Antonomasia's Reviews > Satin Island

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
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really liked it
bookshelves: modern-british-fiction, novella, decade-2010s, booker, 2015, el
Recommended to Antonomasia by: It's the shortest thing on the 2015 Booker longlist

Narrated by an anthropologist working for a large corporation, I'd guess at some point within the next five years, Satin Island deals with some topics I find fascinating that often get a rough ride on Goodreads: academic analysis of aspects of pop/contemporary culture which are not literary, artistic or scientific; and an area of corporate culture and relations best bracketed under marketing. (I sometimes think I might be the only person on GR who really likes the DFW story 'Mr Squishy', and that that's because a) the crossover between people who know this kind of jargon/have relevant work experience and read this kind of book is very small, and b) even then, hardly anyone else treats it as an enjoyable form of trash culture. A number of years ago, I had a crack-like obsession with reading about marketing segmentation systems; sometimes I found sites where full booklets with dozens of pages of categories and analyses, probably produced only for those in specialist industry areas, had ended up available to the public; locating these was as much of a kick as locating a rare record or book is for a collector. And if you're a proper 'literary' person, that stuff should be anathema, right? )

The short chapterlets (deliberately resembling sections in a long workplace report) often reminded me of the early paragraphs of long Goodreads reviews, the sort where the poster concentrates more on throwing around ideas and general knowledge than on personal stories or emotions: it was very interesting, but I rarely felt the need to note things unless I learnt something knew. (told him that the word tragedy derived from the ancient Greek custom of driving out a sheep, or tragos—usually a black one—in a bid to expiate a city’s crimes. Or Paris, Daniel explained when I commented on the pavement’s texture, has the smoothest street surface of any major European city. It’s because of sixty-eight, he said, the general uprisings, when revolutionaries pulled up all the cobblestones to throw them at the cops. )
More interesting than most novels, (I love non-fiction, but find it harder to review in the depth I'd like, so end up reading more novels) yet these paragraphs felt disposable because of their tonal similarities to abundant internet content.


My acquaintance with anthropology is pretty low; a few books, and some bits of theory introduced as approaches to other subjects I studied in more depth. Therefore, the following were, to me, interesting critique:

Following a description of cargo cults and the sneering approach of the first anthropologists who looked at them:
Didn’t we, too, have our own, Nazarene John Frumm? They were, of course, correct. Nor was this Messianism confined to Christians. It strikes me that our entire social organism—its economy, its social policy, its civil order—that these don’t implode, hurling us all into a wild abyss of plunder, rape and burning, is down to their being reined in, held in alignment, by a yoking to this notion of the Future;
Yes! On some level, almost everyone (except perhaps staunch Cioranites?) is waiting for something beyond their power to be improved in the future: even if one's own life were perfect, there would still be problems in wider society and environment we hope will be sorted out.

The narrator visits Claudia, a university friend who now curates a museum; it has objects that were taken from tribes during the colonial era. The two of them have been trying to work out what an unlabelled artefact in the store room might be:
Why not return it? I asked. That doesn’t work, she answered curtly. The tribe’s descendants don’t know what this wicker thing is for either; they’ve all got mobile phones and drink Coke. And besides, if you repatriate an object it just turns up on the market six months later — may as well just send it straight to the collector’s Texas ranch. That’s even worse than us having it. So they pile up here.

Those of us minded to the recording and keeping of history find irony in this:
When the last Aborigine who understood the cipher died without passing the knowledge down, they sent a delegation here, to see this book. It served as a kind of cheat-sheet for them. It was a weird scene: we had all these Aborigines here, wearing their ceremonial garb, walking around Frankfurt. They were grateful to the museum, she continued—although, after they’d looked at the book, they requested that all copies be destroyed.

Satin Island gives me the longed-for impression of a novelist writing an academic convincingly, by getting to know, and discussing, the discipline in depth. Books which give a character and academic background as a fact, but don't make it part of their thinking or the narrative annoy me, for example, Sense of an Ending and Hunters in the Snow. But would an anthropologist find Satin Island convincing and knowledgeable?


I liked the moments of self-awareness about laziness and limitations that can creep into casual, or non-peer reviewed academic discussion:
(we were, in fact, slightly confusing two separate scientific theorems—the Hawthorne effect doesn’t actually have much to do with Schrödinger’s hypothesis; but, not being quantum physicists, we didn’t know or care).


There's also a critique of first-world detachment here (the detachment of the academic, of the internet, of the corporation, of the aesthetic v the political), but pitched from an unusual angle, not just the typical Tumblr-SJW one seen all over the place these days. Some reviewers seem to be certain the author agrees with the narrator on these points, but there's really no reason to assume he does. I might be projecting my own opinions into the book, but it often seems to use detachment as a genuinely interesting approach, whilst showing there are points when it can go too far.
- The narrator watches footage of oil spills for their aesthetic qualities, using analogies of cooking toffee, PVC fetish gear, vinyl records, culminating in a grandiose fantasy of a triumphant conference presentation about this new way of looking at them.
Bad aesthetics, at that: misguided and ignorant. They dislike the oil spill for the way it makes the coastline look “not right,” prevents it from illustrating the vision of nature that’s been handed down from theologians to romantic poets to explorers, tourists, television viewers: as sublime, virginal and pure. Kitsch, I tell you (here I’d thump my fist onto the podium, three times in quick succession): kitsch, kitsch, kitsch! And wrong: for what is oil but nature? Rock-filtered organic compounds—animal, vegetable and mineral—broken down and concentrated by the planet’s very crust: what could be purer than that? When oil splatters a coastline, Earth wells back up and reveals itself; nature’s hidden nature gushes forth. The individual responsible for the spill, he should be considered a true environmentalist: nature’s more honest intermediary, its loyaler servant.
It may be interesting as pure idea/spectacle, but it's sociopathic in its disregard for real-life effect and the experience of organisms who could never see it that way.

- In a somewhat similar vein, crowds of worshippers at Mecca are a spectacle more than they are persons:
The process seemed endless, self-perpetuating: as each static row of white-robed figures was picked up and swept into the swirl, the next row moved up one to take its place, and each row behind this one did the same, a new row forming at the back, more pilgrims waiting behind this, and more behind.
But that's more ambiguous, less not-okay, because the people are not suffering, it seems allowable to view the crowd aesthetically - perhaps the previous discussion of oil spills makes one see a sinister absence of empathy where it wasn't essential in the first place, and maybe the dialogue seems questionable because it's about a group of people who are often criticised in the West - whereas there seems nothing dodgy about the comment on the footage of Parisian rollerbladers.

The Narrator's colleague also watches a lot of zombie parades. I was disappointed there was no analyses of these as a phenomenon, other that to acknowledge how common they are. IMO they are to do with people feeling like aspects of modern life have zombified them (which aspects? what do the participants think?) and/or that there is a rapaciousness in economic relations, led by the general shift rightwards towards a neoliberal consensus.(The 1% turning many of the 99% into zombies.) It's a while since I looked for anything about this, but last time I did, 2 or 3 years ago, there wasn't anything. Would have welcomed some dialogue about it, in the form of the book. This is the sort of pop-culture analysis I love.


I'm puzzled by one reviewer's negative comments about the portrayal of the narrator's FWB, Madison. It was noticeable to me how up-to-date the attitudes were in Satin Island, compared with other, only slightly older books - that there isn't the talk about sex acts and body parts that riles a lot of fourth-wave feminists; Madison is never shown as playing games, she is also only in it for casual sex, she seems to be interested in the narrator because of *her* fetishes rather than the other way round, and we hear her opinions about other, non-sex issues (and I think those are part of the reason she doesn't 'want more' from him - they don't agree on enough). It sounds to me like an egalitarian arrangement, just narrated by someone whose main focus in life is his work, these sexual encounters taking up only a small amount of time and headspace. And who's to say it's not that way for her too?


The narrator is trying to critique the internet age, he thinks he's original, but he isn't. (This is where it's very pointed that he's called U.) It's hard to be original when there are so many voices, so I'm sure the unoriginality is intentional on the part of the author.
He develops the concept Present-Tense Anthropology™; an anthropology that bathed in presence, and in nowness, which is also just switching your fucking phone/tablet/laptop off, and living in the moment - watching the gig instead of taking photos of it.

Write Everything Down, said Malinowski. But the thing is, now, it is all written down. There’s hardly an instant of our lives that isn’t documented.

What if just coexisting with these objects and this person, letting my own edges run among them, occupying this moment, or, more to the point, allowing it to occupy me, to blot and soak me up, rather than treating it as feed-data for a later stock-taking—what if all this, maybe, was part of the Great Report?

ethnographers—U-thnographers!—no longer scrolling through dead entrails of events hoping to unpack the meaning of their gestures, would instead place themselves inside events and situations as they unfolded—naïvely, blithely and, most of all, live—their participation-from-within transforming life by bringing its true substance to the fore at every instant, in the instant, not as future knowledge but as the instant itself, which, like a ripened pod, would overswell its bounds and rupture, spawning meaning, spreading it forth to all corners of the world 

Or something many of us must have thought, albeit in different words: modernity itself is no more than a credo in the process of becoming “dated,” or at least historical. The term epoch, I informed my listeners, originally meant “point of view,” as in the practice of astronomy; we should return to understanding epoch as a place from which one looks at things.

It was nice to find this idea, which I've often thought of myself, albeit more positively than Madison, who's speaking here: If knowing everything about a person were the be-all and end-all of human interaction, she said, we’d just carry memory-sticks around and plug them into one another when we met. (There are a handful of close friends I'd like to have given these to, so I didn't have to take up my and their time with so much goddamn writing about stuff from the past.)


Another curious satirical strand is about the narrator's friend who has cancer. In what appears to be an allusion both to antibiotic resistance and to alternative medicine approaches to cancer, the hosptical do lab sensitivity tests done for the cancer's reaction to a variety of naturally occurring substances such as rosemary, hummingbird saliva or orange juice. (cf efforts to develop new antibiotics from soil bacteria, and research on and use of substances like honey, essential oils and maggots). This friend, Petr, provides occasions for the narrator's clearest instances of empathy:
The windows of the hospital were smudged and blackened too; his room was on the twenty-first floor and they obviously didn’t bother to clean them that often, or at all. This upset me, much more than the fact of Petr’s illness did. For crying out loud, I felt like shouting to the nurse, ward manager, whoever: if you can’t save these people, at least clean the windows.
Petr's suffering is happening in person, in front of him, and it's also not work. They can talk, it's not just digitally interactive, there are words as well as images. The oil spills are thousands of miles away on screen and he approaches them academically.
The sentiment/idea there is not new, and it's somewhat reactionary (some people are more than capable of being empathic online), but I liked the way that McCarthy makes the reader work for it.


The last two chapters, much longer than the others, jarred. 13 was Madison's account of police brutality and bizarre experiences after being arrested at an anticapitalist demonstration in 2001. 14 is an account of U's journey to Staten Island during a conference; he earlier had a dream about 'Satin Island', and figured Staten was the origin of the name. Others praise this chapter but I found it the dullest in the book - it contains a lot more real-world experience than many of the others, but where this book worked for me was when it was analytical and/or strange. Perhaps the strengths of McCarthy's writing lie with the latter. My finding this last chapter dull may or may not have been intentional on the part of the author - it might be meant as a positive contrast to all the mediated experience elsewhere in the book and passed me by. Or, noting that McCarthy - whom I hadn't read before - has been called a 'laureate of disappointment', perhaps he is deliberately disappointing the reader in the way a person could get disappointed with a journey on a crowded, grubby old ferry not living up to dreams or the shininess of the internet, or that protest rarely changes as much as people hope, and/or with the way life isn't entirely coherent or story-shaped, and doesn't always make sense.
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Reading Progress

August 2, 2015 – Shelved
August 8, 2015 – Started Reading
August 9, 2015 –
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August 9, 2015 –
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August 9, 2015 – Finished Reading

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