Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

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From the author of Remainder (the major feature-film adaption of which will be released in 2015) and C (short-listed for the Booker Prize), and winner of the Windham Campbell Prize, a novel that promises to give us the first and last word on the world–modern, postmodern, whatever world you think you are living in.

When we first meet U., our narrator, he is waiting out a delay in the Turin airport. Clicking through corridors of trivia on his laptop he stumbles on information about the Shroud of Turin–and is struck by the degree to which our access to the truth is always mediated by a set of veils or screens, with any world built on those truths inherently unstable. A “corporate ethnographer,” U. is tasked with writing the “Great Report,” an ell-encompassing document that would sum up our era. Yet at every turn, he feels himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of data, lost in buffer zones, wandering through crowds of apparitions. Madison, the woman he is seeing, is increasingly elusive, much like the particulars in the case of the recent parachutist’s death with which U. is obsessed. Add to that his longstanding obsession with South Pacific cargo cults and his developing, inexplicable interest in oil spills. As he begins to wonder if the Great Report might remain a shapeless, oozing plasma, his senses are startled awake by a dream of an apocalyptic cityscape. In Satin Island, Tom McCarthy captures–as only he can– the way we experience our world, our efforts to find meaning (or just to stay awake) and discern the narratives we think of as our lives.


I have been intrigued by Tom McCarthy’s books since I read some reviews about his novel C (2010) when it first came out. It received some glowing reviews that heralded it as dense, complex, and unique. I bought a copy, and it has been on my shelf since. For some reason, one of his other books, Satin Island, started showing up lately on Amazon as a book I would probably like. I figured it was his newest book since it was being promoted. I was a little shocked to find that it was the follow up to C and published in 2015. With the book being under 200 pages, Satin Island was a good introduction to an author I have been wanting to read.

The story is narrated by U. He is a corporate anthropologist, which is someone who helps companies understand where they fit into the culture while starting a marketing campaign. I think. Many of the pages of Satin Island turn into paragraphs that go down rabbit holes of U’s thinking, and there are times that by the end of his musings, I am not certain I understand the point he is making. I do know that when he is not working at this job, he collects dossiers on other parallel events, like information on the history of oil spills and statistics on buffering. He gets sucked into a news story about a man who is parachuting and when he pulls the cord to open the parachute, the ropes are cut. U spends a great deal of time gathering articles from around the world about people that have died parachuting. These events are things that he obsesses over, researches heavily, and tries to find patterns. Some of the small things that keep him obsessively focused can be innocuous like watching a manager during a meeting as she plays with one shoe with her other shoe, but there are other things that he cannot stop dwelling on that strains his relationships, like why Madison, the woman he is having a fairly casual relationship with, was in the Torino airport at one time in her past. Many of these things seem insignificant but much of this is what makes U the person that he is. 

Tom McCarthy’s writing is very good, but sometimes I feel like I have been a little outsmarted. Some of his long paragraphs that last a page or two start at point A and meanders toward point B. By the time he gets me to the point, I am lost. I seemed to have a great deal of trouble focusing on some of these journeys, and my mind would wander off the path to other things. This does not mean that I will not read Tom McCarthy’s other books (it might be time to dust off my copy of C), but it means I have a hard time recommending others to read Satin Island without telling them that they are in for a bit of a chore.

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