Review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Sometimes books don’t make sense until right at the end. Satin Island is one where I didn’t get it until I reached the acknowledgements!

Tom McCarthy explains that he wrote this book during a residency which, ‘I spent projecting images of oil spills onto huge white walls and gazing at them for days on end.’ It all begins to make sense …

Satin Island is told by U, a male anthropologist working for a big corporation. He is working on a project, the Koob-Sassen project, which remains opaque throughout the book as to intest and purpose, opaque to U as well as the reader.

McCarthy uses images of oil spills and stories of sabotaged parachutists from news stories in this novel, all as part of U’s ethnographic work. U tries to write a book, and fails, instead coating his walls with images from the news stories and delivering the ideas he derives from these as his contribution towards the project. He feels like he has failed, but his contribution is eventually received with accolades. And we are still unclear what he has contributed to.


In some ways, as I neared the end of this book, it made me think of Don De Lillo’s Cosmopolis. Both books submerge themselves under the surface of the corporate world,but De Lillo goes deeper, faster, and his world is more insane. I loved McCarthy’s Remainder, where you get sucked into one man’s world, sucked so deeply that you don’t realise just how insane it is until right at the end. Satin Island doesnn’t work so well for me, perhaps because U is less compelling: it is hard to write a persuasive corporate drone even if he is a drone with self-knowledge. His relationship with his girlfriend Madison seems bland and unfulfilling for him, which again makes it harder to care. This book works as an intelligent and intellectual analysis of the futility of the corporate world, but if you want a good read and a great introduction to McCarthy, try  Remainder.

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