Tom McCarthy’s reputation as an intrepid explorer of the novel’s frontiers owes a lot to Zadie Smith and an essay she wrote in 2008 for the New York Review of Books called ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. Smith offered a stark choice between mainstream complacency and avant-garde insurrection, a schism that she claimed was epitomised by the difference between two recent novels – Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and McCarthy’s debut, Remainder. The two paths were in actual fact more like different lanes on the same old motorway: for all its deadpan minimalism, Remainder wasn’t actually any more radical than O’Neill’s rapturous bestseller. But the appraisal caught on anyway. Acclaim for McCarthy grew louder and vaguer. He was our leading experimental novelist all right; it was just that nobody could quite say why that was. C, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010, didn’t exactly clarify the matter. A stylised historical novel set in the well-rehearsed first act of the 20th century, it was not easy to characterise as revolutionary.
In the meantime McCarthy had emerged as a thrilling, audacious, sometimes outlandish theorist and critic, but one whose disdain for ‘middlebrow’ devotees of ‘sentimental humanism’ and resolute reference to Continental philosophy didn’t square with his fiction. Certainly he fleshed out his characters less than his concepts, but his novels were disarmingly approachable, lucid and set in a familiar world where interesting things happened. McCarthy’s explanation was that he constructed his novels in the manner of a Trojan horse: their conventional appearance concealed dissident theories. You can see how this is supposed to work by reading his spry critical book Tintin and the Secret of Literature, a work of motif-hunting where Hergé is shaken down for any trace of McCarthy’s aesthetic tropes – transmission, encryption and repetition. His novels read like they were designed for a similar shakedown; everywhere you look is conspicuous leitmotif. C was intermittently spectacular, but blighted by transmission-isms. Even a fart carried ‘signals, odour messages from distant unseen bowels’. Motif monomania is an unlikely programme for revolution: whether or not smuggling poststructuralist theory into conventional prose is a good idea, are the old edifices of the novel really going to be toppled by cryptic murmurings?
It’s hard not to notice this history playing out behind the scenes of Satin Island, McCarthy’s elusive, oddly beautiful new novel. The narrator, known only as U., is an ethnographer employed by a blue-chip communications firm that trades in ‘narratives’ and ‘fictions’, who has been asked to write a report that will be ‘The Document … the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.’ The actual incidents of the novel are nondescript – U. goes to work, to meetings, to the odd conference, meets up with a girl he’s seeing and a friend who’s dying – but none of this really matters, or at least it matters only for the part it plays in the fitful development of U.’s thinking. What we are reading is the ‘not-Report’, U.’s account of his struggle to create what appears ‘unplottable, unframeable, unrealizable’, though in the usual fashion, we are left to wonder if perhaps this document – the novel we’re reading – is the great report after all.
Is Satin Island then obliquely about the difficulties of reinventing the novel, or is this McCarthy’s own great report, the breakthrough we’ve been promised? It’s the former, I’m afraid, but nonetheless it’s a fascinating piece of work, whose preoccupation with making sense of our times thoughtfully addresses not just writing but also politics and power. There’s a running joke that while U. struggles to understand the world, it is being transformed offstage: his firm is working on a global adjustment of ‘network architecture’ so all-encompassing that no one involved can even explain it, and in any case U. is legally restricted from trying. This sly reversal of Marx’s maxim about philosophers – that they should try not just to understand the world but to change it – and the absence it leaves at the heart of the novel underpin a sense that the levers of power are out of reach, not just beyond account but beyond representation.
Insurrection of all kinds, then, appears to be off the agenda. But though McCarthy has yet to remake the novel, within the confines of his own work a breakthrough has been made. Switching to a variation of the novel-as-essay allows him to indulge his conceptualism without conspicuous camouflage, to let loose without bumping into the scenery. Now when his writing teeters between profound and preposterous it is not the unfortunate consequence of over-determined effusions, but the effect of U.’s madcap inquiries. Just waiting for a video to load on his laptop provides U. with some headway – ‘it dawned on me that what I was actually watching was nothing less than the skeleton, laid bare, of time or memory itself … I decided I would start a dossier on buffering.’ McCarthy’s new model reads like a dialled-down procedural thriller, one where the investigation hinges on obscure phenomena like parachute accidents and oil slicks, and where what cracking the case would even mean becomes less and less clear.
The quixotic search for a master code to the contemporary finally leads U. to New York, and in particular to Staten Island, which he deliriously imagines – in passages unlikely to impress its residents – as a symbolic site of civilisation’s underbelly. His most coherent reason for the theory is that ‘the fifth, forgotten borough, the great dump’, is where the rubble from the 9/11 attacks was brought, but U. is losing the plot by this point (the reader may feel similarly) and is drawn there as much by his offbeat research as by fever dreams about ‘an excrescence, a protuberance, a lump: an island’. Perhaps it’s the effect of reading a novel about frenzied thinking, but to me this final destination seems to lead right back to Smith’s essay. The pivotal scene of O’Neill’s Netherland, where its narrator finds a new lease of life, also takes place on Staten Island. Here, though, arriving at the ferry terminal, U. is gripped by indecision, no longer convinced that visiting the island is the answer. This is a better diagnosis than Smith’s phantom road map. McCarthy, undoubtedly an exciting and talented writer, is stuck in the ferry terminal, torn between avant-garde idealism and an aptitude for the kind of elegant modern fiction enjoyed by sentimental humanists.