Satin Island — Tom McCarthy

I didn’t like this book from the start. By the time I reached page 11 I even primed a rant about the various shortcomings I had observed up to that point which included irrelevant information, an overly pretentious vocabulary, and statements which are simply wrong: translating “tragos” as some sort of ceremony involving a sheep rather than “goat” and dating the Turin shroud to “no later than the mid-thirteenth century” instead of “no earlier”, for example. I decided that I would give the book the benefit of the doubt and assume that these were intentional. To McCarthy’s credit, I’m now pretty sure they were. Sadly though, I still don’t think this is a good book.

The central question of the novel, as far as I can tell, is: what happens when the habits and ways of thinking of academia (specifically within the arts and humanities) are applied to a business? The answer appears to be: nonsense. Quelle surprise. McCarthy took a question nobody is asking and showed why nobody is asking it. The narrator, known only as U., is an anthropologist working for a company which specialises in something technological and spends his entire time waffling, going off on tangents, and missing most things that are actually important in favour of seeking a bigger picture. He is thoroughly dislikeable and full of crap. But that says little about academia since U. is almost entirely ignored by the academic community later in the book, and little about business since no business ever worked that way.

McCarthy appears to be reaching for a wider point but failing to grasp it. The book feels as if it could be allegorical: the names of the narrator, U. (like “YOU” but not, get it?) and his boss, Peyman, are clearly symbolic and the whole story gives the impression of offering commentary on the modern world. But the allegory, such as it is, doesn’t cohere. I don’t understand why this book was shortlisted. It was a quick read and I still slightly begrudge the time I spent on it. Moments reminded me of DeLillo’s White Noise: maybe McCarthy is being credited for his ambition? Except DeLillo was actually making a statement in his work. If you haven’t read White Noise and like the idea of a postmodern novel targeting consumerism and academic wankery then I’d encourage you to get a copy: it’s great. And in a completely different league from this pale imitation aiming at nothing.

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