Review – Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

First up, an apology in advance for some of the content of this review, which may well be unbearable. This novel made me rediscover some of my youthful pretensions, a fact that I realised about 15 pages in, when I found myself thinking ‘This is like Tristram Shandy as written by Thomas Pynchon’.

Well, I stand by it. On the offchance that not everyone wasted quite as much of their misspent youth on esoteric literature as I did: Tristram Shandy was described by my favourite university lecturer as ‘the first postmodern novel’, quite some feat when you consider that it was published in 1759. It is, at bottom, a send-up; in an attempt to catalogue absolutely everything about his life, the narrator starts with his birth and – due to the fact that, to explain his birth, you have to go back to how and why his parents met, at least – ends some 500 pages later and five years earlier. Thomas Pynchon wrote one of my favourite cult novels, The Crying of Lot 49, which is a concise little masterpiece of connectivity and conspiracy theories.

The – I was going to say plot, but maybe ‘premise’ would be a better word. The premise of Satin Island is that everything is connected. The main character (and yes, he’s called U, and yes, that’s heavy-handed) is a corporate anthropologist, and has been tasked by his slightly shadowy boss with cataloguing modern life. ‘An anthropologist, she’d said; that’s…exotic. Not at all, I’d replied; I work for an incorporated business, in a basement.’

You’ll note that this novel is short, running to a little under 200 pages, and you may conclude from that that he doesn’t in fact achieve his goal. Well, wait and see. It’s a gloriously comic chronicle of the attempt, though. It’s also sprinkled with some pithy truisms of modern life, particularly modern corporate life, such as this one: ‘Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.’

Duncan White in the Telegraph said this about this novel: ‘Reading a McCarthy novel is like being in a McCarthy novel: everything is part of a fizzing network, the scope of which can never be fully apprehended.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think it’s the use of the word ‘fizzing’ that is perfect; that’s exactly how my brain felt when I was reading this, like it had been dipped in Alka-Seltzer. Passages like this one made me think about things and make connections in a way I hadn’t done before, or perhaps a way I had only done subconsciously (in the way that you read something and stop and say to yourself, surprised, ‘That’s so true!’):

‘Forget family, or ethnic and religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe. My use of the word tribe here isn’t fanciful; it’s modern that’s the dubious term. The logic underlying the corporation is completely primitive.’

So is this one my Booker winner? Hmm, I don’t think so. Before the shortlist was announced I placed this one seventh on my list, so just outside it, but I actually quite like the fact that it got the nod – it’s part of the overall diversity of the shortlist, and I think it deserves it. I don’t hope it wins, though. There are a few places where I found it tripped over itself for trying to be so clever (the references to Schrodinger’s cat were a bit too laboured, for example, and it wasn’t the only place), and I think wherever McCarthy needed to make choices between including something to make him look clever and something else (plot, character, lyricism), the cleverness won. That will limit his audience; I think he knows that, and I don’t think he cares. But I expect the Booker panel will, and I don’t disagree with them for that.

****

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Random bookish thoughts – 21 September

I was going to catch up on all of my reviews tonight, but instead it’s 9pm and I’m still at the office (lovely), so instead I thought I’d take ten minutes to share a few random thoughts that have occurred to me over the weekend.

Man Booker Prize shortlist

I am pretty pleased with this. There was a story in the Guardian asking whether it was the most diverse shortlist in the history of the prize; I’m not learned enough to opine, but it feels pretty diverse to me. It also includes four of my top six, and five of my top seven. Only A Spool of Blue Thread felt – to me – like it wasn’t quite special enough to earn its place. I would have preferred to have seen one of the other family sagas – Did You Ever Have A Family or The Green Road – but it’s a minor quibble. For the first time in a long time, I’d be happy with any of the others as the winner. (There’s also an argument that A Spool of Blue Thread – which I’ve seen described as ‘Anne Tyler’s twentieth and possibly last book’ – is nominated more as a sort of lifetime achievement award than anything else; in which case, fair enough, really.)

On communing with books through food

On Saturday night, I went to a Jamaican restaurant (Turtle Bay, in Bristol) with a couple of friends. I think it may have been the first time I’ve eaten Jamaican food. (It was delicious – jerk prawns, duck rolls, and an explosively hot goat curry with rice and peas.) Turtle Bay is decorated like its walls are made out of shipping containers, and I was thinking about A Brief History of Seven Killings throughout. Yum. (Both the book and the food.)

Contemporary literature fatigue

Towards the end of my Booker experiment, I found I was trending towards giving lower marks to the novels I was reading. Other than a comprehensive re-reading do-over (which – to be clear – I’m not committed enough to do), I have no way of knowing whether it was the books themselves, or a touch of literary malnutrition after reading 13 contemporary novels in a row. Actually, fourteen, as I took a break in the middle and read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls (which oddly enough was longlisted for last year’s prize, and had been sitting on my Kindle for months). The novels themselves were very different to each other, and for the most part they were great, but I was starting to feel the need for something different – non-fiction, maybe, or a big Victorian novel that I could sink into like a hot bath. Which brought me to…

My current read

I am about 650 pages into Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace What-a-great-middle-name Thackeray. It was exactly what I needed – sprawling, historical, and oddly familiar. Parts of it are slightly hard going; like much of Dickens, it was serialised, and in places the padding is not just visible but predominant. But I am very much enjoying watching (well, reading about) Becky Sharp twisting Victorian society around her little finger.