Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Second reading – the 1st review is here and … well … this time round I think McCarthy’s book may be theme driven without pretense,  although there is a plot of sorts – and the theme may be there is no theme.   It’s hard to explain.

I often loathe theme-driven novels where the plot is constructed to emphasize the themes. (Graham Greene, Julian Barnes), but other times I love them (Pynchon, some of Richard Powers). This one is interesting in large part because it’s not only theme driven, that’s almost all there is to it.

Satin Island
by Tom McCarthy
2015 / 208 pages
rating 8.5 / contemp fiction
The plot:   A guy named “U” is doing a big project for a corporation – it’s an anthropological project focusing on the
“Present-Tense Anthropology”-  or how does Starbucks figure in the scheme of things and other matters like oil spills and whatnot.  We follow “U” as he ponders a wide variety of things and tries to find patterns or underlying statements about our culture.  That’s the thing – to find the artifact which signifies deeply,  which resonates,  which defines western (Euro-American) civilization – possibly more.   This is a major quest of the Christ and Holy Grail magnitude – to the company anyway.

And the theme?   That’s what “U” is apparently looking for.   What’s going on beneath the surface?  Beneath the surface of everything from the Shroud of Turin which supposedly covered Jesus who left his mark, to the pavements of Paris which is so good for skate-boarding, to unfortunate parachutist deaths, to the Great Report our protagonist, “U,” is supposedly writing.  Is there a pattern in the universe of things, of life? What is the defining thing, artifact, myth, rite, of our times? What if it’s all wrong – there isn’t anything – no patterns,  no signifying artifacts,  no connecting threads,   no matter how deep you go.

It’s a fun book if you don’t work at it too hard – stick with the plot and the theme will appear.
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