Tom McCarthy is a popular British avant-garde novelist with a forbidding public image. He writes technological dystopian fiction that looks at the world with the same cold sinister stare as that of Chuck Palahniuk or William Vollmann, and he physically resembles Dwight Schrute from “The Office”. He doesn’t come across as a very warm person.
But is this a mirage? I’m liking Tom McCarthy more and more with each new book, and I’m starting to understand the earnest moral passion and conviction behind the sociological concepts that animate his literary experiments. When I first began reading him, I was slightly put off by his cackling, sarcastic persona. I was also mystified by the fact that he balances his fiction writing with “propaganda” on behalf of a shadowy organization devoted to experimental investigations into death.
Yet his novels somehow compel me in, and once inside a Tom McCarthy novel the cold persona quickly starts to fall away. There is in fact something strangely warm, human and relatable about Tom McCarthy, which is why he’s emerging as the most interesting postmodern author on the scene today.
I’ve just finished Satin Island, a new Tom McCarthy novel nearly as mind-blowing as his signature work, Remainder. Satin Island is not as sharply plotted as the astonishing Remainder, but it is a smoother ride, more joyfully and consistently composed, a beautiful and enjoyable exhibit of highly observant prose. In place of a plot, Satin Island reads like a fabric of ideas, a quilt of threads ranging from Claude Levi-Strauss to Jacques Derrida to William S. Burroughs to James Joyce.
The book is narrated by a young anthropologist who has been co-opted by a gigantic mega-corporation to help produce a functional study of every facet of human existence, a project called Koob-Sassen that vaguely resembles a nightmare we may all lately be having about the all-powerful secret control systems that the NSA might be building right now, if they really are as evil as we sometimes think.
We never understand the full nature of Koob-Sassen, but we can see that it is some kind of attempt at oligarchic world control, and that the successful execution of the project requires extremely clever and innovative thinking on the part of the hired anthropologists, who frequently compare notes around the office. To control everybody else, these anthropologists must be the smartest people in the world, must figure out every game, every scheme:
As I stepped out of the blind spot back into time and his office, he asked: Have you ever been to Seattle, U.? Behind him, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, cranes, clouds, bridges, aeroplanes, the Thames all jostled for position. No, I answered. It’s interesting, he said. Oh yes? I asked. How so? Well, he replied the truly striking thing about the city is its lack of Starbucks outlets: driving around, you don’t see a single one. That’s strange, I said: I thought Seattle was where Starbucks came from. Exactly, he said: you’d think the town would turn out to just be one giant Starbucks. But instead it’s all Joe’s Cappuccino Bar, Espresso Luigi, Pacific Coffee Shack and the like. So what’s the story there? I asked. What’s the story indeed? he repeated. This is exactly what I asked my driver, and do you know what he told me? Penman looked up from his device. I shook my head. He told me, Peyman said, his gaze now drifting over to his monitor, that these were Starbucks: stealth ones.
McCarthy is a highly connective author, and Satin Island streams forth with literary references. The tiny man inside a giant bureaucracy calls to mind Franz Kafka’s The Castle. The frightening (and probably already accurate) notion that a corporation can hire skilled anthropologists to develop capabilities for mass mind control evokes Dana Spiotta’s Eat The Document. The vision of one of these anthropologists struggling to maintain his sense of self within this creepy milieu beckons J. M. Coetzee’s first novel Dusklands, in which the mega-corporation is the US government during the war in Vietnam, and in which the researcher goes horrifyingly insane.
McCarthy’s greatest gift is his sly and unpretentious writing style, his sensitivity for realism, his light touch with a heavy idea. In Satin Island, he captures a universe in which everything is just slightly off, just slightly inferior to what it’s supposed to be. Reality appears to the narrator to have become a cut-rate version of itself, as when he goes to the funeral of a close friend and is appalled at the lack of effort that goes into the funeral, especially when he hears speeches filled with banal and generic non-facts that don’t even accurately describe his close friend who just died.
In a Tom McCarthy universe, even something as benevolent as a good idea is likely to sickeningly turn over and expose its soft underbelly. One day the narrator is thrilled that he has discovered the answer to a puzzling mystery involving dead parachutists. He is bouncing off the walls with excitement about his discovery. A few pages later, he realizes that his brilliant idea is not only wrong but wasn’t even very well thought-out to begin with, and his mood crashes with the hammer-blow of this truth.
Satin Island reads like a fabric, and in fact fabrics are all over Satin Island: the shroud of Turin, the complex textures of fine satin and rough dungaree denim, the silk of a parachute, even the fabric of humanity found at the lower tip of Manhattan island when the hero of the novel visits the Staten Island Ferry but decides not to get on. As I finished Satin Island I began to understand that Tom McCarthy writes these novels because he actually cares about humanity. He’s worried about us all, and about what we’ve done, and what we’re about to do next:
I lay awake for a long time, thinking of what she’d said. Levi-Strauss claims that, for the isolated tribe with whom an anthropologist makes first contact — the tribe who, after being studied, will be decimated by diseases to which they’ve no resistance, then (if they’ve survived) converted to Christianity and, eventually, conscripted into semi-bonded labour my mining and logging companies — for them, civilization represents no less than a cataclysm. This cataclysm, he says, is the true face of our culture — the one that’s turned away, from us at least.