12 March 2015

Satin Island Review

1 "The world is all that is the case."
1.1 "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."
1.2 Those quotes, I'm sure you'll recognize, come from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, its first and last sequentially numbered propositions.
1.3 Tom McCarthy's new novel, Satin Island, is similarly sequentially numbered.
1.4 (I love a book that makes me pull my battered copies of Wittgenstein off the shelf.)
1.5 (Those of you who follow me (langame) on Twitter (@140xLangame) or who've located my email address on this page (langame[dot]wow@gmail[dot]com) will note that the handle of my online persona is drawn from his Philosophical Investigations (and has been since at least the early '90s). Language game —> Langame.)
1.6 There is the world, what we can say about it, and language. "The rest is silence." (Hamlet's last words.)
1.7 The early Wittgenstein (of the Tractatus) believed that in articulating the structure of the propositional logic he would reveal the true structure of the world. Call it metaphysical Realism.
1.8 The later Wittgenstein (of the Investigations) rejected the possibility of such a foundation. Call it metaphysical Anti-Realism.

2 Serious novels tend to try to solve one of two problems: the labyrinth of the human heart or the conundrum of the greater world.
2.1 The best tend to frame the collision of the two.
2.2 Tom McCarthy's first novel, Remainder, explored the manic arena of the former and found no center and no exit, merely neurotic repetition. His second, C., attempted to take the reader over and under and through the latter with all its fatalistic implications, and discovered hints of meaning but, ultimately, no solution.
2.2 In his new novel, Satin Island, the writer steps back from the abyss where the two worlds, the inner and the outer, approach (however asymptotically).
2.3 Satin Island begins with its protagonist, U., recalling being stranded with tons of other people in the Turin airport, a hub facility, because European airspace was at a standstill.
2.4 Here's a quote:
"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. We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen. When the shapeless plasma takes on form and resolution, like a fish approaching us through murky waters or an image looming into view from noxious liquid in a darkroom, when it begins to coalesce into a figure that's discernible, if ciphered, we can say: This is it, stirring, looming, even if it isn't really, if it's all just ink-blots." (SI, 3-4)
2.5 Satin Island ends with U. in another transit hub silently declining to board a crowded ferry to Staten Island, NY.
2.6 Here's a quote:
"I was, as I mentioned, jet-lagged: disoriented, undirected. I'd travelled down to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to take the ferry and not taken it, or perhaps just traveled down there to not take the ferry. I'd been standing in the same spot for some time now. So, too, had the plain-clothes security personnel, and the MTA man. As the concourse filled up with incoming passengers, our arrangement, its sculpted geometry, which had impresed itself upon me with such clarity and (at the same time) mystery for a few minutes, faded back into the general mass of bodies. It was still there, though, camouflaged or buried: none of us had moved. The homeless guy was still there, too, going slowly down the row of payphones, searching for forgotten change caught in their mechanism. In his attempt to trigger its release, he lifted each receiver from its cradle and held it up for a few seconds, waiting for coins to drop. None did. I looked out at the harbour once again. The dazzle on the water now was all-consuming, overexposed, blinding: the departed ferry, Staten Island, all the other landmarks and most of the sky had disappeared in a great holocaust of light, whose retinal after-effects, in turn, made th terminal's interior too dark when I turned back to it. It took a few more seconds for the levels to adjust. I found myself still looking at the homeless guy. He was still holding a receiver away from his ear, making no attempt to listen to or talk into it. He looked all wrong; anachronistic. Who uses payphones these days? I wondered if these one even worked. I stared at him; our eyes met for a while; then I, uncomfortable, broke off the contact and started walking, past the growing stream of people, out of the terminal and back into the city." (SI, 188-89)
2.7 Shapeless plasma takes on form like a fish approaching through murky water. The departing ferry and everything around it dissolves into a dazzling holocaust of light on water. The rest is silence.
2.8 Beautiful.

3 In his Acknowlegements, McCarthy rather cheekily challenges his readers: "Satin Island, like all books, contains hundreds of borrowings, echoes, remixes and straight repetitions. To list them all would take up as much space as the text itself. The critical reader can entertain him- or herself tracking some of them down, if he or she is that way inclined."
3.1 Wittgenstein is clearly a presiding force here. As is the wavering Hamlet. I will venture two more before I tire.
3.2 In my 2010 review of C., I wrote the following: "Pynchon in GR [Gravity's Rainbow] portrays the demise of the individual in the rise of the paranoid style of politics. GR confirmed the suspicions of a generation of Luddites that the incursion of technology in human affairs, historically sited in the WWII "Zone", betokened the rise of a culture of death. The love of technology is the lust for death. Our hopes and aspirations for our creations, artistic and scientific and technological, ascend along the arc of the rainbow, reach their natural apogee and then, under the weight of gravity, come screaming across the sky and crash explosively back to earth. Now, think visually for a second: turn the finite rainbow arc on its side and what do you have? The letter C! Topple the letter C and what do you have? The arc of the rainbow. Coincidence? I think not."
3.3 My somewhat flippant remark that, thematically, C., based on a bit of visual symbolic logic, felt like a WWI prequel to Gravity's Rainbow's WWII now seems prescient. As if to confirm this, McCarthy names his protagonist in Satin Island 'U.', a further flipping of our visual arc. An upside down Gravity's Rainbow would be one in which there are no structures of meaning determining every aspect of our lives, but rather the meaning of the world is only what we can impose upon it, and, at the end, the world is too vast (too fast) for us to impose any real and lasting meaning on it.
3.4 (The fact that Melanie Jackson, Mr. Pynchon's wife, is McCarthy's U.S. agent does nothing to counter this observation. But I digress.)
3.4 (Now I digress further. Does this mean McCarthy's next novel will flip the visual symbol of the arc a further quarter turn so that it will somehow involve the logical symbol for material implication, the 'if-then' operator, the conditional: ⊃ ?
3.5 How about this? Motif: Causality, the principle at work in the greater world though not necessarily the human heart. Theme: This is how you know the world is real, you can do things that cause other things to happen in it. Tom?
3.6 Just saying. ;-))
3.7 In David Haglund's New Yorker piece about Satin Island, he recalls Zadie Smith's critical essay comparing Remainder with Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and points out the sly irony of McCarthy's ending Satin Island at the Staten Island Ferry terminal while Netherland ends on the ferry itself.
3.7 I won't go over that ground again mainly because Satin Island calls to mind another novel where the protagonist flees a situation he doesn't fully comprehend and winds up on a ferry: Emmanuel Carrère's The Mustache. (If you don't know it, find a copy now and read it. There is also a movie directed by the author which you can find on the Web (if you know how to look). See it, too.)
3.8 Short synopsis: One day the hero decides to shave off his mustache. No one notices. He becomes increasingly suspicious of a conspiracy against him. He feels his identity slipping, and his paranoia grows until his sanity seems at stake. He flees Paris for, ultimately, Hong Kong where he winds up riding the Kowloon Ferry back and forth across the harbor over and over again.
3.9 Enough.

4 U., McCarthy's protagonist, is an academic, an anthropologist, who works for a London consulting firm. A big picture kind of guy. He seems to know little, however, about the company he works for and doesn't seem to have a particularly clear sense of his remit within it. He is put on a project—of which his company has a small piece—he does not fully comprehend. He doesn't even know quite how his own contribution fits into the overall scheme of his firm's aspect of the project, but he has some hearsay evidence that the greater project will somehow affect 'everything'.
4.1 His mercurial, enigmatic boss encourages U. to pursue his intellectual passion (when he's not otherwise occupied) which is a Present Tense Anthropology or an Anthropology of the Now, aka the "Great Report" (GR, anybody?). Something we are led to believe cannot be accomplished. A fool's errand.
4.2 U. has a colleague with an equally obscure, vague job description. They are 'big picture' guys stuck in the basement of a corporate consulting culture, presumably there to provide context for the company's clients.
4.3 U. also has a girlfriend (of sorts) and a dying friend.
4.4 U. travels to business conferences where he meets with mixed reactions to his vague ideas. He pursues random thoughts and, importantly, images down the rabbit-holes of research and the internet: e.g., the deaths of parachutists, oil slicks.
4.5 There is a randomness to his life, a disorientation.
4.5 It's almost as if McCarthy is saying that the way into the world isn't some systematic foray, it's serendipitous. Higglety-pigglety. Write everything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, down—the mantra of U.'s anthropologist (that dying 'science') heroes Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bronislaw Malinowski—then try to figure it out later.
4.6 Unfortunately, as Wittgenstein and systematic logic teaches us, the only way to make sense of it all is outside of the system you are trying to observe and describe. In the human case 'after' means after life; it means dying first: meta-physics, if you will.
4.7  (And, apparently, U. is not yet ready or willing to take that next step—as evidenced by his unwillingness to flow with the faceless crowd onto the (Stygian?) ferry. He accepts his life with all its anxiety and disorientation, and he determines to go on, to live with his discomfort—a true Beckettian anti-hero.)
4.8 And McCarthy does have some trenchant criticism for the Christian view of things, which is one historical attempt at an extra-systemic (or metaphysical) explanation of things. The minister at his friend's funeral tries to console those gathered with the standard platitudes and bromides, but "everything that was said about Petr was wrong. I don't mean that it was wrongly nuanced or beside the point or missing the essence of his character or anything like that. I mean that it was simply, in a factual sense, false. ... I just sat there, seething with quiet fury that this act of personal and cosmic fraudulence would never be requited." (SI, 152)
4.9 Also for the 'ever-popular tortured artist effect:' McCarthy gives himself, the writer/artist no quarter. His girlfriend, Madison, lets U. know she was stuck once in the same Turin airport where U. begins the novel but is cagey about telling him the circumstances. Eventually he wangles her story out of her: she was subjected to some very real physical and psycho-sexual torture due to her protest at a global capital summit; this in stark contrast to U.'s existential angst over his Great Report.

5 The central image—in a book full of images (always a strength of McCarthy's!)—is that of U.'s dream of Satin Island.
5.1 Here it is:
"I was flying...over a harbour by a city. It was a great, imperial city, the world's greatest—all of them, from all periods: Carthage, London, Alexandria, Vienna, Byzantium and New York, all superimposed on one another the way things are in dreams. We'd left the city and were flying above the harbour. This was full of bustle: tug-boats, steams, yachts, you name it, bobbing and crisscrossing in water whose ridges and wave-troughs glinted in the sun, though it was nighttime. Out in the harbour—some way out, separated from the city by swathes of this choppy water—was an excrescence, a protuberance, a lump: an island. Was it man-made? Possibly. Its sides rose steeply from the sea; they were constructed of cement, or old bricks. The island was dark in hue; yet, like the sea, it seemed somehow lit up. As we approached it—flying quite low, parallel to the water—the building on it loomed larger and larger. These buildings—huge, derelict factories whose outer walls and rafters, barely intact, recalled the shells of bombed cathedrals—ran one into the next to form a single giant, half-ruined complex that covered the island's entire surface area. Inside this complex, rubbish was being burnt: it was a trash-incinerating plant. Giant mountains of the stuff were piled up in its great, empty halls, rising in places almost to where the ceiling would have been. They were being burnt slowly, from th inside, with a smoulder, rather than roaring, 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 it with a splendour that was regal. Yes, regal—that was the strange thing: if the city was the capital, the seat of empire, then this island was the exact opposite, the inverse—the other place, the feeder, filterer, overflow-manager, the dirty, secreted-away appendix without which the body-proper couldn't function; yet it seemed it its very degradation, more weirdly opulent than the capital it served. We were homing right in on it now: descending in our chopper through the factory-cathedral's shell, skimming the rubbish-piles as walls and rafters towered above us, gazing in awe and fascination at the glowing ooze, its colours as they morphed from vermilion yellow to mercurial silver, then on to purple, umber, burnt sienna, the foil-like flashing of its folds and gashes as light flowed across them. And, as we skimmed and veered and marvelled, a voice—the helicopter pilot's maybe, or some kind of commentator, or perhaps, as before with the roller-blader half-dream, just my own—announced clearly and concisely: Satin Island." (SI, 141-43)
5.2 Try this on for size: The heart is a smoldering dreamscape over which the self floats, the great world's ruined garbage dump: Satin Island. Its objective correlative, Staten Island, can only be approached at one's peril, for as one does the world (of the self) dissolves into a silent, pixellated tin flash of sun dazzle.
5.3 (Want more literary trash talk: have some Eliot, Pynchon, Gass, DeLillo, Beckett, and Ammons (from 2008)).
5.3 U. is not on some internal quest to find himself, as was the nameless narrator of Remainder. Nor is he on some pilgrimage to find the meaning of the world, as was C. He, his identity, is assumed, given; his Being is bracketed, in Heidegger-speak, and U. is seeking the tantalizing but elusive name of the world.
À propos of nothing, Query: How does one pronounce U.'s boss's name, Peyman? Is it "Pie-man", as in 'Simple Simon met a ...'? or is it "Pay-man", as in ...? Well, you get the picture.