In a 2008 essay Zadie Smith held up Tom McCarthy’s austere debut Remainder as a bold exemplar of avant-garde fiction, comparing it favourably to Joseph O’Neill’s lush Netherland, which she deprecated as incarnating the worst delusions of realism.
Funny how rapidly Smith’s distinction has disintegrated: McCarthy’s latest, Satin Island, bears an uncanny similarity to O’Neill’s recent novel The Dog. Both are narrated by an affectless young male professional known only by a single initial (X in the case of O’Neill, U in McCarthy’s); and both dramatise the moral and intellectual contortions imposed by commercial environments on people whose sympathies are with the left.
U is a corporate anthropologist — such people do exist; I’ve worked for one —tasked with unpacking the symbolic meaning of everyday objects and behaviour, with the assistance of an arsenal of continental theory, in order to help brands sell things more effectively to consumers. So a commission for Levi’s jeans — whose founder just happens to share a name with the demiurge of modern anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss — offers the chance to invoke the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s notion of the ‘rip’ to comprehend slashed jeans as bearing the ‘birth-scars of their wearer’s singularity, testaments to the individual’s break with general history’.
Making your lead character a man who interprets everything might seem a cheat for generating the matter of a novel, but McCarthy is, mercifully, restrained; he is far more interested in the unassimilable and the mysterious. His employer has saddled U with two substantial pieces of work: the Koob-Sassen Project, which U can’t speak about for reasons of commercial confidentiality; and the Great Report, an interpretation of the entirety of modern culture that has been commissioned by his boss, possibly as a joke. He struggles with the latter for obvious reasons.
Instead, he becomes fascinated with disturbing news stories he chances upon — an oil slick; a skydiver who dies after his parachute is sabotaged — which allow McCarthy to expand on the violent beauty and strangeness of these forms: the oil moulding itself to the seabed like a ‘new-laid carpet or linoleum flooring’s edge’; the ‘severed parachute that floated, like some jellyfish or octopus … the domed canopy above, the floppy strings casually twining their way downwards from this like blithe tentacles’.
McCarthy’s fiction is far more interested in form and relation — difficult things to write about — than content and detail, and his affinity with the nouveau roman leads him away from the traditional satisfactions of plot. Even taking account of that, Satin Island runs out of steam, slightly — which is a particular problem in a book so short. No amount of transference of writer’s block onto one of the characters masks this.
Yet there are many pleasures to be found in McCarthy’s agile thinking, not least the dry irony, absent from his earlier novels, with which he treats his own intellectual touchstones — the captains of postmodern thought — as capitalism co-opts and indentures them to secure its own ascendency.
Satin Island, finally, offers a familiar humanist critique of alienation in an era of hyperconnectivity. U works next to the ventilation system in the company’s basement, where the only collegiality is found in the interminable recycling of his workmates’ stale air. He listens, tongue-tied, as his not-quite girlfriend ambushes him with a strange story about being abused by the police. And when his only friend, diagnosed with thyroid cancer, tells him a treatment has failed all U can muster is: ‘Bummer.’
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