Despite the old adage, it is difficult to avoid being influenced by a books cover. With its open colour wheel, composed of eleven segments that transition from red through to violet, the last two of which are coated in a glossy coat of dripping oil, the minimalist design of Satin Island’s hardback edition gives little away. Intrigued, one is drawn to seek out the novel’s blurb, located on the inside fold of the dustjacket. Here, we learn that Satin Island centres on a “corporate anthropologist” known only as “U”, who works for a gargantuan and mysterious consultancy company. His task is to write “The Great Report – an ethnographic document to sum up our age”.
Working from his office in the basement bowels of The Company’s London offices, U scours and sifts through the relentless torrents of news that arrive at his computer in the form of online articles, news broadcasts and tabloids, classifying, categorising, and compiling his findings into dossiers as his whimsical interests dictate. Working largely unsupervised from a brief so vague that it leaves him in a constant state of doubt as to the shape, form or even end goal of the Report, U waxes philosophical on the themes of anthropology, academia, religion and destiny as he attempts to distil the essence of contemporary life into a form that will revolutionise the way we view society.
Satin Island’s narrative dispenses with the action-driven plot, following instead U’s meandering musings over a vague period of several months as he researches oil spills, parachuting accidents, and roller-blade processions, searching for patterns in human behaviour that might betray an underlying master-structure in our existence. Working for a nameless Company of dubious function from a basement office into which office gossip is fed by means of the building’s ventilation ducts, U and his task may remind readers of such of Terry Gilliam’s protagonists as Brazil’s Sam Lowry or The Zero Theorem’s Qohen. But there are no confrontations with the bureaucracy of the Company here, and U never quite leaves reality behind in favour of his fantasies. His narrative instead reads more like a Haruki Murakami novel: meditative, meandering, and mystical.
For where Gilliam’s heroes inevitably reach a confrontation and arrive at a conclusion of sorts, McCarthy leads us to the resolution of U’s conundrum, dangles the goal embodied by “Satin Island” before our eyes, and then promptly snatches it from us. Satin Island is a novel concerned not with plot or with character, but with structure, with the holistic connections between events and behaviours, place and time, past and future. By dividing each chapter into clauses reminiscent of a legal document, McCarthy suggests that Satin Island itself is the product of U’s research.
In his wry documenting of U.’s attempts to create a new thought model for the current epoch, McCarthy both encourages the reader to ponder the connections underpinning day to day life, and simultaneously highlights the futility of doing so. Like the unclosed circle on the cover, U’s venture remains incomplete; his work, the behaviour he studies, and the epochs into which they are divided are all expressed by the infuriating circle, drawn from his computer’s “loading” icon. Intelligently written and easily readable in bite-sized chunks, Satin Island’s intimation of hidden depths and the refusal of any real conclusions is likely to enthral and frustrate readers in equal measure.