There is a sequence of events towards the end of Satin Island, Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, that could easily have been lifted from the universe of David Lynch: a young protestor, demonstrating against the G8 Summit in Genoa in 2001, is at first arrested with a handful of others, then transferred without pretense to a villa in a quiet, unnamed Italian suburb. There, the protestor is brought to a room, where she is made to pose in various ways while her elderly captor listens for signals on what appears to be a radio device. The woman’s body, it can be inferred, is used to help transmit these signals, though she is never told their meaning, nor why she’s been chosen for such a task. The ordeal is as visceral as it is baffling, and it comprises only one piece of the strange, nuanced and elusive puzzle McCarthy has constructed with his newest book.
To the uninitiated reader of McCarthy’s work, the comparison to Lynch is perhaps as good a place as any to start. McCarthy cites the filmmaker as a key influence on the oft-surreal and philosophical Satin Island (and the writer’s oeuvre, in general), which, like many Lynchian efforts, found its origins in a dream McCarthy had. In 2010, towards the end of his writing of C, the novelist dreamt of a “rich and vivid garbage pile,” located in a city that looked like New York but at the same time, wasn’t. Satin Island borrows its title from a misnomer in its protagonist’s own dream.
“It was every great imperial city rolled into one,” McCarthy explains. “There was this luscious kind of trash burning, that was all of history and all the disjuncture of culture and capital and thought.”
Satin Island largely concerns itself with the trials of U., a corporate anthropologist who’s been tasked with writing a document known solely as the Great Report. What this report is remains a bit of a mystery, though as the narrative drives forward—often in nonlinear fashion—U.’s preoccupation with computer-related buffering, the death of a parachutist, and other forms of mathematics and patterning informs the man’s knowledge of what he’s writing. Ideas of “un-mappable” sequencing and the decimation of structures, however, force U. to come to terms with his own existence, which hinges upon these formulae and their continued ability to create meaning.
The English-born McCarthy came to literature at an early age. His mother, who taught classics to secondary school students, related stories—including that of The Odyssey—to McCarthy and his siblings, in order to enrapture the children and prevent them from fighting. At eight, he borrowed a typewriter from a neighbor and devised a game where typing up Shakespeare’s plays meant he would then become the Bard himself. When questioned, McCarthy boldly—and naïvely, he says—named himself as the author of Macbeth.
Though he went on to study literature at Oxford University, McCarthy was just as engaged with the investigation of different schools of philosophy during the height of the Theory Wars in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. This overlap of academic interest provides a framework for McCarthy’s novels, including Satin Island, which, he notes, was as influenced by his ongoing readings of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan, as it was by images of oil spills, the films of Guy Debord, and the writings of French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom McCarthy reveres and is a seminal figure for U.
“It’s very fluid, this space between philosophy and literature,” McCarthy says, “and that’s something that resonates for me.”
McCarthy also has a foothold in the art world, which became the community that published his first novel, Remainder, when it was rejected by a number of UK presses. (It would later go on to receive the Believer Book Award after its 2007 U.S. publication, and McCarthy would eventually be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 with C.) In addition to his books, McCarthy’s extensive résumé includes various philosophical and art-based side projects, including the semi-fictitious International Necronautical Society, which he co-founded with philosopher Simon Critchley in 1999.
While Satin Island grapples with a vast array of questions—the ways in which technology consumes and filters our lived experience, including how we process illness and death, is one of the novel’s primary concerns—it is ultimately meant to be viewed through a wider aperture.
“It’s about the possibility, or otherwise, of meaning in the world,” McCarthy says. “And the possibility, or otherwise, of writing. And the possibility, or otherwise, of the resolution of everything into some coherent, cogent vision.”