Booker 2015 Reading Update: ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy (2015)


Moving on through the 2015 Man Booker Shortlist, and with an eye on the 13th of October when the prize will be announced, I’ve now finished the shortest novel on the list.

I’m not recommending ‘Satin Island’ because it’s short.  It’s just that this is what first drew me to the novel, standing out as it did in a year of door-stopper nominations.  McCarthy’s book may be under 200 pages, but it’s still ambitious and, potentially, highly prize-worthy.  It will win if the judges are fans of intellectual problems rather than the all too messy physical issues raised in nearly all of the other shortlisted books.  ‘Satin Island’ doesn’t deal with child abuse, poverty or murder.  Instead it’s a book about writing, about big ideas and about finding meaning in a privileged world.

The narrator, U, works as an anthropologist for a large, successful business.  His days are filled with watching large videos of oil slicks and traffic, interspersed with conferences and international travel.  What action there is, comes from his attempts to compile a mythic ‘great report’ for his boss.   This report is to be ‘the book.  The First and Last Word on our age…Not just a book: the fucking Book.  You write the book on them.  Sum their tribe up.  Speak its secret name.’

The novel somewhat reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s wonderful ‘Outline’ (which I reviewed here at Shiny New Books), in which a very different narrator desperately attempted to impose meaning on the world through a seemingly random witnessing of others’ stories.  In other ways, U was like a British Philip Roth character, enjoying his own fantasy world, especially when it can be clinically divorced from messy reality.

‘Satin Island’ is at its best when it lets the language, rather than the big ideas, take centre stage.  As an explanation for why the main ‘project’ undertaken by U’s business is not explained, we’re told ‘Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important.  It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single part of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this.  Not that it was secret.  Things like that don’t need to be.  They creep under the radar by being boring.  And complex.  Koob-Sassen involved many hookups, interfaces, transpositions – corporate to civic, supranational to local, analogue to digital and open to restricted and hard to soft, and who knows what else.  It was a project formed of many other projects, linked to many other projects – which renders it well-nigh impossible to say where it began and ended, to discern its ‘content’, bulk or outline.  Perhaps all projects nowadays are like that – equally boring, equally inscrutable.

The idea could be out of the ‘HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, but the prose is knowing, fluid and hypnotic enough to justify its place on this year’s Booker list.  While themes of technology, surveillance and control are ever-present, it is the language that makes ‘Satin Island’ special.

Also, there is something appealing about the self-conscious premise.  The book is about an anthropologist making sense of his peers and attempting to stand both within and observe from outside his own society.  As readers, we’re positioned as voyeurs, viewing the modern world through U’s eyes.  Whatever judgement you make on the book, you are implicated by involvement and simply reading it places you within the group of knowledge seekers who try to make sense of the world through narrative, language and second hand experience.

Ultimately ‘Satin Island’ is a book full of promise.  I don’t think it will work for everyone but I’m confident it has and will find a core audience of devoted readers.  Their engagement will be well rewarded, as it’s rich and full of complexity.  If you’re not within the group then the good news is: at least it’s short!

I received my copy of ‘Satin Island’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

This entry was posted in Booker Prize 2015, Tom McCarthy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Booker 2015 Reading Update: ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy (2015)

  1. JacquiWine says:

    I enjoyed your review of this novel. Interestingly, it sounds much more appealing to me than many of the other emotionally-driven books on the shortlist.

    • I’m still standing by ‘A Brief History of 7 Killings’ as my favourite of the short-list, but I think ‘Satin Island’s inclusion is significant because it is so important (along with ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’) in showing the range of topic and themes available to literary fiction writers. As you say – not everyone wants to read the emotionally distressing books that have been receiving most of the attention this year.

  2. bookarino says:

    The more I hear about this book, the more interested in it I become. It seems to me to be a book that divides opinions, and a lot of the reviews that I’ve read have been on the negative side. However, the elements of anthropology and language make it sound like something right up my alley, so I look forward to reading this. Great review!

    • Thank you, it’s definitely a marmite book and I’d hate to over-sell it to readers who’d hate it! On the otherhand there’s clearly a huge potential fan base for SI – I look forward to hearing what you make of it.

  3. MarinaSofia says:

    I couldn’t resist the anthropologist premise, the corporate jargon and the waiting around in airports – so much of my life at present is just that… I do have it but haven’t read it yet, but am glad tohear that you thought it was an interesting read.

    • I look forward to your review; I actually think sometimes it’s a bit too ambitious and cerebral for its own good, but I do respect McCarthy’s intentions and much of the writing is just wonderful.

  4. Satin Island is definitely one of the shortlisted books I’m most interested in, and your review has definitely piqued that interest even further– sounds fascinating!

  5. Pingback: Booker Short List! | Shoshi's Book Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s