Monday, June 08, 2015


1.1 Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, is one of my favourite books in recent history.

2.1 Some books I want to read cold. I don't want reviews to colour my impressions. This is one of those books. Partly because I want to be able to later report on it purely, without my personal opinion having been influenced. Partly because I want to test myself: read the material, write the exam, gauge whether I arrived at the same conclusions as the acknowledged experts. Partly because I want my journey to be wholly original, so that I can then write something wholly original. It represents a tension between individual and collective thought.

2.2 I was caught sitting somewhere, waiting, and it was not appropriate to be reading a real book, and it was not clear how much longer I'd be waiting like this and my attention was unfocused, so I started reading my phone, and I skimmed a review I'd bookmarked (see 2.3). I noticed reference to the cover art and thought I could safely read this section without encountering spoilers, but then I realized it was about the US edition of the novel. My copy looks completely different. Whatever this review said, it would not apply.

2.3 Christopher Urban in Los Angeles Review of Books — A Satin Island of the Mind:
A characteristic of a good (and usually difficult) novel is that it teaches you how to read it as you go along. Satin Island does so without even having to open its pages. On the cover of the book, five of the subtitles: "Treatise, Essay, Report, Confession, Manifesto," are crossed out, leaving only "A Novel," and rightly so; for Satin Island is indeed all those things, but it is first and foremost a novel. The colorful foil jacket is a great piece of cover art (a co-worker picked it up after seeing it on my desk all day, and asked if she "Could just look at it?"), and it, too, offers numerous possible interpretations. Easiest of all is to connect the dots of oil (or ink?) to see a stick figure, an effigy, a Christ-like crucifixion of the shroud mention in the book's beginning, cutting sideways, right to left, across the top of the graph-paper background. But turning the book horizontally and (touching on a soccer analogy made in the book) one sees the figure as a goalie, protecting the "grid-like" net, the streaking dots as the projected path of the ball, the "goalie's anxiety at the penalty kick," to take a line from Handke.
2.4 Or possibly it was this review, by Jonathan Russell Clark at The Rumpus, which starts with the clues on the (American) cover:
On the cover of Tom McCarthy's new novel, a number of words appear crossed out. "A manifesto," "an essay," "a report," "a confession," and "a treatise" are all struck through, leaving only the words "a novel" un-slashed. But none of these terms quite captures what Satin Island really is: a polemic.
And later:
The stories, if we can call them that, have little or no thrust, no narrative momentum. Instead, they greatly suggest meaning with proximity yet seem to mock you for finding any. In other words, McCarthy throws out many of the so-called rules of fiction writing in order to depict something he believes to be greatly missing from realism: the erratic and associative movements of the mind.
2.5 My cover has a colour wheel (rather, a buffering symbol in full colour), dripping with thick black oil. The oil slick is slightly raised, satiny to the touch. I love that the front- and endpapers show the oil bleeding down from the top edges. I love that my copy is now fairly filthy, signs of rubbing against other books, stains from being slid across tables, a lots of tiny rips in the jacket from me cramming it into my purse, a hefty scratch not quite tearing the paper likely caused by my keys being jostled about in said purse, and some buckling, having dried after partly sitting in a wet spot of white wine. I usually take good (but not obsessive) care of my books, but this one looks like I picked it up off a park bench.

3.1 It's about a fucking corporate anthropologist. How awesome is that?
I was the in-house ethnographer for a consultancy. The Company (let's continue to call it that) advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas — to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.
3.2 Peyman is his boss. I also work with somebody called Peyman. I had never encountered the name before I worked with him. Our Peyman is an IT guy. But also vague and elusive.

3.3 I wondered if the next character might also be relatable to someone I work with. Lo and behold, a robotic Finnish monologue.

3.4 There were other things I'd been thinking about that suddenly worked their way into the novel. The problem of "field" versus "home." How the company where I work runs on anxiety. And then the things I read about would crop up around me. Like the traffic patterns. And thyroid cancer. What if this novel were actually telling me my story, and I was reading it just ahead of it happening? This turned out to be not that book. (How would I go about writing that book?)

But the more you start looking for things (like dead parachutists), the more they start cropping up.

3.5 Do you remember the raid on the Armando Diaz school, during the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa? Me neither, and I used to keep informed back then. U's friend finally tells him her account of the events. I've heard more about the raid in the last few months, in the news and on Netflix, than I did at the time.

3.6 It's a buffering problem. Everything is slightly out of sync. Always in a state of being processed. That is, lag is a problem, buffering is its state of being.

4.1 U compiles a lot of dossiers — scraps of paper stuck on walls or sorted into portfolios. My dossiers are pastel-coloured sticky notes gently tapped onto the sausage coils of my brain, but with a swoosh of the hair on my skull, they waft away.

4.2 I had at one time intended to quote passages — 2.3 The Company's premises; 4.1 On Lévi-Strauss; 5.5 The Company's logo, a Babel tower; 7.9 The buffer zone of small objects on the counter in front of the woman at the bar; 8.9 The cleaning of the desk; 8.12 Tabula rasa, carte blanche; 10.3 On elemental properties, differentiation in its purest form; 12.17 Text messaging as the key to immortality; 14.12 The anachronism of payphones — but they've all run away from me. Just read the book.

4.3 Duncan White in The Telegraph:
There is evident pleasure taken in puncturing conventional consolations. We don’t want plot, depth or content," McCarthy has said. "We want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern." McCarthy will give you pleasure but he won't give you resolution. Closure is an illusion, the Koob-Sassen Project cannot be understood, the Great Report cannot be written. U tells us that there are occasions when he thinks he is about to grasp "the plan, formula, solution" but "before waking, with a jolt, I watched it all evaporate, like salt in a quiet breeze".
Yes, we want pattern. Beautiful, beautiful pattern. We create it when it isn't there.

4.4 It feels significant that subconsciously I chose my laser-cut metal bookmark depicting the New York City skyline — the view as if from Staten Island — to mark my place.

4.5 The report still needs to be written:
Then the Great Report would not be something that was either to-come or completed, in-the-past: it would be all now. Present-tense anthropology; anthropology as way-of-life. That was it: Present-Tense Anthropology™; an anthropology that bathed in presence, and in nowness — bathed in it as in a deep, bubbling and nymph-saturated well.
4.6 I can't get over how smart this book makes me feel. It makes me complicit. I will be part of the Present-Tense Anthropology™ armed resistance movement. I feel simultaneously connected and disconnected, in a state of buffering. Erudite books generally make me feel stupid, or at least small. Therefore, either this book is not nearly so smart as I think it is or it is much more.

4.7 The employee–employer described by Patty Hearst syndrome. We are all cogs. We are all the machine.
This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I'd deploy in my work for the Company from then on in: feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that re-weaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero would have a called a master-pattern — or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.
4.7 Jeff Turrrentine in The New York Times:
McCarthy isn't a frustrated cultural theorist who must content himself with writing novels; he's a born novelist, a pretty fantastic one, who has figured out a way to make cultural theory funny, scary and suspenseful — in other words, compulsively readable.

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