is sliced with Robbe-Grillet’s knife. In short, what’s left is a cardboard disk with knife marks like an asterisk; a flattened star with the narrator as an infinitesimal intersection and his intuitive leaps as doomed radii.

Yeah, but seriously, what’s left? Certainly not action. Imagined action, maybe, but not action in a conventional sense. The narrator of Satin Island is a man, referred to only as U., earning a living wage as the “chief ethnographer” for a global consulting firm. He is given total autonomy to compose a Great Report on our times. “What do I do? I’m an anthropologist. Structures of kinship; systems of exchange, barter and gift; symbolic operations lurking on the flipside of the habitual and the banal: identifying these, prising them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light — that’s my racket. When these events (events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now) took place…” All praise be to the headhunter who found U. Tom McCarthy’s dream job: being paid to sit in a room, contemplate minute details like denim weaves in France and proto-bungee jumpers in Vanuatu — both examples taken from Satin Island — and assemble these findings in a report that will define his generation, if not all generations. The action of Satin Island is the line from one of U.’s insights to the next. Structure and linkages between ideas take precedence over story — think of a crime drama like True Detective and remove everything but the scenes where the hero is clipping articles, slapping a file folder excitedly, and taping photographs to a corkboard. In the acknowledgments to Satin Island, McCarthy writes, “Satin Island gestated during a 2010 residency at the International Artists Studio Programme in Stockholm, which I spent projecting images of oil spills onto huge white walls and gazing at them for days on end.” All of McCarthy’s work is highly structured and the inclusion of this detail seems like no accident, but rather an aid in visualizing U. as action hero in the assembly of the Great Report.

Tom McCarthy has written modernist, structural fiction from the start, but details that once seemed minor have grown in importance with each new work. A former soccer referee named Anton in McCarthy’s first written, but second published, novel, Men in Space, explicitly stated the importance of geometry: “Anton recalls his refereeing days in Bulgaria: the trick was to see all the near-identical shirts, repeated runs, sudden departures, switches and loop-backs as one single movement, parts of a modulating system which you had to watch from outside, or above, or somewhere else.” Lines, squares, arcs, these are the things that create a game and transform a cast of uniformed scrubs into players. Any group of characters, fictional or not, waits “for the moment when the whistle will once more release them into game time, into pure geometries of green and white.” It is the geometries that we must observe, not the players, because the men are without qualities and the network is the only hope we have or arriving at meaning.

Remainder presented the absence of feeling as a potential source of drama; the text does little to dissuade the first-time reader from thinking it’s a comeback story. My thoughts when first reading it were: ‘Okay, maybe the narrator’s apathy is a cortical deficit. This poor guy just got beaned by a falling satellite and his limbic system is rattled to say the least. But his Project can save him! Stella can, nay, must get her groove back!’ That reading of Remainder doesn’t really pan out. We do go from, “I felt neutral,” in chapter one to a refrain of “I felt happy,” in the closing scene, but the nameless narrator’s happiness is unrecognizably bizarre.

Serge, the protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, C, is acutely aware of his place in this universe. While fighting as an aviator in World War I, Serge gets flattened. “Within reaches of this space become pure geometry…he’s the clamp that holds the pencil to the compass, moving as one with the lead; he is the lead, smearing across the paper’s surface to become geometry himself…” Just as Edwin Abbott did in his speculative novel Flatland, McCarthy literally removes a dimension from the story; in a paragraph he takes us from the cockpit of a fighter plane in a dogfight to a pencil-drawn arc on a sheet of paper — and somehow it’s fascinating.

Satin Island, explicitly a novel about writing a novel about writing a novel… makes clear that U. will not be ‘feeling’ much of anything. U.’s reaction to an ecstatic text from his boss that they secured a contract: “The Project was the Koob-Sassen Project; we’d been going after the contract for some time. Good, I texted. The answer came more quickly this time: Good? That’s it? I deliberated for a few seconds, then sent back a new message: Very good.” U. relating a tryst: “When I arrived at Madison’s, we had sex.” And finally, U. receiving news of Petr’s cancer:

Hey, he said: you know that goiter they were going to take out? Yes, I replied. Well, he told me, they did; and then they cut it up to look at it and it was cancerous. Shit, I said. Yes, he said. Good thing they took it out, I said. No, U., he said, the goiter’s just an indicator: I’ve got thyroid cancer. Shit, I said again. Yes, he repeated — but it’s not that bad. How come? I asked. Because, he said, as cancers go, thyroid is a pretty lowly one: a lickspittle of cancers, a cadet. It’s almost never fatal. What do you have to do, I asked. I have to drink a bunch of iodine, he said. It soaks up all the bad cells and destroys them. It will make me radioactive. I’ll be going round town oozing rays and isotopes, like a plutonium rod. Far out, I said. Yes, he said: I’ll be able to look straight through girls’ clothes and see what colour underwear they’ve got on. Really? I asked. Of course not, he said. But I will ooze rays. Far out, I said again; I didn’t know what else to say. Yeah, he repeated, far out.

Words, like the blind moles they are, burrow into the dirt before all of us when we’re faced with catastrophically bad news. Does that make us monsters? Hardly. That’s not what McCarthy highlights in this scene. There’s more going on here than being at a loss for words. U. is rejecting emotion by failing to respond to Petr’s levity in any kind of humane way. In fact, we see this empathic blindness in U.’s hypothesis that the exterior world is carcinogenic and the likely culprit of Petr’s thyroid cancer: “The stuff of the world is black. If Petr’s flesh was turning black it was because he’d let the world get right inside him, let it saturate him…”

I never thought I would find myself arguing the importance of authorial intent, but I think knowing what McCarthy is up to helps readers understand Satin Island. After four novels that could be described as an emotional wasteland, the question arises, How intentional is the lack of empathy in the novels of Tom McCarthy? I’d say very. And, if we read his books from an Eames chair in the library of his French literary estate, we can better see McCarthy’s unique contribution to the nouveau roman: these books are funny and Satin Island is his funniest work to date.

McCarthy’s intentionality is most evident in three successive paragraphs near the novel’s climax. U. has become preoccupied with a newspaper story of a parachutist’s death in which the authorities are considering foul play. “As I held the page above my knees, sat on a tube train shuttling through a tunnel, the question of the murder’s true location resolved itself for me: I realized the crime scene, properly speaking, was the sky. Or, to flip this one back out as well: the sky was a crime scene.” For half of the novel, U. speculates as to motive and opportunity and finally arrives at a brilliant solution to the logical problem of the murdered parachutist. Laughing, we rejoice with him, “I’d made a genuine discovery, a breakthrough, on the scale of Schrödinger’s or Einstein’s. Of this I was quite certain. Fuck! I shouted, one more time; then I sat down, shot through with revelations. The year would be a glorious one.” McCarthy then juxtaposes that mania with, “Petr was admitted to hospital in mid-January. The cancer had spread all round his body. It was particularly bad in his lungs.” The fluid the doctors extract from his lungs is compared to Cherryade and the smudged and blackened windows of the hospital U. is visiting, “upset me, much more than the fact of Petr’s illness did.” U. is livid about the windows, indifferent to his friend other than as a source of metaphor for the Great Report, and then, “The next week brought a massive disappointment: I discovered that my parachutist theory didn’t work.” It strains credulity to believe that this contrast of insight and emptiness is accidental. And, when this potentially frustrating section of the novel is read in light of McCarthy’s intention to remove feeling, a character who appears impossibly callous becomes hilarious.

The central conflict of the Satin Island is, Who tampered with the dead skydiver’s rig? This activating incident calls to mind the ill-fated hot air balloon in Enduring Love. But, importantly, McCarthy takes his novel in the opposite direction of Ian McEwan, who was exploring the emotional impact and psychological ramifications of watching that fall. (Were McCarthy to write McEwan’s novel, he would be interested in the five men, as vectors, converging on a balloon in the field and, when the event was over, would reveal the precise origins of the reeds woven to make the balloon’s wicker basket — and, somehow, it would be fascinating.) Unlike McEwan, who moves as quickly as possible from the geometric to the human, McCarthy obsesses on the vertical and, in this way, advances the nouveau roman, adding a third dimension to a largely two dimensional world.

Satin Island begins with U. observing an oil spill, and that billowing oil resurfaces throughout every chapter of the novel, “Earth wells back up and reveals itself; nature’s hidden nature gushes forth.” Petr’s cancer cells are sent to Greece for a lab screening to find a new cytotoxic agent. They resonate with Jaffa-orange extract which leads U., in a characteristic intuitive leap, to envision burning oil-wells in the Middle East, “their smoke-plumes blackening the sky — and blackening the orange groves as they drifted across these, leaving tarry deposits on trees’ barks, on leaves, and on the fruit itself. When that scene came to me, when I pictured all its hatred, all its violence, all its blackness being injected into Petr, I knew — instinctively and with complete certainty — that he was going to die.” Oil as death, literally fossilized death, rising up to intrude on our flat world and a parachutist with a doomed rig falling making the sky a crime scene. This tension of the world above pushing down and the world below pushing up flattens the reader into McCarthy’s cardboard disc, which justifies the geometry of the nouveau roman in a new and exciting way. Anyone who appreciates beautifully crafted sentences will find the same delights here as in his previous novels, but readers willing to surrender to McCarthy’s idiosyncratic conceptions of story will be flattened.

Satin Island

by Tom McCarthy

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