In Satin Island, an Effort to Map Humanity Goes Awry

Tom McCarthy's dazzling, elusive new novel revolves around a corporate anthropologist trying to deliver a comprehensive report on mankind.

Knopf/Nicole Strasser

In the early 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, began discerning patterns in texts no one had noticed before. He called them "hypograms”—repeated strings of letters embedded in works of classical poetry that seemed to spell the names of Olympian gods. For years, Saussure pursued this hypothesis in secret. Only after his death, when his notebooks were uncovered, did his private obsession come to light.

U., the protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s dazzling and elusive fourth novel, Satin Island, is a seeker very much in Saussure’s mold, sifting reality’s source code for the meaning of everything. McCarthy debuted a similarly fixated narrator in his 2010 Man-Booker shortlisted novel, C. Here, however, the medium of encryption isn’t radio waves, but humanity itself—the “structures of kinship; systems of exchange … symbolic operations” that govern the stuff of culture.

U. works as a “corporate anthropologist” for The Company, a generically named entity whose province is indefinably boundless. His job is to “unpick the fibre of culture (ours)” and weave high-flown cultural theory into branded content “narratives.” The Company has just landed a plum account, the Koob-Sassen Project, and U. has been assigned to one aspect of it—authoring the secretive, so-called Grand Project. This, his boss Peyman explains, is a comprehensive study of the tribe otherwise known as mankind, circa 2015, “The First and Last word of the Age.” It's an endeavor U. eventually pronounces unwritable. Satin Island, the reader is told, is the chronicle of that failure; the “Not-Report," its waste product. But, in a trope familiar from Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, by documenting his inability to fulfill his charge, U. fulfills it spectacularly. Through an accumulation of piercing observations, idle ruminations, and a dense system of symbols, Satin Island crystallizes into a magisterial ethnographic portrait of our overstimulated, interconnected, simulacra-addicted times.

While the compiling of the Grand Report lends the novel some semblance of an arc, plot here is thin even by McCarthy’s standards. (“Events!” U. warns us early on. “If you want those you’d best stop reading now.”) There’s a storyline about a friend dying of thyroid cancer, a budding romance with a woman named Madison who’s withholding a tantalizing secret, and a growing fixation with what appears to be a global epidemic of parachuting mishaps. But these elements exist largely, it seems, to stock U. with a fresh supply of fodder to metabolize into anthropological insight.

U. is a familiar McCarthy narrator, affectless and cut off, who’s nevertheless haunted by a sympathetic longing for knowledge. Holed up in the purgatorial bowels of his office building, he listens to voices carrying through the ventilation shafts and ponders scraps of miscellaneous information pinned to corkboards. He dreams of the second coming of a messianic polymath like Leibniz who will reconcile the disciplines and derive the grand unified theory of everything. In the meantime, he tries to do it himself, seeking, “the plan, formula, solution—not only to the problem with which I was currently grappling, but to it all, the whole caboodle.” Everything from bungee jumping in Vanuatu to the Turin Shroud to rave culture to ripped jeans begins to intertwine in the hothouse of his mind.

As the novel progresses, interweaving scenes and dreams, events and their imagined reenactions, it pulls into its orbit an ever-expanding constellation of symbols—oil spills, buffering pixels, parachutes. These recur routinely, shuffling and fusing and taking on new meanings in a restless, recombinant process of free association. Before long, the reading experience comes to feel analogous to U.’s own quest as he broods over his “wallpaper fragments," with “parities and conjunctions appearing between contents that, on the surface of things, had nothing in common.” As if to drive home the parallels between the reader and U.’s analytical task, the novel is divided into individually numbered paragraphs, like notecards (or, tellingly, like bible chapters or Nietszchean aphorisms.)

Early on, U. relates how his hero, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, once lamented that as soon as he’d come to understand the complexities of a primitive tribe, “the mystery that drew the anthropologist to his subject in the first place vanishes.” Consequently, Lévi-Strauss mused that the ideal tribe as a subject of study was one that flickered perpetually between transparency and total incomprehensibility—one that retained an impenetrable core of mystery, preventing it from ever growing banal.

This, McCarthy seems to imply, is a prescription for avoiding the deadening of experience in the age of mechanical reproduction, one of the book’s central preoccupations—a prescription of which this novel itself is the artistic proof of concept. Like Strauss’s ideal tribe, Satin Island hovers between the alien and the familiar, packaging experimental literature in a candy coating of easily digestible (and often slyly funny) narrative. Nevertheless, it retains, thanks to the self-referential enigma of its symbols, a certain inexhaustibility, creating a wheel of internal linkages that one might spend a lifetime attempting to unpack.

In this, it resembles another aspect of the Grand Report, which, U. maintains, “has to be conceived of as in a perpetual state of passage, not arrival—not at, but between.” There’s a growing momentum to the convergences in the text, a sense of a master message encoded in the architecture of symbols that will disclose itself if only the reader connects all the dots. The missing link, the revelation that will explain everything, feels, like the presence of the divine, tantalizingly close but always just beyond reach. That it never materializes may just be the book’s ordering principle.

Indeed, in its assault on our expectations of coherence, Satin Island is the act of an artistic provocateur with an existential bone to pick. It cries out in protest (albeit with a healthy sense of mischief) against the calcification of narrative art—a form that’s been coopted by corporate interests, which reshape culture to their own mercenary ends, and whose conventions have been so numbingly recycled in film, books and advertising that we know how practically every story ends almost as soon as it begins. McCarthy challenges the comforting illusion that life unfolds along predictable lines and always achieves meaningful resolution.

And yet, for all of his admirably subversive intent, philosophical inconclusiveness isn’t in the business of tidy dramatic experiences. In deliberately withholding catharsis, the book is almost rigged to end flat. If there is a climax—and the divulgence of Madison’s secret comes close in its engrossing breathlessness—it only leads to further head scratching. (To complain about this, of course, is to fall into McCarthy’s trap.)

But it’s hard to hold a lackluster conclusion against a book that serves up such delights along the way. What turns pages isn’t so much the question, “what happens now?” as a hunger for the next digression or skewed insight into the human condition. Above all, one keeps reading because in his guise as anthropologist, U. unveils a vision of the contemporary world reawakened through the power of his weirdly hyper-alert gaze into something so unfamiliar and heightened it’s like seeing it for the first time.

As much as anything, it’s through the sense of discovery informing its style that Satin Island transcends the lifelessness of the dutifully plotted tale and achieves an endlessly repeating cycle of rebirth. Like U.’s striking description of Nigerian traffic jams, it becomes “a painting, painting itself as you watch," inviting the reader to map meaning onto its mutating pigments. As in life, that meaning may be nothing more than a consoling projection, but a necessary one.