Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island: The best bad worst good book of the year of the week ever

satin island

The title of this review is a desperate cry for attention, which I figure is okay, since the book’s desperation-tinged blurb describes Satin Island as “an unnerving novel that promises to give us the first and last word on the world” and suggests that in this book McCarthy “captures—as only he can—the way we experience our world.” Take that, entire rest of the world!

Of course, the blurb is in part a joke, because the book’s main character, U., who is homophonic with “you,” dear reader (i.e., the “us” the blurb addresses), is meant to write a report about everything—a report that will “name the world we live in”—for a rich business tycoon. And my title is in part a joke. But also not.

How is it possible, you ask, for a book to be the best bad and worst good book of the year? Behold. On the one hand, Satin Island is just a shockingly bad piece of literary fiction, self-indulgent flatulence yet more cliched than the self-indulgent flatulence that preceded it. Consider this list of ’90s flashbacks: U. is (are?) an anthropologist who apparently got his PhD without ever reading anything other than Levi-Strauss (so he is also a ’90s literary theory professor); U. quotes (quote?) Deleuze and Badiou as if they were fresh meat; U. doesn’t (don’t?) quote, but uses concepts from, Lacan. The novel is about masks and performativity, and it draws false analogies between constructedness and fictiveness (here’s a quick hint: fictions are intentional, constructedness is a social process). U. even brings up and misuses Schrödinger’s much abused cat (at this point my marginal notes consist of the all-caps exclamation REALLY DUDE?!). He quotes sous les paves la plage, uses easily dissolved fallacies to produce apparent paradoxes (if a skydiver dies because the cords to his parachute were cut, when was he murdered? Incipit pages of ’90s theoretical guff), acts as if writing was an act of oppression against the material world (words pollute people like oil pollutes oceans!), frets about the way media and the internet have changed everything, and somehow manages to imply that Mallarmé was a totalitarian. The novel as a whole is a paean in praise of trash and excrescence. Like Underworld was. In 1997.

But rejoice, because Satin Island does all this in the novelistic form du jour: juxtapositions of random images that are meant to produce meaning. Back in high school, you may have experienced this as “modernism.” But now, for some reason (David Shields’ irrespressible charisma, maybe?), fragmentation is freighted with all kinds of revolutionary freshness. McCarthy’s images, fyi, are anthropology, material culture, oil-spills, the aforeimplied dead parachutist, media images of crowds, the Mallareméan “book,” sex with a woman called Madison, Leibniz, pomo theory, corporate speak, Vanuatu, the Shroud of Turin, the internet, cancer, and Staten Island. Of course it ends in New York. Thank you Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, et al.

Nnote “sex with a woman called Madison,” because this is where the book might get interesting. The lists above (the internet and cancer in one novel? Why not add the Shoah and child abuse?) might have been produced by a random literary novelist who doesn’t bother to read anything, and whose illiteracy leads him to think he’s being original or thought-provoking. But introducing a woman who, for three quarters of the novel, does literally nothing other than be inseminated? One simply does not do this any more, as McCarthy knows perfectly well.

No, it is impossible to believe that McCarthy would willingly write a book so cliche-ridden as to include the sexy girl who’s up for anything and never brings you down by, you know, talking or having a will of her own. And this leads me to think that the book’s best scenes are also the key to unlocking its secret.

i) U. imagines giving a speech at a conference. An attendee accuses him of aestheticizing pollution. U. shouts down this dissenter. It’s funny, and accurate: far too many writers want to aestheticize the everyday without recognizing that the everyday is usually boring and/or and instance of oppression and/or destruction.

ii) In the book’s penultimate scene, Madison describes a trip to a protest, after which she is tortured in a rather surreal way. She ends up suggesting that human suffering might be more important than things like rhizomatics. It’s not funny, or original, but at least Madison’s allowed to do something other than fuck U.

These two scenes are important because they make it possible to read Satin Island as a spot-on parody of our zeit’s most tiresome literary geists. Why, I wonder, did McCarthy miss only one of our literary tropes—and why, specifically, did he miss one of the few worth using, i.e., female characters being something other than insemination dummies? Could it be that McCarthy wrote a terrible novel intentionally, including in it a quickly shouted down dissenter and a reckless act of immorality (i.e., objectifying the only woman in the book) as very oblique signs that he knew it was terrible?

Of course it is. And that is how I came to believe that this was in fact the best bad book of the year of the week ever, a marvelous literary polemic taking aim at everything horrible in literary fiction, including the now our hero comes into contact with other people and doesn’t have to think about stuff anymore conclusion. At least I hope so, because otherwise it’s just an even worse version of what everyone else is doing.

The End of Mass Culture?

The last few decades have been great for mass culture. Intellectuals used to describe popular music, for instance, as “the sphere that mummifies the vulgarized and decaying remnants of romantic individualism.” They used to claim that consumers “behave like children. Again and again and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish they have once been served.” Today, we’re more likely to point out that fans use their agency to negotiate with their favorite shows, songs and films, to analyze how, in those negotiations, they resist late capitalism. University syllabi include Star Wars, Harry Potter, and hip-hop, while professors write books about Bob Dylan, film noir, or sci-fi. Television, once exclusively ‘mass,’ is in a golden age: the best realist art of the 21st century, in America at least, is still The Wire; the best political satire, Veep. The most important critical opinions now belong not to New Yorker book reviewers, but to amazon customers. The latest Penguin Classic is Morrissey’s biography.

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