Nature is Dirty

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island

Jonathan Cape, 174pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780224090193

reviewed by Dan Barrow

Culture as garbage, garbage as culture – such is one formulation of the modernist conundrum. Beckett's much-abused comment that '[e]very word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness' – given, lest we forget, not in some carefully preserved high-cultural despatch, but in a 1969 interview for Vogue – rather than implying a quasi-Buddhist contempt for the merely existent acknowledges that words are a substance that requires order, patterning, against the impossible purity of a fantasised void. As soon as language appears, it implies all the old invariables from which the Beckettian subject recoils like the sites of taboos: narrative, time, mortality, love. Language is, to purloin anthropologist Mary Douglas' description of dirt, 'matter out of place.' Under modernity, the naturalised forms of order that culture had sustained break down: modernism appears, TJ Clark suggests, as an attempt to formulate responses to the disappearance of any 'natural', given way of life, of any 'realm of pleasure or praxis' for culture to naturally belong to. Culture constructs itself out of the leavings of vanished lifeworlds or the repositories of the (social) unconscious. Thus, rubbish: in The Waste Land it strews over shorelines as the crushed remnants of old Europe ('the king my brother's wreck') and replaces the substance of myth (those famous departed nymphs). Culture is so much 'fragments I have shored against my ruin.'

At the eponymous centre of Satin Island is a mountain of trash. After the narrator – U, an anthropologist with a small, vanished reputation as an innovator in his field, now working as a consultant for 'The Company' – gets a post-coital put-down from his girlfriend, he has a dream. An island in a great city's harbour, covered with 'a single giant, half-ruined complex... Inside this complex, rubbish was being burnt.' The vast stacks of rubbish seem to pulse with an inner life: 'like embers when you poke them, the mounds' surfaces, where cracked or worn through by the heat, were oozing a vermilion shade of yellow. It was this glowing ooze, which hinted at a deeper, almost infinite reserve of yet-more-flowing ooze inside the trash-mountain's main body, that made the scene so rich and vivid.' It's a zone of exclusion, but one 'more weirdly opulent than the capital it served.' The interiority, the novelistic richness of description, that other characters seem, within the narrator's admittedly limited gaze, to lack, is commuted to debris. The words 'Satin Island' remain with him like the dirty successor of Novalis's blue flower.

This revelation – a parody of sorts of the Joycean-modernist epiphany – arrives at a crucial point in his frustrations with 'the Koob-Sassen Project', the mysterious contract The Company has won. Though it's unclear exactly what the Project involves, his research – so his boss, Peyman, assures him – feeds right into it. He attends meetings and conferences, chats with his co-workers – Olivier, a former documentarian who projects images of oil spills on his office wall, and Petr, whose main narrative function is to die from cancer – and agonises, like any other writer, over how to find the right approach, form or moment in which his research might finally fall into its proper, illuminating shape. That's more or less all there is in terms of dramatic action. The question that McCarthy poses – and in this he follows Robbe-Grillet's purloining of detective story narrative structures – is what meaningful patterning might emerge from this scatter of events, a question that this vision of Satin Island seems to hold the answer to.

The reader knows what kind of theoretical work this image is doing, partly because the narrator's waking mind knows it too. Enough ink, baffled, resentful or obliging, has been spilled on McCarthy's affinity with a certain time-marked iteration of Theory, but here the spillage of the (theoretical-biographical) outside into the novel starts to work more fluidly and usefully than in previous books. Unlike in C (2010), where the narrative voice almost directly ventriloquises the theoretical subtext to what was otherwise a pretty straight historical novel, McCarthy makes the narrator of Satin Island himself a (professionalised) mouthpiece for Theory, mobilising it as a self-reflexive – but also self-deceiving – means for studying narrative as it unfolds in real time. If McCarthy's public pronouncements sometimes seem to have a self-parodic edge, appearing to have been cryogenically frozen sometime in the late 80s, Satin Island uses them for the purposes of dry comedy. At moments – as when he spends several pages imagining how a conference presentation he made should have gone, with cheers from the audience – he resembles nothing so much as the hapless and unaware theorist-hero of a '70s campus novel. In this respect it has a mocking affinity with the current trend for 'autofiction' as exemplified by Ben Lerner's 10:04 and literary Twitter’s flavour-of-the-month, Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. This approach of introducing the metadiscourse of the narrative straight into the system of the novel allows an address to the question of Theory both more satisfyingly direct and more oblique than McCarthy has achieved previously, directing itself to readers with a knowing wink from the narrative (if not the narrator) whilst at the same time letting out more rawly what unstated things are on the narrative's mind. (We'll return to this in a moment.)

Peyman has entrusted U with producing 'the Great Report': the document that would sum up, in its detail and sweep, the schema of contemporary humanity in all its anthropological patterning. 'Not just a book: the fucking Book. You write the Book on them. Sum their tribe up. Speak its secret name.' In one sense, Satin Island is the book that exists instead of the Great Report, a document of the attempt to write it that traces its absence in negative. Its apparently undifferentiated succession of riffs and set-pieces describe U's attempts at finding its form, the structure in which the unshaped mass of phenomenal stuff will be articulated. This is a neat device for generating narrative tension and possible sub-plots without actually committing to them. Thus, after an initial dream-vision of a passenger-less parachute, U follows a newspaper crime story about a parachutist who was apparently murdered by a fellow skydiver. But this eventually just peters out. It's these combinations of red herrings, theoretical shaggy-dog stories and oddly inadequate symbols that U forges an epistemology of the Report: the novel, pivoting around its vision of Satin Island, performs the very process of trying to make the data of the world cohere.

Satin Island includes a lot of good, slightly in-jokey comedy about Theory and its attendant bros. U made his name writing an embedded anthropological tract about '90s rave culture: 'What constitutes 'interrogation' in the first place?... Does sex with a Lycra-miniskirted informant on your writing table at 5 a.m. when you're both tripping count?' (It's funnier if you know that this is the sort of thing some rave-infatuated theorists – most particularly the University of Warwick's Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit – were actually up to in those days.) McCarthy has a lot of fun with the current overlaps between continental philosophy, self-help and management-speak. Peyman speaks in aphorisms that suggest a Deleuzo-Guattarian gone native in Silicon Roundabout: '“Location is irrelevant: what matters is not where something is, but rather where it leads...”' On design: '“The end-point to which it strives is is a state in which the world is one hundred per cent synthetic, made by man, for man, according to his desires.”' (That latter quip cribs from Fredric Jameson's Valences of the Dialectic.) The satire of corporate concept-engineering can sometimes seem heavy-handed, until you remember that the reality, in its strangest manifestations, is beyond satire. (Notably, one of the major stars of that '90s theory/rave confluence, Sadie Plant, ended up working for Siemens before disappearing from the public sphere.) What's more, it gains in potency from acknowledging that there's something of value in what PR, market research and their theoretical fellow-travellers do – that the claims of the advertising industry to be society's libidinal vanguard isn't simply ideology. Formally, the novel's occasional resemblance, with its numbered paragraphs and coolly technical style, to those leather-bound documents that turn up on conference room tables gives form and credence to McCarthy's claims, made in a Guardian article shortly after Satin Island’s publication, that the algorithmic taxonomies of big data are 'the real avant-garde' of the current moment, its own all-encompassing 'Great Report.'

For the 19th and 20th centuries, such a form already existed: the novel, from Balzac's La Comédie Humaine to Updike's Rabbit novels via Ulysses. This is obviously where one of McCarthy's heavy-weather arguments with realist fiction begins. Satin Island represents maybe the best we can hope for from the form in McCarthy's proposed endgame: a blank, half-dystopian puzzle, strewn with clues that seem, like the buttons of a crap software interface, to lead nowhere. (By this standard, the best novels of the 21st century so far are Don DeLillo's Point Omega and Mad Men seasons three to seven.) His argument in the Guardian article is too detailed and contentious to deal with here, but it seems clear enough that it's designed as a kind of supplement to Satin Island itself, spelling out what the novel's recalcitrant constellation of images doesn't quite: that by reducing language to another atomised material in the circuits of digital media, big data completes the task – alas! – that the fragmentation-machine of modernist literature started. (In McCarthy's account, that would include Lévi-Strauss' daft epic system of structural anthropology, elaborated at Proustian length in his Mythologiques.)

But then, what of the garbage? If the internet forms the zone where everything is preserved and nothing disposed of, it also forms the great machine of cultural code-switching – of simultaneously producing and scrambling differentiated material, after the infinite binary patterns of Lévi-Strauss: trash/culture. Network society is its own necessary excluded zone, its own Satin Island. And my suspicion is that Satin Island – the novel and the Cockaigne of soiled meaning – is up to things that McCarthy's own supplementary explanation doesn't know about.

While at a conference in Frankfurt, he visits a friend and fellow anthropologist who takes U to the storage facility for the ethnological museum she works for. It's full of multiple versions of the same object bought at different villages in New Guinea: 'you had to gather everything: a hammer or a pair of scissors might tell you as much about a culture as a sacred fetish – suddenly release its inner secrets, like some codex.' Now, like the unopened crates of artworks in Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu or a blog's long-unviewed archive, they sit unstudied and unexhibited. She remarks that '“I've got the nagging suspicion that one of these objects – just one – has Rosebud written on its base.”' This is not an image from the tradition of programming, but from the cinema and the modernist novel. It's as if an especially unfashionable ghost just breezed in. As Roger Shattuk notes in his study of Proust, this tradition of memory in the 20th century is essentially scopic, visual, voyeuristic. And indeed, in Satin Island the act of looking is repeatedly put under pressure. The symbols that form the novel's economy of meaning – a circular buffering indicator, the vision of a falling parachute, tides of obliterating oil, the island itself – all appear as objects seen from outside. The descriptions are typically detailed and lingering, but without beauty, as if detached from any aesthetic function, reduced to flat thumbnails on a Google Images search. The novel proffers not the articulacy of code but visuality as a kind of skeleton key for its own meaning – and in doing so, shifts the analysis that McCarthy suggests the novel is making. This visibility is, notably, the apparently dominant mode of post-Internet 2.0 culture, in which text is subject to the logic of the scrolling Tumblr page and the editing cursor, in which the high-end pop-up ad, as monads of the regime of the image, remains the last zone of aesthetic differentiation, where culture becomes trash and trash becomes culture.

In the final scene, in New York, he waits for the Staten Island Ferry and then decides not to take it, finding himself 'suspended between two types of meaninglessness.' As the boat pulls out, the island is struck by light: 'haloing it, transmuting it into a brilliant orange pool that spread across the harbour like a second mass of water, one set on a slightly different plane that spilled across the first one when the two planes intersected. This pool of light was spreading right towards the ferry, swallowing it up, dismantling it pixel by orange pixel.' Satin Island never feints towards the transcendence that seems the exit ploy of realist fiction from the endgame of the novel as an historical form – the mode of what Zadie Smith, in a now ubiquitous essay on McCarthy and Joseph O'Neill, called 'lyrical realism.' But it's still possessed – if only in the negative – by a primal history of contemporary media.
Dan Barrow is a writer and researcher based in Sheffield. He has written for The Wire, Sight and Sound, Tribune, LA Review of Books and others.