TagSatin Island

Satin Island: skimming over the surface

Read the first post in this blog series on Satin Island here.

It’s one thing to read a novel that promises a revelation about the Secret of the World, and to wonder whether that revelation will actually arrive. It’s another thing when that novel is by Tom McCarthy, and you have even the slightest knowledge of the kind of writer he is. Then, you know that the promise is made with crossed fingers.

Which is to say: I never believed for one page of Satin Island that U. would actually complete his Great Report. Naturally, this affected my reading: I became more of a detached observer. It wasn’t about what U. uncovered, but about the ebb and flow of the network. And it’s not necessarily a voyage of discovery with the wind in one’s sails and the tang of salt on the air: rather, it’s the slow horror of skimming over a gleaming surface with no way to get beneath. As U. wonders at one point: maybe the Great Report on our age is in the process of being written in the algorithms of our online lives, and maybe only a computer could interpret it.

One of the most striking moments in Satin Island for me occurs when U. is visiting a hospital ward, and feels like shouting: “if you can’t save these people,  at least clean the windows.” Sometimes when people talk about books, there’s an implicit opposition (one I don’t agree with) between the intellectual and emotional, with the intellectual being considered somehow insincere. A book like Satin Island might be seen that way, but I think the quotation just above shows that it’s really about different modes of expression. U. responds to the suffering he sees in the only way he can – the only way in which the book’s framework allows him: maybe the deeper problems of the world cannot be solved, but can’t we at least do this? It’s a flash of desperate anger – but, tellingly, U. cannot bring himself to say it out loud. The surface must not be disturbed, which is perhaps the darkest thought of all.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy, Jonathan Cape hardback

Satin Island: entering the network

Becky’s comment on my post from yesterday on the UK covers of C and Satin Island has made me realise that the ‘featured image’ I set for the top of each post doesn’t appear to email subscribers (or, presumably, in RSS readers). So the chances are that, unless you visited the site, you wouldn’t have seen what I was comparing. Here they are:

C Satin Island

Next time I blog about book covers, I’ll remember to put them in the body of the post! Anyway, this post is about beginning to read Satin Island, so…

Tom McCarthy’s protagonist, U., is a ‘corporate anthropologist’, working for an unspecified company, analysing the threads of contemporary culture in order to produce the Great Report that will tie them all together to tell “the First and Last Word on our age.” Images of networks and their implied underlying patterns abound, from the pipes of the Company’s ventilation system to a parade of rollerbladers in Paris. Each paragraph of the novel is numbered like a business report, perhaps encouraging the reader to think that this text, this book, might be the Great Report itself. And McCarthy’s long, tumbling sentences create the feeling of being drawn into a web:

To a soundtrack, incongruous, of looped, recorded messages and chimes, a fruit-machine’s idle-tune, snatches of other people’s conversations and the staggered, intermittent hiss, quieter or louder, of steam-arms at espresso bars dotted about the terminal, a memory came to me: of free-wheeling down a hill as a child, riding my second bike.

But this is a Tom McCarthy novel, and the hints are already there from the beginning that the inner depths for which we may hope are just an illusion. In the first chapter, U. is waiting in the airport terminal, surrounded by screens – phones, computers, the rolling news channel which packages up bombing and oil spills alongside the sports highlights. It’s a whirlwind of a chapter that shows just how easily the most serious events can be turned into gleaming surface detail.

(More on that to follow…)

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy, Jonathan Cape hardback

Tom McCarthy’s covers

Considering how much I enjoyed Remainder when I read it in 2007, I’m not quite sure why I haven’t read another Tom McCarthy novel since. But now I’ve picked up his latest, Satin Island, in anticipation that it might be shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize. I’ve only just begun, but already I’m warming to it (and quite amused by the sly reference on the second page to the ending of Remainder).

I’ll come back to the reading of Satin Island at a later date; but for now, I just want to mention the cover. I love a thoughtful cover design, and there’s a wonderful symmetry between the UK covers of the new novel and McCarthy’s previous one, C.

Unless you remembered the cover for C, it probably wouldn’t occur to you that there was a connection; but put them side-by-side and it becomes clear: the inversion of black and white; the letter C turned on its side and given colour to become a buffer symbol (the shape of which also nods to the moniker of Satin Island’s narrator, U.); the dripping oil that echoes the squiggles/networks in the background of C.

These two novels are five years apart, and as far as I know they have no particular link beyond the author; yet the designers have gone to the trouble of doing this. I want to thank them for it, because I appreciate the care and attention they’ve put in.

(One more thing I love: as the Vintage designers’ blog reveals, the oil effect was achieved by using black treacle. Inspired!)

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Remainder (2005) by Tom McCarthy, Alma paperback

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy, Jonathan Cape hardback

C (2010) by Tom McCarthy, Vintage paperback

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