Friday, June 19, 2015

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

I almost gave up on this. I couldn’t get a grip. A Goodreads friend had said there was a great section at the end. I flipped there and discovered where SATIN in the title comes from, and noticed in The Acknowledgements that McCarthy talks about spending his grant time watching video loops of oil spills projected on his office walls. That was my entry point. I started again.

This profoundly disturbing novel is written in chapters that resemble memos to oneself while the main character, U, engages in a corporate job that requires much flight-time and international conferences. "Call me U" is an anthropologist, an in-house ethnographer for a consultancy.
"The Company (let’s continue to call it that) advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies, governments how to narrate their policy agendas…What we essentially do is fiction."
It can hardly be said U was happy in his work. U would dream at night, like many of us, but his sexual dreams might have pieces of his work or things he’d read in the news incorporated. If he read about an oil spill, for instance, his dreams would have some kind of female figure, sexy, arising out of the sea covered in oil blobs:
“a sluttish Aphrodite frolicking in the blackened foam, her face adorned with the look that readers’ wives and models have in dirty magazines.”
At least two things were happening to U while he was preparing a report for the corporation he worked for: one was that he’d read about a parachutist whose strings to his parachute were cut before he took a dive, and the other was that a business associate of his was dying of thyroid cancer. Both men "were dead before they hit the ground," as it were. The crime scene was "in the sky", in the very air we breathe.

This is a novel about our death, but before the "fall." The parachutist "had been murdered without realizing it." The man with thyroid cancer is already dead while he continues to relate the doctor’s findings every day. The people on this planet are dead while we continue to document to infinitude the activities of humans past and present, including the oil spills and the waste dumps, one of which is Satin Island, formerly Staten Island, now covered over with golf courses and walkways and greeting visitors to the United States in the same general vicinity as the Statue of Liberty.
You (that is U) don’t have "to go to Staten Island--actually go there--[that] would be profoundly meaningless....Not to go there was, of course, profoundly meaningless as well…the explosion’s already taking place—it’s always been taking place. You just didn’t notice…"
U has a sense, while he does his work as an anthropologist, of having come “too late.” He knows there is more to the patterns he sees in the oil spills and the sudden deaths but he can’t make them out until a coworker tells him of her experience as a demonstrator, a protester, against the G8 Summit in 2001.

The novel is disturbing because I also think there may be no way back to health on the planet, though I would never just give up. When the best scientists are thinking one way to save the human race is by sending representatives to colonize Mars, I think life as we know may be…let’s say, limited.

Only after finishing the novel did I know what that earlier reviewer I linked to in the top of this review meant. When you get there, you will see it, too.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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