Satin Island

Satin IslandOccasionally, very occasionally, some work of post-modern satire will hit me just right and I’ll love it (see, for example, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), but I’m a hard sell with this kind of book. Most of them land with a clunk, striking me as being far too interested in their own cleverness than in saying anything truly profound. At best, they make obvious points in creative ways, perhaps, but I’d rather be given a story to care about than have someone who thinks he’s (it’s always a he) a superior intellect preach at me in a way that makes me feel dumb about something I actually already know.

I tend to think such experimental fiction works best in a short form, as in the short stories of George Saunders or Jon McGregor. Get in, make your point, and get out. That’s the way to do it. With this in mind, I approached Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with cautious optimism. It’s just under 200 pages, so perhaps not long enough to weary me. Alas, it landed with a thunk and now sits near the bottom of my Booker list. (Above A Little Life maybe, but that’s only because it didn’t make me mad. It just bored me, which A Little Life never did.)

So the story, such as it is, is that of U., an anthropologist who works for a place called the Company. The book is a running chronicle of his thoughts as he works on the Great Report—“The Document … the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.” Basically, an anthropological study of everything today. It’s an impossible task, for reasons that U. addresses here and there throughout the book, and his final revelation as to why it won’t work is pretty funny.

The truth is, there are lots of bits of this book that I liked. McCarthy has a lot of good stuff to say about how we observe each other and ourselves and how that affects our behavior. He also draws in how digital media and companies cataloging and predicting our every move end up controlling our every move. The insights aren’t new, but they’re sometimes cleverly presented. Here’s one image I particularly liked:

We require experience to stay ahead, if only by a nose, of our consciousness of experience—if for no other reason than that the latter needs to make sense of the former, to … narrate it both to others and ourselves and, for this purpose, has to be fed with a constant, unsorted supply of fresh sensations and events. But when the narrating cursor catches right up with the rendering one, when occurrences and situations don’t replenish themselves quickly enough for the awareness they sustain, when, no matter how fast they regenerate, they’re instantly devoured by a mouth too voracious to let anything gather or accrue unconsumed before it, then we find ourselves jammed, stuck in limbo: we can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of it. Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything.

And yet, as I type that out, it seems sillier than when I first encountered it. Oh, well. The idea of a life that’s just buffering still pleases me. And I liked the parachute stories and Madison’s protest story toward the end.

The trouble is, however, that despite a few pleasing images and insights, the book as a whole just didn’t do much for me. If it weren’t short, and I weren’t reading it for the Shadow Booker Panel, I would have put it down at page 40 and not given it another thought. I just didn’t care about it.

Other Shadow Booker Panelists Reviews: Dolce Bellezza, Nonsuch Book

I received a copy of this book from this publisher for evaluation as part of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel

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10 Responses to Satin Island

  1. Jeanne says:

    The passage you quote sounds like a reverse of Tristram Shandy, where he can’t narrate everything because stuff keeps happening. That’s my least favorite kind of satire, the attempt at an update of some earlier satire.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, so I don’t know how much of an influence there is, but a lot of the satire didn’t strike me as original, just updated for the digital age, with buffering and Instagramming and cookies tracking our every move.

  2. Jenny says:

    Is it just postmodern satire you don’t like, or postmodern everything?

    • Teresa says:

      I find both postmodern literature and satire hard to like (although there are plenty of exceptions), so the combination tends to be extra deadly. And as I think about it, the satire is probably the bigger problem. Humor is hard to do well, and I get frustrated quickly if it isn’t working for me.

  3. Is the final reason why it won’t work that they’ve already done all of that scholarship in Germany and the whole huge project is old news? YES THAT IS A SLAM ON CASAUBON NO REGRETS.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a Middlemarch joke, right? I clearly have to read Middlemarch again. Too much of it has completely dropped out of my head.

      And that’s sort of why, except that it’s because computers have already done it, which we all know, but the moment when U understood it was described really well.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Too bad this one didn’t work for you. I do enjoy a good postmodern novel. I like Jenny’s comment about Casaubon because I was thinking about him too from what you said!

    • Teresa says:

      These kinds of books either land well for me or they don’t. When they work, I tend to like them a lot, but it’s hard for me to find ones that work for me.

  5. Bellezza says:

    I love this line from the start of your post: “…being far too interested in their own cleverness than in saying anything truly profound. At best, they make obvious points in creative ways…”

    A succinct, and perfect, way of summarizing my thoughts exactly. Which I didn’t even bother to record on my blog.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks! I think, for me, books like this sometimes strike me as taking a superior tone, as if the author is above all the mess. It’s gets on my nerves and makes it hard to see what art there is in it.

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