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.