In a notorious essay on Joseph O’Neill and Tom McCarthy for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith outlines two divergent roads for the novel: lyrical realism and the avant-garde. Most fiction falls under the category of lyrical realism; it is the legacy of Gustave Flaubert, a mimetic attempt to represent life with a focus on detail and the consciousness of characters. The avant-garde pushes against lyrical realism and, instead, tries to find new forms and modalities for writing fiction.

Satin Island

Tom McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf
February 17, 2015


Smith eulogizes the coming death of lyrical realism, in the mode of which O’Neill’s novel “Netherland” is written, and prophesies the renaissance of a new avant-garde written in the mode of McCarthy’s first novel “Remainder,” a novel that offers “a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.”

Since the publication of Smith’s essay, McCarthy, for better or worse, has been seen as a torchbearer for the avant-garde, blazing the way for a new form of novelistic expression after the apparent death of postmodernism. McCarthy’s newest novel, “Satin Island,” bears testament to his ability and place as a writer of the avant-garde. If you’re looking for a page-turner, go somewhere else. For McCarthy’s narrator sums it up: “ Events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now.”

The narrator of McCarthy’s novel is U, an anthropologist turned corporate ethnographer who idolizes Claude Levi-Strauss and who has been assigned to write “The Great Report” at an enigmatic corporation known as the “Company.”

At the beginning of the novel, he announces himself, “Call me U.” ironically evoking the opening of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” “Call me Ishmael” Whereas, when Ishmael says this, it is an act of self-assertion, U uses this utterance as an act of self elision; U is a deliberate pun on “you” along with the prefix u- (as in Utopia), and he is, therefore, both everyman and no man. McCarthy’s narrator is an impressively passive figure, one of those corporate men whose sobriety and vacancy allows him to fit seamlessly into the miasma of corporate life.

The prose McCarthy deploys evinces U’s inauthenticity: It is often blank, cold and expressionless, written more like a memo than a novel. However, the expressive power of McCarthy’s prose comes from its ironic formalization of corporate jargon.

But inauthenticity is U’s greatest characteristic. He is no Huck Finn or Augie March. U’s interest in the murder of an English parachuter and similar incidents across the world leads him to remark that it is “an originally unoriginal event becoming even more unoriginal, and hence even more fascinating.” Within this paradox lies the brilliance of U’s character. He is compelling for how boring he is. He is like every man in fiction: He has memories, impressions, reflections. He walks. He thinks. He has sex. But McCarthy, in a beautifully Beckettian move, removes the veneer of individuation from these characteristics, creating a character remarkable for the absence of personality.

The Great Report sounds a lot like the epic modernist project most notable in the work of Joyce, Pound and Eliot: an attempt to capture all of culture within a single text. However, U comes to two conclusions: that this report is either unwritable or it has already been written. He fears that the Great Report has been written, not by a single author or even some Pynchonian syndicate, but “by a neutral and indifferent binary system that had given rise to itself, moved by itself and would perpetuate itself.” This is post-digital fear of being subsumed into a totality wherein he lacks the control to act or interpret that motivates him to re-conceptualize both the Koob-Sassen Project and the company and to begin a search for a new kind of meaning.

At the Company, U works on the Koob-Sassen Project, the nature of which he is not legally allowed to disclose. However, he does not seem to know what this project constitutes or even his own role in it. All he does know is that there isn’t “a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or another, touched on, penetrated, changed.”

In this project McCarthy captures the ubiquitous and invisible effect of corporations: they are so prominent as to be unnoticeable. Furthermore, in a comic passage, he elucidates the ability of corporate capitalism to take the critiques raised against it and absorb them for its own purposes. Think of Che Guevara T-shirts or the Rolling Stones songs played on car commercials. Working for Levi’s, U takes the concepts fold and rip from the French Leftist philosophers Deleuze and Badiou and, taking out “all the revolutionary shit,” reframes them to sell jeans. As U notes, “The machine could swallow anything.”

The title of the novel comes from a dream U has. Satin Island (Staten Island without the first “t”) appears to him in a rather baroque dream of the detritus of civilization; it is “an excrescence, a protuberance, a lump: an island.” He imagines it as “the other place, the feeder, filterer, overflow-manager, the dirty, secreted-away appendix without which the other body-proper couldn’t function.” The byproduct of civilization, its effluvia, is what signifies it; it is the very sign that gives it meaning.

“Satin Island” is a strange and exciting book. McCarthy’s novel is one of the rare avant-garde novels that doesn’t fall into the trap of incoherence. A new path for the novel is certainly not yet visible, but the more McCarthy continues to write, the more illuminated this road will become.

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