Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

My favourite book on the Booker longlist (I think) is A Little Life, a book that is very much character-driven, in which there is no mention of time-signifiers, despite being set in New York over decades there is no 9/11, no Iraq war, no named presidents or detailed description of technology – nothing that would immediately place the book in a certain era.

Satin Island is almost the opposite of that – except I should say that I enjoyed it very much, in fact, strangely for a book with no real plot to speak of, I found it unputdownable. It is very much placed in the present day, with talk of airport hubs, plane delays, “around me and my screen, more screens: of other laptops, mobiles, televisions… One screen showed highlights of a football game. Another showed the aftermath of a marketplace truck bombing somewhere in the Middle East“.

The main character has no name, we know him only as U, and where he works is the Conpany, working on the Project, having meetings with the Minister. It is a long, flow-of-consciousness book, broken up into strictly numbered paragraphs.

“Forget family, or ethnic or religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe. My use of the word tribe here isn’t fanciful; its modern that’s the dubious term. The logic underlying the corporation is completely primitive. The corporation has its gods, its fetishes, its high priests and its outcasts….. It has its rituals, beliefs and superstitions”.

There is no doubt that the writing is challenging, that the sentences are long, that it is not a book easily understood – and to be honest, I don’t think I have understood it! But I really just loved the flow of the sentences and McCarthy’s original way of describing things, that made me smile with recognition – describing common things in a completely new way.

“Describing sunsets, he saw spun webs of lit-up vapour, a whole architecture of reflective strands that both revealed and hid the source that lay behind them”

And describing a mound of rubbish on fire:

“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, which hinted at a deeper, almost infinite reserve of yet-more-glowing ooze inside the trash-mountain’s main body, that made the scene so rich and vivid, filled with a splendour that was regal”. 

U is a corporate ethnographer, working for the Company. His main task is to write the Book – the ethnographic study of the modern age – and Satin Island follows his meandering procrastinations as U gathers information for his book, becoming obsessed with certain images and news items – oil spills, the death of a parachutist, zombie races. There are a few plot arcs – a friend diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the book, a lover with a secret – but these are mere sideshows to U’s thoughts. 

I don’t know how to describe this book, and to be honest, most of the reviews I’ve read have annoyed me and bored me and certainly haven’t reflected my enjoyment of the book. The main point I took from it was related to the ludicridity of modern corporate life, in amusing descriptions of meaningless meetings, in which U tells us nothing of the purpose of the meeting or what was being said, but instead, that

they kept using the word “excitement” (one hundred and eighty-two occurrences over three hours); also “challenge” (one hundred and four)”

Then, of course, there is the Project, the mandate for which is one by the Company at the beginning of the book and who’s strands run throughout it. I felt the the Project was meant to mean something, that its existence in the novel was saying something about modern life – but there is no way I could tell you what it was. Instead I will just quote you a little bit:

“Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important. It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring………
It was a huge, ambitious scheme, he said, on the same scale as poldering and draining land masses of thousands of square miles, or cabling and connecting an entire emote – and yet, he continued, the most remarkable thing about it was that, despite its massive scale, it would remain, in an everyday sense, to members of the general populace, invisible.”

This is a very bad book review, I accept, because I don’t know what this book was about. I don’t even know why I enjoyed it. I just know that I did, that I missed my stop on the tube reading it on the way home one night, that I want to recommend it. I will, however, warn you, that this book has been described as “unbearably pretentious“. I’ll leave you to make your own decision on that but let’s just say I don’t think it is an entirely unfair criticism!

“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”.



  1. Heck, I’d just like to know one thing… As with all of the hilarious “Corporations run the world” stories, how in God’s name do the corporations overthrow the governments?

    • I’m not sure it is really a corporations run the world story… Firstly I’m not sure it’s really a story at all! Secondly there’s no claim in it as to the corporation actually running the world – the Project is something that the Company won a mandate for that (I think) was put out to tender by the government. Hence there are meetings with the Minister. And that is how governments do things – they put things out to tender for companies to do them. Ie if a government wants to build a huge pipeline, for example, the government isn’t a building and engineering company so it hires one. And architects etc etc. which is what happens in Satin Island – so apologies if I portrayed it wrongly but it’s not a corporations run the world thing! As to how the corporations overthrow the governments in other stories, I have absolutely no idea having never read any!

    • But it’s not forget government? Obviously I could be wrong – actually scrap that, there’s no such thing as wrong, everybody is entitled to their own interpretation of the book & 10 different readers will interpret it in 10 different ways – but I saw it more in relation to identity than power. The way that most people these days spend the largest amount of their time with the people they work with, and companies see themselves as having their own identity and ethos. Companies even have “values” these days! Most of which are amusing ie “unique” “innovative” “brave” – which they all have. So yeah, my reading was that it was on identity. And you can definitely criticise corporations without claiming they rule the world, right?

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