By allowing us to extend our perception to multiple images simultaneously, the image pattern creates a sense of multiplicity, a feeling of participation in a larger, more complex process than our experience in the present allows. That is one of the great rewards of reading, and when a story is crafted with the care and attention to detail like Satin Island, then sometimes, for brief moments, we might recognize something familiar, yet beyond; something we know is true, yet are unable to express. —Frank Richardson
ATIN ISLAND BEGINS, appropriately, with an epigraph from Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Limited Action.” Beyond anticipating themes and motifs, this epigraph is felicitous for two reasons: first, Mallarme’s symbolist poetry prefigures Tom McCarthy’s multilayered, intricately patterned novels, and second, like the French poet, McCarthy is hailed as his generation’s avant-garde. Now in his mid-forties and living in London, Tom McCarthy has been described as inheriting the literary mantle of unconventional authors such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Maurice Blanchot, and J. G. Ballard.
Author of the acclaimed novels Men in Space, Remainder (winner of the 2007 Believer Book Award), and C (shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and Walter Scott Prize), McCarthy has also published a book of literary criticism (Tintin and the Secret of Literature) and numerous essays. In 2001 McCarthy, with friend Simon Critchley founded the International Necronautical Society, a “semi-fictitious” organization of artists, writers, and philosophers that promotes a diverse range of art projects. McCarthy calls the INS “a literary project . . . played out through the art world.” McCarthy’s newest novel, Satin Island, a palimpsest of meditations on life in the twenty-first century, is as ambitious as it is rewarding.
For now, let’s call the book a novel, the only subtitle not crossed out on the cover of the US edition. Some of the nixed ones? Confession. Treatise. Report. Confession comes closest, for that is the tone that the first-person narrator, known only as U., adopts. U., a 40-something man living in London in contemporary time, an anthropologist by training, works as a corporate ethnographer for “the Company” – the type of business whose least sinister operation might be the personalized pop up ads on your web browser. Consider how U. describes the Company’s Koob-Sassen Project:
It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring. (12)
Between U.’s single-initial name and organizations like the Company, the influence of Kafka’s legacy is clear.
Apart from his daily work for the Company, U. has been charged with creating a “Great Report,” a document that will be, in the words of U.’s boss Peyman, “The First and Last Word on our age,” a summary vision of the world, a “brand-new navigation manual.” Flummoxed by his exuberant boss’s request, U. spends most of his time compiling vast dossiers on subjects as diverse as oil spills, parachuting accidents, and the rituals of native Pacific Islanders. Eventually, his research begins to merge with the assignment, and he becomes lost in a quest of anthropological hermeneutics:
What fluid, morphing hybrid could I come up with to be equal to that task? What medium, or media, would it inhabit? Would it tell a story? If so, how, and about what, or whom? If not, how would it all congeal, around what cohere? (71)
U.’s attempt to complete Peyman’s mandate is the nominal plot of the novel. The chronology moves toward a notional present from a moment a few years in the past when U. was stranded in the Turin airport. Except for a few dips into the past, the narrative time is linear. The novel’s form, although of the memoir type, feels scientific, like entries in a lab notebook: fourteen numbered chapters are subdivided into numbered paragraphs designated by decimals (e.g. 1.1, 1.2). There are no other section breaks. The only dialogue is summarized by U. or reported within his paragraphs without quotation marks. As arid as this may seem, it is this very style that McCarthy mines for this novel’s greatest rewards. Like a Chuck Close portrait composed of a thousand painted squares, McCarthy’s mosaic of paragraphs has a gestalt quality – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Call me U.
McCarthy said in a 2011 interview (The White Review) that his character Serge in C, like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses or Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, is “a kind of prism.” The same could be said of U. – he filters information. When he introduces himself, McCarthy’s protagonist borrows the form of another famous eyewitness with the sentence “Call me U.” But U.’s occupation forces him beyond mere observation of the world; Peyman expects him to synthesize a meaningful interpretation of it. Inevitably, U. fails at his Great Report, for what could U. achieve that would satisfy Peyman’s requirements? Uncertain how to proceed, U. moves from day to day through a haze of depression and mounting obsessions (a signature characteristic for McCarthy’s protagonists). Besides his boss, U.’s only interactions are with his colleague Daniel, his friend Petr, and his girlfriend Madison. U.’s tone can be terse, clinical, the tone of a scientist. For example, when Peyman texts him the news the Company won the lucrative Koob-Sassen Project, U. replies:
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. (7)
But this isn’t U.’s sole voice, and while he may be a scientist by training, his musings are by turn philosophical:
People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality . . . (3)
as I slipped into a flecked and grainy sleep, oil seemed to lie around the very cloud-patches the wing-lights were illuminating: to lurk within and boost their volume, as though absorbed by them, and to seep out from them as well, in blobs and globules that hovered on their ledges, sat about their folds and crevasses, like so many blackened cherubs. (11)
That final spur, the one that carried skydivers across the threshold, out into the abyss, was faith: faith that it all—the system, in its boundless and unquantifiable entirety—worked, that they’d be gathered up and saved. (78)
Although haunted by the ghost of Camus’s Meursault, especially in his apathetic interpersonal relationships, U.’s character is buoyed up by sentiments such as these and his genuine desire to find meaning.
A Choir of Images
Several of U.’s favorite subjects are present in the quotes above. The subjects and words McCarthy chose are not accidental. Regarding Ulysses, McCarthy said:
Everything becomes this huge network in which any division between outer space and inner space collapses. There’s a total consistency and continuity. And I love that – it’s what life is actually like. It’s what literature should try and somehow produce. (The White Review)
In Satin Island, McCarthy delineates his own network. U. is obsessed with buffer zones and with domains both outer and inner: a parachutist falls from the sky, oil bubbles up from below, and both meet in the present. Between the poles of outer and inner extremes, U. searches for connections, for the networks that link them together. He compiles dossiers and connects literal strings between images pinned to his walls. The question is, will some “this is it” coalesce? This is what Peyman wants for the Great Report. He wants U. to “name what’s taking place right now” (57).
McCarthy is a master weaver of recurring images, and he does so to great effect in Remainder and C. Repetition of words and ideas in a novel creates patterns of images that lend structural coherence to the story and suffuse it with a poetic quality. Satin Island is a tour de force of interwoven image patterns. The central image pattern is of something lying beneath, some mystery that might be revealed. On the first page, U. is shown thinking about the shroud of Turin, and how the image of Christ (or so it was supposed at the time) emerged after people examined photographic negatives. U. tells us that “We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen” – a metaphor that recurs at the end, framing the novel. If the allusion to Corinthians is extended, then U. might hope, despite seeing the world through a glass darkly, to someday see clearly. Indeed, this is his primary conflict: how to make sense of the world, to see it clearly, to reveal the underlying, secret substrata of existence. While working in his basement office U. hears noises through the ventilation, finds patterns in them, and indulges his imagination:
Sometimes these patterns took on visual forms, like those that so enchanted eighteenth-century scientists when they scattered salt on Chladni plates and, exposing these to various acoustic stimuli, observed the intricate designs that ensued – geometric and symmetrical and so generally perfect that they seemed to betray a universal structure lurking beneath nature’s surface . . . (15) [my emphasis]
Such musings on underlying structures, on something hidden beneath a surface occur repeatedly throughout the novel. For example, U.’s job is to “lay bare some kind of inner logic” (21); regarding his hero, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. writes:
Describing sunsets, he saw spun webs of lit-up vapour [sic], a whole architecture of reflective strands that both revealed and hid the source that lay behind them; even landscape seemed to him to withhold, in its layers and strata, some kind of infrastructural master-meaning of which any one layer was a partial, distorted transposition. (28)
Revealed patterns, buried layers, structures hidden beneath – this is the language of McCarthy’s central image pattern. U. imagines giving a presentation on oil spills, claiming “Beneath all these dramas . . . there lies a source code” (103). The oil image repeats often; here in context with Petr’s cancer:
the dark lumps were still pushing up from under the skin’s surface, clouding it . . . . If Petr’s flesh was turning black it was because he’d let the world get right inside him, let it saturate him, until he was so full of it that it was bursting out again . . . (133-134)
All the Company’s actions “creep under the radar,” beneath the perception of the people it affects. Even in rare descriptions of physical movement, McCarthy capitalizes on the pattern: “We pulled into a docking bay beneath this building, parked beneath huge arches and got out” (93). Intersecting with this backbone, this infrastructure, are the recurring images of a different type of mystery, the mystery of faith: parachutists and Vanuatans taking literal leaps of faith; the shroud of Turin; Muslim pilgrims performing the Hajj.
From U.’s obsessions McCarthy composes a mosaic of images that forms the backbone of the novel. This harmony of images, more than a conventional plot, gives Satin Island its coherence and its poetry. Direct assaults on the mysterious, the ineffable, rarely yield anything but sentimentality. The image patterns that McCarthy creates are a method of approaching the mysteries of the human condition – what U. tries and fails to tap – indirectly.
By allowing us to extend our perception to multiple images simultaneously, the image pattern creates a sense of multiplicity, a feeling of participation in a larger, more complex process than our experience in the present allows. That is one of the great rewards of reading, and when a story is crafted with the care and attention to detail like Satin Island, then sometimes, for brief moments, we might recognize something familiar, yet beyond; something we know is true, yet are unable to express.
McCarthy has spoken of Remainder, C, and Men in Space in terms of the protagonists’ failed transcendence (Interview Magazine). And so it goes for U. But his loss is our gain, for in the wake of his failure to write the Great Report, comes “this not-Report you’re reading now, this offslew of the real, unwritten manuscript” (114). Where U. fails, McCarthy succeeds in letting image patterns work their peculiar magic. Here we can stretch our sensory perception from oil oozing from a cracked pipeline to the cancerous tissue bubbling up under Petr’s skin; here we can imagine a parachutist plummeting to his death at the same time a Vanuatan plunges off a tower in a jungle clearing; here we begin with the image of Christ emerging from the shroud of Turin and end with the image of a ferryboat crossing the river Styx. Here we might make a connection with the mysterious, with some meaning lying beneath the surface of our lives. McCarthy leaves us, not with a confession, manifesto, treatise, or essay, but “a novel.” He might equally have borrowed another line from Mallarmé’s poem and called this peek behind the curtain “a choir of pages.”
Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.
- Hear McCarthy reading this excerpt in a clip from a promotional film made by the author in collaboration with Johan Grimonprez.↵