Book Review: Satin Island

Thursday 20 August 2015 by

Satin Island, Book, Reading, Tom McCarthy, Man Booker 2015, Jonathan CapeSatin Island by Tom McCarthy

Published by Jonathan Cape

Meet U. – a talented and uneasy figure currently pimping his skills to an elite consultancy in contemporary London. His employers advise everyone from big businesses to governments, and, to this end, expect their ‘corporate anthropologist’ to help decode and manipulate the world around them – all the more so now that a giant, epoch-defining project is in the offing.

Instead, U. spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there, U. wonders, a secret logic holding all these images together – a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our age? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news? Perhaps; perhaps not.

As U. oscillates between the visionary and the vague, brilliance and bullshit, Satin Island emerges, an impassioned and exquisite novel for our disjointed times.


Satin Island was one of the more intriguing novels picked for the Man Booker longlist. Achingly contemporary, it shies away from the norms of literary fiction with its familial structures and emotional plotlines, instead streamlining itself to become one 173-page existential stream-of-consciousness. Sounds complicated? Well, U is kind of complicated. After all, he’s a corporate anthropologist, and no one (not even he) knows what that means.

Imagine the offspring of 1984, Catch-22 and American Psycho and you will get some feel of the personality of this book. U oscillates between reality and unreality, fantasy and normality. He strives for the Great Answer, convinced that there is some design behind it all, and yet in his efforts proves that nothing is more random than real life. As you go along, you are increasingly convinced that U is on to something, with his theories about parachutists, oil spills and Torino-Caselle airport. But ultimately this theory is as real as his Satin Island – his dream version of Staten Island and wasteland.

There is something deeply philosophical about this book; as you read it you start to become aware of the patterns in your own life that you assign with great importance, but which are in fact just random coincidences. U is a blank canvas, with little personality to hang your hat on, and so the story is not really about him, but everything that happens around him – it is Petr’s story and Peyman’s and Madison’s. It is even the dead parachutist’s and the homeless man’s before it is U’s. U is merely an observer of humanity, noting it down in order to create a pattern, but simply rolling further down the rabbit hole (and taking you with him).

But for McCarthy readers, this is not unfamiliar. The character’s thirst for knowledge, the constant repetition (like the buffering U likes to describe) have been seen before in McCarthy’s writing – perhaps, most notably, in Remainder. McCarthy has been described as a JG Ballard – breathless and frustrating and manic in writing, but fulfilling the role of asking the great unanswerable questions, of offering answers for a question as yet unasked. McCarthy is unafraid to draw uncomfortable conclusions, to inject humour where none should be, and to generally create an environment that could bring on some kind of mania if you allowed it.

You continue to read Satin Island because you believe that it is all leading somewhere. But that is the great part of this book: we are all looking for a conclusion, but we will get lost in the maze of theory before we can ever hope to find it.

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