Tom McCarthy on Satin Island
Tom McCarthy introduces us to the protagonist of his novel Satin Island.
The hero of Satin Island is an anthropologist. He’s been reared on accounts of ‘primitive’ societies, of tribal rituals, face-paint, totems and taboos. But by the time he’s come of age, the ethnographic viewfinder has turned back on the West, on work-place ergonomics, consumer habits and the kinship-networks of the general citizenry: the savages are us. And, like more than half of all anthropology graduates today, he works for a corporation, helping advise clients (other corporations, cities, governments) how best to understand and penetrate their target demographic at the deepest frequencies and levels, those where symbolism and daily practice commingle to form the base structures of belief by which we live our lives.
I see him as the perfect stand-in for the writer in today’s culture. He’s an observer – but not a dispassionate one, and certainly not an objective one either. Where, classically, the anthropologist made a distinction between ‘field’ (the jungle, steppe or tundra where he travels, sometimes at great personal risk, to do his research) and ‘home’ (the study where he writes it all up as his housekeeper purveys him tea and whiskey), today such distinctions have disintegrated. Now that universities have become businesses, there’s no ‘Academy’ to report back to, no framework through which ethnographic labour might be sanctified as pure, unsullied knowledge, let alone ‘truth’. This is the reality facing all would-be chroniclers of the contemporary world. The hero’s quandary is made worse by the fact that all our kinship-networks, all the infrastructures of our aspirations and desires and fantasies, are already automatically mapped every time we click our way across a webpage, our experiences instantly and permanently archived as we walk down city streets. If there’s a Great Report, a magnum opus on our age, to be compiled, this will be done not by an anthropologist or novelist, but by software, to be read not by readers but by other software.
And yet the hero (he identifies himself to us only as U.) perseveres, staring at the world through an array of pixellated screens, drifting through clouds of data, lost amidst apparitions, buffer-zones, or simply buffering. He grows obsessed with the death of a parachutist whose chute failed to open; with oil spills (the slow, tarry ineluctability of ink-like fluid); with the advance of crowds (roller-bladers, pilgrims, pretend zombies); and with South-Pacific Cargo Cults – people who rebuild airstrips and radar-beacons from bamboo in the hope that aeroplanes will come and disgorge goods – seeing in all these looping scenes an overarching or poetic vision of our era playing out without ever quite coalescing into the Great Report he knows he’ll never write.
U - a talented figure pimping his skills to an elite consultancy in contemporary London. His employers advise everyone from big businesses to governments, and, to this end, expect their 'corporate anthropologist' to help decode and manipulate the world around them - all the more so now that a giant, epoch-defining project is in the offing.