‘Starts to feel laboured’ – Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Like many things, connectivity is both a blessing and a curse. Global transportation and the Internet open up a world of opportunity, but also leave some vulnerable: disorientated by the ever-spinning kaleidoscope; disturbed by the howl of wolves, baying in the dark.
Put another way, existential nausea may well be the disorder of the age – a malaise that is explored, albeit obliquely, in Satin Island. In the opening scene we find our protagonist, U, an understated Master of the Universe, stuck in Torino-Caselle airport. All flights are grounded and U is observing the rip and curl of human waves whilst dipping into a smorgasbord of news streams: war, football and environmental catastrophe. The juxtaposition – the hermetically-sealed sterility of a first-world airport lounge, contrasted with random chaos coming through a bank of screens – works perfectly. Moreover, the character has been drawn masterfully: the register, U’s ‘voice’ is so finely crafted, as to communicate a whole world in and of itself.
There is a problem, though – he comes across as unlikeable, a social and intellectual snob:
“..The man sitting beside me, noticing the rapt attention I was paying those pictures, tried at one point to spark up a conversation. Tutting disapprovingly in their direction, he opined that it was a tragedy. That was the word he used, of course: tragedy – like a TV pundit. I looked him up and down, scanning his get-up. He was wearing a suit but had removed his tie, and laid it, folded, on a wheel-mounted carry-on bag that stood beside him. … I didn’t answer at first. When I did, I told him that the word tragedy derived from the ancient Greek custom of driving out a sheep, or tragos – usually a black one – in a bid to expiate a city’s crimes. He turned back to the screen and watched it with me for a while as though this shared activity now formed part of our dialogue, of our new friendship. But I could feel he was upset not to have got the response that he’d expected. After a few minutes, he stood up, grasped the handle of the bag on which his tie was resting and walked off…”
Whether U is meant to be off-putting is an open question, but despite the brilliance of the opening scene, the empathetic connection between reader and protagonist could quite possibly be missed. Indeed there is something uber-pretentious about U, and his conversations and associates. Even his name (or what we know of it), and that of the people and things in his environ – Peyman (boss), Koob-Sassen (project), Madison (FWB) – serve to make him and his world, purposely aloof. Of course it is possible that, far from being off-putting, his exceptionalism may well attract. If so, such a strategy would be reminiscent of Fifty Shades of Grey – the idea being that the elite are *always* attractive. (The 50 Shades parallels don’t stop there: the case for U being Anastasia Steele to Peyman’s Christian Grey, could easily be made:
“As I listened to him talk about Koob-Sassen, it all made sense, even if it didn’t. Even the fact that it didn’t quite make sense made sense, while he was talking.”)
The book is constructed as a series of meditations, and whilst most of them individually are pitch-perfect, (I challenge all to find a better riff than 6.8), running end-to-end, something starts to grate: there are too many tangents. It is too ‘loose’. The story has no real locus; no arc – it is simply riding U’s listlessness, his cool detachment from the everyday. All we get is a two-dimensional show off. And thus despite being so slim (173 pages), it starts to feel laboured – weighed down by ivory tower musings; by extempore bullshit. It is only near the end that, on being confronted with his own limitations, a holistic character is unearthed.
Perhaps after all, there is no existential crisis – just a rarefied drifter who turns us on and keeps us excited with his exceptionalism. Maybe… And if so, it must be stressed that many of the scenes, vignettes, are just sensational (see 12.17 – U’s analysis on text messaging as the key to immortality). But whilst the writing is sharp, the story for too long lacks bite.
Any Cop?: Satin Island is clever, vogue, slick and sleek. But by merely surfing U’s listlessness, and only penetrating it late on, the reader may need patience to see the story’s soul.
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- March 25, 2016 / 9:00 am