“It’s All Just Ink-Blots”: Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island”

imageTom McCarthy’s Satin Island was the only novel on the 2015 Booker shortlist that I had already read. When I try to recall it, recpature the experience of reading the thing in order to write a post hoc review of it, what I come back with primarily is blankness. This is no doubt inspired in part by the glooping blackness of the cover art, and also by the empty post-it notes which are evoked in its endpapers; but it’s also, I think, more or less the effect McCarthy was after: a literary lacuna, a mordant glance askance at our superficialised milieu.

Here’s what I noted down about it in my reading diary (this entry of which is preserved in our What We Like Section on this very blog):

This is not C: it is not freewheeling and compendious, or expansive and confusing. A satire of late capitalism, Satin Island is the story of an anthropologist working as a researcher for a variety of consumerist brands, and he is open from the first about his bull-shitting trade; as the novel proceeds, however, even those ideas and thoughts he believes to have substance are revealed to have little purchase on significance. Almost everyone in the novel, regardless of their employer, is at work on the same Big Data-ish project, though none understand it; almost everyone searches for meaning and then doesn’t find it; and the novel ends, Gatsby-like, with a character letting a boat flow ever onwards … not into an ineffably recursive future, but a dirty harbour. Did we need Satin Island to know that late capitalism is a morass of self-negating contradictions? I’m not sure.

I’m not sure I need to add much to that, to be honest. Satin Island is far greater than its slim girth might suggest – it feels like an important novel in McCarthy’s pantheon,unlike, say, David Mitchell’s recent placeholder between projects. But by the same token it in some ways feels like a novel McCarthy would of course write, rather than one which surprises or startles. His earlier novel, C, was also nominated for the Booker but, in its twisting of the bildungsroman form into new shapes, or its frankly eccentric diction, it felt like a novel busting out o jail. Satin Island, meanwhile, draws a faithful scale drawing of the prison.

In the course of the novel, the narrator speaks directly to us at length about his life, and yet we are left more or less mystified as to its contexts. We follow him through episodes or even over-arching quests – interviews whi his gnomic boss, the ideas man Peyman (based, apparently, on McCarthy’s real-life friend and sparring partner, the Serpentine’s emperor of the contemporary, Hans-Ulrich Obrist), or visits to a colleague with cancer, or his continuing attempts to write something he calls the Great Report (a task for which he is supposedly employed by the corporation, but which never comes close to being begun, much less completed). These remain in weird ways like marooned components of an unfinished collage, however – floating between each other like underwear on a sparsely-populated washing line, identifiable but absurd.

The Great Report, of course, is both signifier and metaphor for this novelistic approach: like the Koob-Sassen Project, the great Big Data mission on which everyone the narrator encounters is working, it is ineffable and yet all-encompassing, both total and invisible. It is utterly pointless and worthy only of abandonment, and yet life without it would lack purpose of any kind. “The truly terrifying thought,” the narrator muses at one point, “wasn’t that the Great Report might be unwritable, but – quite the opposite – that it had already been written” (p. 123). That is, that it is in some way not being done by the narrator but being done to him, the system grown out of control.

On the very first page of the novel, we’re told that “people need foundation myths,” and if anything Satin Island is interested in being anti-origin story, a recursive feedback loop without any of the consolations or comforts of repetition. “There were scores of wakes,” the narrator observes of that dirty harbour at the novel’s end, “crossing each other in irregular and tangled patterns” (p. 171).  At another juncture, he imagines himself in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a man puttering down an endless hall, artefacts just as priceless as the one he is currently carrying stretching off to infinity. In this way, the narrator – like us all – is trapped within a self-replicating system of such bewildering fecundity that to cultivate any part of it is to allow a dozen others to grow wild. The Koob-Sassen Project – unknowable, unfinishable – is winning.

The thing is, I knew that Tom McCarthy – and most everyone else – though that about post-modernity, and Satin Island doesn’t add a great deal to ‘what next’ (even if ‘what next’ is a scenario straight out of a Charlie Stross novel, which it may well be).  Perhaps ‘what next’ is another way of saying ‘so what’; perhaps requiring a next or a what is just my urge for a foundation myth whispering; either way, I think Satin Island gets its contrarian way with me. But what’s next?


Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America”



There are National Trust properties up and down the country which, in their piecemeal, potted restoration have become something less, something more dislocated, than a single house: there’s a Regency bedroom, there a Renaissance kitchen; look closely, and up the stairs from the rococo balustrades will be the severe Victorian lines of a droll drawing room. Every corner will have a story slightly out of synch with the others – and, inevitably, the visitor will enjoy some rooms better than others, may even find a couple thoroughly divine, but exit to the tea shop feeling if not underwhelmed then certainly confused.

This is the experience which awaits the reader of Peter Carey’s latest, Parrot and Olivier in America. At its heart is the sort of recreation of historical voice that Carey has made his own, and ultimately this is its only unifying project. The novel doesn’t have much in the way of a single plot, nor anything approaching an enforced coherence; its principle pleasure is in the reiteration, in each of its constituent moments, of an historical perspective. This is not to say historical accuracy, of course: Carey riffs too freely on Audobon and de Tocqueville, reprints out of context too many documents from the period, ranges too widely and wildly across continents, to establish a definitive history. Carey’s project is, of course, more of the imaginative variety, and in this he may be the consummate novelist writing today.

This bifurcated novel’s twin, eponymous voices are of the venal and the upper classes. Parrot, an Englishman with a storied and shady past, find himself, as a result of a series of political and probably criminal coincidences Carey never quite unpicks, accompanying Olivier, a French aristocrat whose family has fallen out of favour, to America, where the latter is to inspect American prisons on behalf of the French government. Their relationship constitutes the bouncing off of almost wholly incompatible perspectives: Olivier’s privileged, pie-eyed nostalgia for feudalism, Parrot’s over-awareness of the corruption of elites. In their trip to the United States, of course, they come face to face with the future, in the form of democracy. At one point, Olivier discusses Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with Peek, an American he initially considers a friend, and in particular the pistol-toting boy at its centre, whom Olivier finds “vile”. Peek tells him:

“He will end up president. […] As Americans we must allow the possibility. He may simply end up rich. My dear Olivier, this is not your ancient France. But if it were, that boy – if he showed similar initiative – might take possession of half the lands along the Loire. If he works hard. There are countless acres of American owened by no one, waiting to be taken. You want our American Avignon, it is empty. It is yours. I give it to you.” [pp 227-228]

This is the world that scares Olivier – one of opportunity and fluidity. But it is also one of which Parrot is sceptical – its promises of emancipation and elevation seem to him hollow and self-serving. Carey’s thesis about democracy never seems to get beyond such sterile extremes of characterisation, although it allows him some humourous scenes: Olivier listening to one American mathematicise society, Parrot providing snide asides about one popinjay or another, power relationships dramatised in the watery rescue of a fine edition of Molière. Other episodes are as diverting but decidedly less relevant: Parrot pretending to be a rabbit, a glorious interrogation scene featuring a poor forger and a bedecked Lord, Olivier in his boyhood learning his Latin. Indeed, Carey seems strongest in these more picaresque moments, and the novel should be seen in this light. It’s hard to see what grand statement, or unified novel, Carey wanted to stitch together between these two characters and their shapeless roamings; Parrot and Olivier in America is rather a sort of modern Humphry Clinker: ribald, itinerant and full of incidental incident.

So where does that leave it in the Booker stakes? Some way behind, I think: though some pages of Parrot and Olivier are more fun, more wryly wrought, than anything else on the shortlist, others pass by in something of a miasma. Carey pitches the twin voices just so, but perversely his novel never seems to find one. This leaves, it seems to me, In A Strange Room and C to duke it out for the prize. The Finkler Question is as fine and spry a novel as any, but though it’s a masterfully turned comic novel it lacks the formal inventiveness of Galgut and McCarthy’s efforts. C may ultimately make the grade, its mixture of sardonic humour and serious intent resulting in a remarkably rich – if intermittently featureless – tapestry, all competing strands and difficult textures. In A Strange Room, by contrast, is simply a perfectly melancholic miniature with nary a word out of place.

Comedy, tragedy, or fractal farce: place your bets, we’ll know tonight.

Tom McCarthy’s “C”

Promisingly enough for its chances, C begins in the manner of that Booker of all the Bookers, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: a child shares the moment of its birth with something other, more ephemeral. For Saleem Sinai, his fate is forever to be entwined with India’s; for McCarthy’s Serge Carrefax, on the other hand (and the clue is in the name), it is wireless communication – radio – which makes its mark on him from his earliest moments. The novel begins in 1898, when Marconi is first experimenting with transmitting sound through the ether, and it ends in 1922, the year the BBC was founded. In these 24 years our modern – our modernist – world is beaten and battered into shape. Serge is born with a cowl, signifying good luck; the reader doubts the omen.

McCarthy’s new novel – shortlisted for the Booker just weeks after its publication – is replete with such literary references, as Mr Self has noted over at the Asylum. In this and many other ways, C reads like any other piece of literary fiction, all allusion and elision – I know that this is how at least one reader I respect experienced the earlier pages of the novel. But at the same time C is playing with our expectations with an almost malicious intent: all these references really don’t build into anything greater, they rarely signify a grander meaning; they’re just encoded into the text, often for the simple joy of discovery.

‘Code’ is one of the many words for which ‘C’ may be taken to stand. Serge’s father, Simeon, runs a school for deaf children (his own wife is deaf), and he also experiments, like Marconi, with radio and sound. For him, communication – another key c-word – must be about clarity and openness, or else it is for nothing. But his friend Widsun, who works for Britain’s putative intelligence services, has a countervailing view, and one which comes to be dominant in the world at large: that communication is and always has been carried out in a series of codes, that language itself – of course! – is a series of sounds and nuances with which we imbue meaning, unintelligible beyond its initiates. The great proliferation of spy networks which infect the Europe of the period, darkening and fuzzing the continent like the gauze Serge develops over his vision (and which is ultimately cured by coitus, another form of congress prominent in the novel), are the means used by nation states to break through these constant cross-currents of meaning. They fail, of course – thus the Great War.

Serge is just the right age to be called up, and he joins the Flying Corps as an observer. Note the passivity of that role: Carrefax is not a pilot, but one of life’s voyeurs, a coy examiner at one remove from his subject. C confounds our expectations of the novel not just by obscuring its theme or ultimate meaning, but by denying us a sense of forward momentum, of developing plot or character. Serge passes through the tumultuous events of his life, barely registering their occurrence; as a point-of-view character he is everything one might be taught to avoid on a creative writing course. Unemotive and unempathetic, he experiences the war as an energising, rather than enervating, moment; his post-war self sees in shell shock not a response to the horrors of war but an outward sign of a much deeper malaise.

If C is about anything it is, in the manner of the modernists to whom McCarthy has claimed to be paying homage, about this dislocation. The explosion of communication, of information, which is occassioned by the technological breakthroughs of Serge’s lifetime result not in the more peaceful, more understanding, world for which Simeon might have hoped; rather, the novel ends in Egypt, with archaeologists scrabbling around in the unknowable past of pharohs and Copts, as the world competes and collapses around them. Serge retreats into increasingly passionless sex and ever multiplying amounts of cocaine; consolation, nevertheless, is scarce. In this sense, C is science fictional – it is about the process and consequences of discovery, and several of its characters – not least Serge’s sister, Sophie, whose unexplained suicide casts a shadow across the whole novel – are intensely engaged in ‘doing’ science, an activity which in turn makes Serge’s broken world tick.

What makes C tick, however, is much less easily identified. Indeed, it actively rebuffs any readerly attempt to decide either way. A plot summary or character study does not do this novel justice, since it is more properly one constructed from a series of repeating figures, like Morse code stuttering through static. Some of McCarthy’s motifs – tourists arguing in an Austro-Hungarian spa town as prefigurement of war – are bathetic; others – Serge and Sophie’s insect-dreams, repeated scenes of theatrical farce – are more multivalent and thus pregnant. But, in the way that Serge finds beauty in the white noise between frequencies, so C discourages us to separate signal from noise. Better, as Jenny Turner in the LRB, to explore the images we, not the didactic author of a progessivist novel, perceive in the flux between the two.

Whether all this is precisely experimental I’m less sure, but it is certainly fiercely orthogonal to, and dismissive of, the mainstream literary novel it slyly mimics. McCarthy deliberately confuses and confounds; he demands an awful lot of his readers, and at times rewards them too reluctantly – there’s no way around the fact that without impetus some of this novel’s pages grow tedious. Yet beneath this still – almost dead – surface, C is bursting with ideas. Almost every moment on every page is connected in some way with another. One is sure that somewhere McCarthy has a hideous spider’s web of a diagram, so whole and considered is this novel’s vision – as you read it, you are aware that it has a life beyond any initial reading. (This may ultimately pay it dividends, since the members of the Booker jury will have read it at least three times by October 12th.) It is also at times a very funny book – Tomcat, in a great review, has said that “C’s sense of humour is the dark love-child of propriety and perversion”; it is also, of course, terrifically serious and very, very clever. It is not always captivating in style or subject matter, and in making everything a code or a cipher, in elevating the cryptology above the solution, it might risk hollowness; but few novels take such risks with quite so much confidence and conviction. Remarkable.

SF and Experimentalism

SF makes this man cry.

A piece in the Observer’s New Review last weekend looked at an alleged decline in experimental fiction in English. “Avant garde fiction,” argued the writer, William Skidelsky, “at least in Britain and America, isn’t flourishing.” Skidelsky seemed to be defining experimentalism as a formal phenomenon – that is, one of style and structure rather than subject or theme. He opened his argument by recalling an NYRB review from Zadie Smith, in which she wrote that, “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.”

I’m not sure that analogy quite works on any level, but my first thought was the exclusion of genre fiction from the discussion: there are many exits from this highway on which Smith can perceive only one type of car (told you it didn’t quite work), but they lead off to ghettoes and undergrowth. Surely science fiction, that literature of ideas, is a redoubt of expertimentalism? It can’t be by accident that one of Skidelsky’s cited experimenters – David Mitchell – brings to his work a science fictional perspective, or that any number of other literary adventurists (Simon Ings, Scarlett Thomas) also know the genre. On further thought, though, I couldn’t say hand on heart that science fiction at its core was any more expeimental in the terms set by Skidelsky.

Take China Miéville, who, despite what I perceive to be recent mis-steps, remains one of SF’s most exciting and inventive writers. Formally, his novels are standard narratives: expansive, discursive and roccoco narratives, but straight-forward all the same. You might not be able to use Smith’s term ‘lyrical realism’ to describe his novels’ content, but their style is not so far removed. For every Philip K Dick, who (at times only) wrote novels which approached a Joyceian sensibility, science fiction has a John Brunner, whose Stand on Zanzibar is only experimental in so far as it echoes a standard form established by Dos Passos; or an Ian McDonald, a writer whom, for all his flair and multiple perspectives, tells a straight story straightly. McDonald’s Brasyl is an example of how SF can use the fluidity of time to add grain to its structures in a way that literary and mainstream fiction often cannot – but Woolf did Time Passes in 1927. Temporal hi-jinx is not in and of itself so very daring.

Film has used science fiction more experimentally, perhaps – from La Jetée or Solaris to Primer and 2046 – and one wonders if the way in which science fiction has become a dominant aesthetic of film gives directors a courage that their literary counterparts, still fighting a losing battle against their own field’s dominant mode, might lack. There are, of course, always writers at the edges – John Burnside in Glister, or Jeff VanderMeer in City of Saints and Madmen – who ask questions of the dominant mode. SF is certainly no less experimental than mainstream or literary fiction – the New Wave largely saw to that. But is it, despite all its potential for mind-bending pyrotechnics, for the most part cruising in a similar gear?