In The Soul of the Marionette,1 his latest treatise on human folly and delusion, the British philosopher John Gray discusses among a wide variety of topics our unflagging fondness for conspiracy theory. To interpret history in terms of conspiracy, Gray observes, is to pay “a backhanded compliment to human rationality.” It is true that for worldwide plots to be successfully carried out, human beings would have to be much more cooperative, less stupid, and far less quarrelsome than they are; anyone who has served on a committee will know how difficult it is to reach and maintain consensus on the most innocent of issues. Still, millions of people firmly believe that behind the façade of a disorderly world, everything is being orchestrated in secret by all-knowing and all-powerful forces. “The belief that there is some hidden cabal directing the course of events,” Gray writes, “is a type of anthropomorphism—a way of finding agency in the entropy of history. If someone is pulling the strings behind the stage the human drama is not without meaning.”
The novel form operates according to this belief, although the seemingly living agents who inhabit a novel are for the most part unwitting conspirators, controlled and manipulated by a prime mover—that is, the novelist—who is himself only intermittently and dimly aware of the grand scheme within which his creatures have their liminal, brief lives. The machinery by which this curious arrangement works is complicated, involving many flywheels, cogs, and levers, and when inspected closely bears a strong resemblance to the contraption at the controls of which the Great Oz was discovered when naughty Toto pulled aside the green satin curtain.
Yet what can the poor novelist do but exert his rough magic? He may long to produce music that will move the stars to tears, but the mundane material he has to work with makes a very cracked melody. For us, life is sustainable only as fantasy; we create a fantasy about love, saying it will never end, about death, saying it will never come; and these are only the bigger issues. Entire mythologies, entire theogonies, have been invented to shore up our manifold illusions. Human creatures pass their days in gloriously irresponsible denial of the cold reality staring them pitilessly in the face. It is as if the citizens of Venice were to go about the business of their lives insisting to themselves and to everyone else that their city’s streets are not filled with water. So how is the novelist, whose subject is the doings of creatures who are forever lying to themselves, supposed to get at the truth? How, manipulating these models of what are already marionettes, is he to strike through to the real?
The nouveaux romanciers, along with a few lone giants such as Wallace Stevens—phenomenologists to a man and woman, whether they knew it or not—considered that the only solution must be to turn back to the thing, the Ding if not quite the Ding an sich, and refuse to be distracted by mere chattering; the thing, that is, and not our notions of it, the pathetic fallacy banished for good. As Stevens beautifully put it in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”:
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
But how is the artist to isolate the object in the difficulty of its being? Through style, of course. Both Flaubert and Joyce had longed to write a book that would be about nothing, nothing except itself, a transcendent and wholly enclosed work of art, mysterious and numinous in its unavoidable thereness. A later would-be hierophant of fiction, and virtually the nouveau roman’s inventor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, following Kafka, insisted that the writer has or should have nothing to say, since all his art resides not in what is said but in the saying. Style, style, and nothing but style. By this pledge, it was felt, we should be able to break free at last of the cheap illusionism of the nineteenth-century novel and achieve a new and undreamed-of purity.
It was a sweet and precious aspiration. It might have come about, that limpidly veracious new form, and almost did—Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, and the groundbreaking short story “The Beach,” were valorous attempts at a distillation of the raw stuff of reality into a quivering drop of pure artistic gold. Life, however, insists on breaking in, rambunctious, ever-untidy, self-deluding life, as impenetrable as rock, as ungraspable as air. How, with all this disorderly clamor, is the artist to get a hold on the thing, in words, in pigment, in sound, and force it to give up its truth? That remained the task, and still remains. The furnace of modernism smelted no more effectively than the crucibles of old, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is no closer to the essence than Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time.
The English novelist Tom McCarthy is usually described as being in the vanguard of the avant-garde, and certainly his pronouncements as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), described in the biographical note in Satin Island as “a semi-fictitious avant-garde network,” have the ponderous overtones of so many of those early-twentieth-century isms that produced much smoke but very little fire. The INS itself, which McCarthy and his friend the philosopher Simon Critchley founded in 1999, aiming “to bring death out into the world” and “sing death’s beauty—that is, beauty,”2 seems a typical product of the “Britart” movement of the time—Damien Hirst is another suppliant at the shrine of Thanatos. McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, finished in 2001, was initially rejected by mainstream publishers but in the end succeeded in getting into print and received broad critical acclaim—Zadie Smith wrote on it at length in these pages, comparing it, favorably, with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and describing it as “one of the great English novels of the past ten years.” Smith saw the book as a way out of what she called “lyrical Realism,” represented by novels such as Netherland:
In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its complacency. It clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.3
This may prove to be true, and time will tell. However, when we look back at the heyday of the Modernists, in the first half of the twentieth century, we notice that with more than a few exceptions—Joyce, Duchamp, and the New York Abstract Expressionists among them—some of the most radical of them tended to shy from the consequences of extremism and turn back to traditional modes, to the figurative in painting, to tonality in music, to realism, lyrical or otherwise, in literature. This regressive tendency is apparent in the trajectory of McCarthy’s career so far. By the time—2010—that he published his third novel, the coldly exuberant C, a sort of cross between Gravity’s Rainbow, one of John Fowles’s faux-historical extravaganzas, Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, his work had been pretty well absorbed into the mainstream. C, published in Britain by the venerable house of Jonathan Cape, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, while in America it was widely and enthusiastically reviewed.
Now comes Satin Island, a deceptively slight work—hardly more than a novella, really—which circles about itself and its obsessions with profound and delicate subtlety, a literary Möbius strip. All of McCarthy’s influences are on display here—it is as if Kafka and J.G. Ballard had got together to write a Thomas Pynchon novel, with a volume of Nietzsche to hand—yet for all that it is singular and original and, in its somber way, profound. Does it offer an “alternate road down which the novel might…travel”? Hardly—but does it matter?
The affectless protagonist—yes, Musil too is present here—is known to us only as U., a name the comic potential of which McCarthy wisely resists. U. is a professional anthropologist, but not of the usual type; certainly he does none of the kind of fieldwork an anthropologist might be expected to be engaged in. Instead, he is employed by a commercial company, or rather, the Company, a sort of super-PR firm, owned by one Peyman, like Humbert Humbert “a salad of racial genes”—he has “Persian, South American and European ancestry”—a stateless, wealthy, and fabulously powerful genius, one of those figures so beloved of today’s conspiracy theory novelists. Two important passages of description—or perhaps prescription would be a better term—indicate the kind of territory we are in here. The Company, U. tells us,
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—to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.
And what service would a trained anthropologist offer to such an organization?
We purvey cultural insight. What does that mean? It means we unpick the fibre of a culture (ours), its weft and warp—the situation it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it—and let a client in on how they [sic] can best get traction on this fibre so that they can introduce into the weave their own fine, silken thread, strategically embroider or detail it with a mini-narrative (a convoluted way of saying: sell their product).
However, Peyman, to U.’s continuing alarm, expects far more from him than these nebulous Penelopean exercises at the loom. In fact, as U. recalls, on the day he hired him, Peyman commanded him to write the Great Report. “The Great Report? I asked, my hand still clenched in his; what’s that? The Document, he said; the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.” The question of the progress, or rather nonprogress, of this task forms a low-key running gag throughout Satin Island. For all the fun, however, there are faint, very faint, hints that the book we are holding in our hands may itself constitute, not the Great Report, perhaps, but a not insignificant prolegomenon to it. U., and his creator before him, have far more serious ambitions, we surmise, than U.’s degree-zero, whited-out, mournful-humorous account of himself and his work would suggest.
The action, such as it is, opens in Turin, or, more precisely, in the airport at Torino-Caselle, where “one evening, a few years ago” U. had found himself stranded because of an air traffic control snarl-up. Turin, he realizes, is the home of the Shroud, the famous winding cloth on which is imprinted what is taken to be the image of Christ after the crucifixion. Carbon-dating has shown that the cloth is no older than the thirteenth century, but, as U. remarks, that doesn’t bother the believers:
Things like that never do. People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality, of time: memory-chambers and oblivion-cellars, walls between eras, hallways that sweep us on towards the end-days and the coming whatever-it-is.
This passage occurs on the first page, and its Pynchonesque combination of the wised-up and the downbeat will send a chill along the spine of many a reader. A little further on McCarthy seeks to dampen thoroughly our readerly expectations when a passing mention of “events” elicits from him a parenthetical caveat: “(events! If you want those, you’d best stop reading now).” Sharp though the caution may be, it does raise a wan laugh, as does many a passage in the book, especially when U. climbs into the saddle of one of his many hobbyhorses and sets off at a standstill gallop. McCarthy, we clearly see, is a close reader of Kafka and has a keen appreciation of his sly, surreptitious humor.
The Company has been hired to carry out the Koob-Sassen Project, a mysterious operation of dubious but apparently momentous intent. It is described as “a huge, ambitious scheme…on the same scale as poldering and draining landmasses of thousands of square miles, or cabling and connecting an entire empire,” which yet, despite its gigantic scale, “would remain, in an everyday sense, to members of the general populace, invisible.” Here we are back on Planet Pynchon, so it is good to be able to report that the project remains vaguely in the background and is not elaborated upon. McCarthy, unlike Pynchon, is not much interested in vast, universal webs of connectedness; rather, he fixes on minutiae that, by dint of a kind of unblinking, glassy-eyed concentration, he raises to levels of high-seeming significance. A number of sustained leitmotifs threaded through the narrative do indeed make of the book a beautiful and closely woven tapestry.
One of the subjects that return again and again, like musical figures, is that of a parachutist U. reads about by chance in a newspaper item, who fell to his death because his parachute had been tampered with. This tragedy inspires some of the book’s finest prose passages. The intricate patterning of Satin Island is founded on a series of opposing dualities, and here, as U. muses on “the image of a severed parachute that floated, like some jellyfish or octopus, though the polluted waters of my mind,” McCarthy combines the themes of limitless sky and depthless ocean:
The domed canopy above, the floppy strings casually twining their way downwards from this like blithe tentacles, free ends waving in the breeze. This last picture, for me, produces, even now, a sense of calm: no angry and insistent tow, no jerks and tugs and stresses—just a set of unencumbered cords carelessly feeling the air.
So taken is U. with the notion of the doomed parachutist that he sets about gathering reports on similar incidents from all over the world—he is surprised how many there are—and at one point even considers offering these data as a component of the Great Report itself. He considers the phenomenon from an anthropological point of view, and finds it curiously satisfying:
The parachutist story, in the stark, predictable simplicity of the circumstance that it presented, in the boldness of its second-handedness, was refreshing: in its unashamed lack of originality, it was original.
The relative lack of interest in or sympathy for the parachutist himself is characteristic of McCarthy’s necronautical determination to treat death not as an exit into nothingness but, on the contrary, as a kind of falling into possibility and potential.
Death is one of the primary themes of the book. It bubbles up everywhere, as in the oil spill we first encounter in the opening pages, when U. is stranded in the airport at Torino- Caselle and watches on his laptop “aerial shots of a stricken offshore platform around which a large, dark water-flower was blooming.” Underneath the world of Satin Island is a vast lake of black, viscous goo that cannot be contained and that seeps or spurts up out of cracks and crevices to sully and stain.
Nothing can resist the blackening effect; at one point he thinks of the Koob-Sassen Project as a coffin-like box “the only constant or unchanging aspect of [which] was that it was black: black and inscrutable, opaque.” Indeed, “the stuff of the world is black,” and when his workmate Petr’s cancer becomes manifest as “dark lumps…pushing up from under the skin’s surface,” U. reflects that “if Petr’s flesh was turning black it was because he’d let the world get right inside him, let it saturate him, until he was so full of it that it was bursting out again, erupting with a radiating luminescence.”
This somber radiance suffuses the book in a way that is at once alarming, moving, and true. Nothing is immune to the darkling effect, even, or especially, writing itself. In a passage syntactically shaky yet worthy of Beckett at his most graphophobic, U. watches footage of the oil spill making landfall on a snow-covered coastline:
The snow seemed to drink in the oil in an almost thirsty way: to blot it up, then pass it onwards through its mass, as though, within the architecture of its vaulted and communicating chambers, their crystalline ice-particles, a series of distribution hubs were secreted. Still sitting at my desk, looking down at the laptop, at the picture on its screen, the streaks and clusters taking shape as oil spread slowly inland, I saw ink polluting paper, words marring the whiteness of a page.
The title Satin Island comes from a dream U. has one night of flying low over “a harbour by a city” and seeing, some way out, an island, possibly man-made, “dark in hue” and yet, like the sea in which it sat, “somehow lit up.” On the island and covering it entirely is a huge trash-incinerating plant in which great mounds of the city’s detritus are slowly smoldering:
Whence the glow: like embers when you poke them, the mounds’ surfaces, where cracked or worn through by the heat, were oozing a vermilion shade of yellow. It was this glowing ooze…inside the trash-mountain’s main body, that made the scene so rich and vivid, filled it with a splendour that was regal.
The book closes with U. in New York and making a trip downtown with the intention of traveling on the ferry to Staten Island, which he supposes is the source for the island in his dream. Hardly surprisingly—this is that kind of novel—he does not in the end take the ferry, but at least he has made a gesture toward…toward something or other: McCarthy is not in the business of providing grand finales, or even of tying up loose ends. All the same, Satin Island is curiously satisfying, a positive made up out of negatives; it may not constitute the Great Report, but it will do as a work of art.