Satin Island

Tom McCarthy-Satin IslandMy rating: ★★★

Warning this review contains plot spoilers.

The basics: The narrator, named only as U, begins to dig into some unusual news trends including an oil spill & parachutist’s deaths whilst working on a new major report. Quickly
the report, moving away from its initial corporate aims, begins to consume U and reaches frightening new borders.

In depth: Through its story centring around an obsessive corporate researcher, Satin Island reflects on some of the central problems of modern life in the West. Namely that individuals in the West have access to so much information from many different sources that it can produce a real struggle to remain focused on just one topic at a time.

In fact reading Satin Island, which is very short at just 173 pages, you often find yourself having to take a short break from its relentlessly expanding reaches. The book produces a bizarre situation in that it seems to install the very recent social behaviour that it is commenting upon. The very first paragraph almost made me put the book down and google the Shroud of Turin. This may sound like a bad thing, but in fact is a reflection of how immediate this book’s impact is.

The structure of the chapters read like diary or a log of thought and behaviour and unsurprisingly, the main underpinning to U’s thoughts comes from anthropological studies.

Due to the books focus on the vast array of sources of information available to individuals it carries a slight undertone of disvaluing of speech and human conversation. Not only does U gather most of his work and information from websites, but also speech between characters is not even given the privilege of distinguishing speech marks.

Also there are constant reminders of how spontaneous oral conversations rarely capture the essential points that a meticulously researched corporate report, which U produces for a living, into these topics would have. Examples include a failed attempt to chat about the ‘tragedy’ of oil spills by a stranger with U, or the understated acknowledgement offered by U to his friend upon learning he has cancer.

U only eventually answers the stranger’s concerns later in the book in a wandering fascination of a perfect lecture on oil spills where the original questioner is squashed by his relentless internal logic.

U and the few other characters often find their minds and thoughts wandering elsewhere during conversations and other activities. Even the interaction of sex is bluntly treated with a series of matter of fact statements. Also in one business meeting the amount of times individual words are used is logged to help ascertain the implications of the conversation rather than the details of the meeting itself being disclosed to the reader.

In all, McCarthy gives us an intense sprint which manages to make anthropology and ‘vanguard theory’ interesting through the internal anecdotes of its narrator. However the ending, based at the Staten Island Ferry terminal in New York City, teasingly hints at some revelation that would give some order to the proceedings before. Unfortunately very little seems to be offered, leaving the reader unsure whether to dismiss it to a local charity shop or read it all over again.