The disorder, distraction, and incomprehension of our accelerated digital age has spawned a warehouse full of fiction dealing with the insanity in either a detached, heavily ironic documentary-style, or as sci-fi, into-the-rabbit-hole thriller. Creating a novel of depth out of the material is harder than writing new string theory postulates that successfully apply to a starburst of new universes. But attempts have been made.
This is to segue into Satin Island, Tom McCarthy’s novel from last year. The narrator is an anthropologist working for a mysterious web-saturated communications-advertising company which tasks U (the narrator) with vague, byzantine projects. At first, U takes to his work with mid-level enthusiasm: “the image of a severed parachute that floated, like some jellyfish or octopus, through the polluted waters of my mind ... I found my focus, my point of identification within it and my attendant sympathy, shifting from the diminutive man to his expanded, if detached, paraphernalia”. Sub-scenes (one can’t call them plots) include a colleague dying of throat cancer, and a girlfriend unforthcoming as to her background and to how she appeared at the airport wherein the two initially met. The former is handled with affecting complexity and association: “He had one [dark lump] just above his ankle; it was more than dark – it was black. 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.”
McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, involved a haunting narrator-created world, removed but familiar, ridiculous and terrifying yet possible. Satin Island’s reality, by contrast, mouse-clicks over well-surfed territory. Oil spills exist next to, and with, soccer highlights; mothballed archaeological curios, their use or religious function unknown, are sold to Texas millionaires for vain display, perhaps finding their way as lifestyle images in advertising. McCarthy, however, manages to conjure wit and wisdom at each level of the rabbit hole: after the narrator’s girlfriend is let go from a horrifying experience, post-raid, she tells U “that it was ironic ... That it was my credit card that saved me after I’d been protesting against capitalism”.
The novel – short but dense – has attracted a lot of negative press. Much of it seems to be based on Satin Island’s lack of narrative thrust or direction. (The author, winking, warns of this early in the novel: “events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now”.) But this, of course, is purposeful, and in line with the thematic concerns. Swamped by information – most of it ephemera, or is it? – all of us have at least a section of our brains available and appreciative of efforts to delineate and synthesize, sort and order. But U gives up. Late in the novel, letters of the eponymous words – appearing in a previous admonitory dream – transpose themselves on a Staten Island ferry before vanishing altogether among the ordinary, weary, down-at-heels passengers. The final image of the homeless man at a pay phone is sublime.