A Very Normal Place: On Tom McCarthy’s SATIN ISLAND

Guest Article by: 
Jonathon Walter

Tom McCarthy’s 2007 novel REMAINDER still stands as one of the high points of “experimental fiction” written so far this century. Its central plot, in which a suddenly-wealthy amnesiac is obsessively driven to recreate the exact circumstances of the last moment before his memory left him (and then, to start taking part in ever more sinister recreations), was compelling enough that it didn’t seem like an excuse for McCarthy to pontificate in the way of certain other po-mo novelists but like it was an essential part of the entire construction. It’s taut, as Donald Kaufman’s mother might say. It’s also one of the few experimental novels that could be quite easily adapted to film.

Now comes the weird and fascinating SATIN ISLAND, which is so different an animal that one could be forgiven for thinking it was written by a different author. While REMAINDER seemed almost sui generis, SATIN ISLAND has a very obvious forebear: the novels of Don DeLillo. The plot involves a nameless “corporate ethnographer” (well, practically nameless—he takes the sobriquet “U”) who is assigned to write the “Great Report,” a document that promises to wrap up everything important about our era with a big bow. There are also side plots involving topics as disparate as parachute sabotage, oil spills, the 2001 G8 conference, and the Staten Island Ferry.

But that’s all barely relevant, as the true attraction is following McCarthy’s mind wherever it goes—from cargo cults to iodine used as a cancer cure to the anthropologist Levi-Strauss to the pilgrimage to Mecca. The chapters are numbered in an odd way, vaguely reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s TRACTATUS-LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS (1.1, 1.2; 7.3,7.4,7.5, etc), and while the central plotline of the “Great Report” is a little less compelling than REMAINDER’s, it still serves nicely as a kind of path through the woods that the narrator can return to whenever he feels like it.

Those readers who enjoyed Don DeLillo’s more philosophical novels (MAO II, THE NAMES) will find a lot to enjoy here, as there is much analysis of modernity and the connectedness of things, a favorite topic of DeLillo’s. There’s even a side character, Daniel, who seems to have been ripped straight from the pages of a DeLillo novel—he’s an avant-garde filmmaker who is constantly projecting film clips onto the walls of his office, and each time “U” wanders in is the occasion for a kind of philosophical discourse on whatever happens to be playing.

There are also echoes of Beckett, especially in a long, agonizing update of the infamous “sucking stones” portion of MOLLOY where “U” attends a meeting with “the Minister” and proceeds to spend the entire meeting watching her manually undo one of her shoe buckles with her other foot. “I realized what this Minister was up to: she was attempting, with her right foot, to undo her left shoe’s buckle (which, unusually, fastened on the inward- rather than the outward-facing side). This, I realized as I watched her, was quite an ambitious undertaking…” The punchline comes at the end of the meeting, where “U” realizes he hasn’t paid attention to a single thing said during the course of it. One of his coworkers asks how he thought the meeting went, and all he can do is answer “excellently.”

The book’s structure itself is nicely unsettled—the cover proposes several (crossed-out) definitions for this odd thing called SATIN ISLAND, including “An Essay,” “A Report,” “A Treatise,” “A Confession,” and “A Manifesto,” before finally setting on the one descriptor that isn’t deleted: “A Novel.” It’s an apt depiction of the instability of the concept of the “novel” itself, especially a novel like this one, which has characters and a setting and a plot and so forth, but uses them in a nontraditional way. The great novelist John Hawkes once said that the “true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme,” and while McCarthy doesn’t go that far, this latest book does show a kind of impatience with the tiny boxes that the novel has traditionally been forced to fit into.

There is also general sense that novels such as these are devoid of emotional content—that they ignore human drama, that they are only suitable for cynical academics, etc. SATIN ISLAND challenges that assertion with an absolutely gorgeous ending that takes our detached narrator and forces him to deal with the real world: specifically, the crowds on the Staten Island Ferry. “People were milling about, waiting for the ferry,” says our narrator. “…normal, everyday folk who commuted on it daily. A few of them wore suits—cheap, polyester ones, the standard-issue outfit of the low-white-collar ranks; but most wore plain, casual clothes. They looked bored, frumpy, tired, unhealthy, overweight and generally just very, very normal.” The word “normal” here is key to our narrator’s discovery: the worlds of abstruse analysis and normality are not as separate as some would like to think, and it’s no accident that Staten Island (the Satin Island of his dreams), a very normal place, is what we all might have been searching for all along.

Jonathon Walter's work has appeared in The Atlantic.

Satin Island Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307593955
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - February 17th, 2015

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