In a book that’s partly about literal and metaphorical surfaces, it’s only fitting that the story should begin before our narrator utters a word. Tom McCarthy’s fourth novel (after Remainder, Men In Space, and C), Satin Island, depicts on its cover the words “treatise,” “essay,” “report,” “confession,” and “manifesto,” all crossed out, leaving only “a novel” unmarked. Before the first page readers have been made aware of the author’s uncertainty of the exact type of document within. Leaving them all unmarked might have made just as much as sense, as Satin Island is as slippery a thing as its title suggests.
Our unnamed narrator calls himself U. (“Me? Call me U.”) This could mean “you,” but also calls to mind the monolithic University—a capital “U” followed by a dot, the period emphasizing its/his authority on a wide variety of subjects. U., as it turns out, is an anthropologist. More specifically, he’s “the in-house ethnographer for a consultancy” known as the Company. This is why U. has been tasked with writing the Great Report, and to embark on the mysterious Koob-Sassen project to which this Great Report will help shape, or vice versa. Shapes come into play often during the narrative as U. becomes particularly fascinated both by an oil spill that seems inspired by the 2010 BP environmental catastrophe and the death of a parachutist that was no accident, but a murder (all the necessary ropes and straps had been clipped and repacked so as to be unnoticed until it was too late).
U. comes across both of these news items by chance. He sees the former on a television while waiting in the airport at Turin, where he ruminates for the first of many times about surfaces (the Shroud Of Turin, in this case, of course). The latter he reads about in the free papers distributed in London’s Tube stations that linger among the bench seats long past rush hour. These two incidents serve as philosophical departure points that end up weaving their way into the Great Report, and the novel, which itself might also be the Great Report. U.’s office is in the basement of the building where the Company is headquartered. (Why is it that narrators resembling our U., dating back farther than perhaps even Dostoyevsky, all work underground? This question itself is one that U. would ponder for pages, if it had any relevance to the Great Report.)
Hopefully by now, the nature of Satin Island has become apparent. It is not your usual novel (as the cover has already warned you with its genre-insecurity fully displayed), but McCarthy does not deal in the usual; that’s why, while this review might sound like a dull postmodern exercise in self-indulgence, the book is more entertaining than it has any right to be. It is why—when our narrator wonders aloud about the exact location of the parachutist’s murder—we remain fascinated. McCarthy’s prose is somehow pretentious and free from pretension, its tone almost self-mocking and self-aware, dull were it not so comical. (For the record, U. decides the exact location of the murder is in the sky, where, of course, it is nearly impossible to outline any exact scene of the crime.) As for the oil spill, McCarthy—or U.—is nearly convincing in his argument that it is not an environmental catastrophe at all, but in fact a beautiful articulation of nature itself. The oil adds form to the movement of the sea, making the waves and tides more visible and aesthetically pleasing because “when oil spills, Earth opens its archives.”
Only a writer of McCarthy’s wit could erase the book you’re holding in your hand without entirely alienating his readers. In describing how Claude Lévi-Strauss (our narrator’s anthropological hero) once went mad, abandoned in a remote village, and began writing a work of fiction on the backside of his research notes, U. wonders what the Great Report might be. On which side of the paper it would reside—as notes, or as fiction? “More to the point: to which side does this non-Report you’re reading now… belong?”
U. concludes, somewhat similarly as he does about the crime scene of the parachutist, that the words of Satin Island belong “to neither side, but to the middle.” McCarthy’s “great report” defies convention, its story not even between the lines but within the pages. No, not within, but inside the paper, or, even further, nowhere. If this all sounds infuriating, it is. But it’s also fun, the brief 208 pages containing multitudes. Or maybe nothing at all, if you ask U.