About The Author
Tom McCarthy grew up in London and has lived in Prague, Berlin and Amsterdam. He has worked as book reviewer, magazine editor and television script editor. His creation, in 1999, of the International Necronautical Society has led to installations and exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world, from Tate Britain and the ICA in London to The Drawing Center in New York. In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural Windham-Campbell Literature Prize by Yale University.
His first novel, Remainder, was published in 2005. The story of a man who uses a £8.5m windfall, received when he is hit by a falling object from a plane, to recreate aspects of his past as precisely as possible has ssince become a cult classic. It was recently been turned into a film directed by Omer Fast.
Tintin and the Secret of Literature, published in 2006, suggests that Hergé's illustrated tales of the blonde-tufted junior adventurer should be placed at the heart of what we consider art.
Men in Space, his 2007 novel, is set amid the collapse of Communism and was partly inspired by his time in Prague. His third novel, C, about the early years of electric technology, was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
His latest novel is Satin Island and has been shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. A novel both of our time and of things to come, Satin Island follows its near-nameless protagonist through a surreal world of corporate consultancy and big data. Tasked with the impossible, with the creation of a grand document for our age, his archivist's sensitivities wander instead to the seemingly disparate phenomena recurring in the news: oil spills, dead parachutists, roller-blade processions....
In our exlcusive interview, Tom talks about the influence of Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities, the pointlessness of anthropology and why oil spills are like crime scenes.
Questions & Answers
The narrator is known only as 'U'. Does this indicate that he's some sort of everyman or does is afford multiple interpretations, like the title of your previous novel, C?
For me, U. was a contraction of Ulrich from The Man Without Qualities, just as the whole of Satin Island is a contraction of that novel. Instead of two thousand pages we have two hundred; instead of the great bourgeios salons of the Austro-Hungarian Empire we have the think-tanks, corporate brainstorming sessions and digital networks of the early twenty-fist century; and instead of Ulrich we have U. But the general thrust is the same: everyone in the book is working to produce some magnificent ‘event’ that none of them understand.
One of the principle triggers for Satin Island was your projections of images of oil spills during an artistic residency in Stockholm in 2010: among the dossiers that U compiles on various phenomena is one on oil spills. What was it that drew you to their visual and metaphorical impact?
Years ago when I saw the artist Cristo ringing those islands in pink plastic, I thought: but doesn’t an oil spill already do that? And I thought of black oil hitting a snowy coastline, which is kind of like ink staining paper; so the whole thing became an analogue for the act of writing. There’s something hypnotic about those images you get each time there’s an oil-spill: the way oil moves through water, and coats birds and rocks, and then those people dressed in white suits sweeping it off beaches, like pathologists at crime scenes. And the sense that this is earth’s archive gushing back out: oil is broken-down dinosaurs and trees from millions of years ago. It’s like Freud’s repressed, returning, at a level of pure minerality - an event that’s terrifying and disgusting and weirdly beautiful in equal measure.
U's focus is on the cultural and architectural nature of the present. Do you think that the global interconnectedness offered by the internet makes it impossible to study any contemporary phenomenon discretely? Is an internet the ultimate anthropology study?
U.’s fear is that digital culture makes anthropology impossible. If the First Commandment of anthropology (according to Bronislaw Malinowski) is simply ‘Write Everything Down’, then the fact that it is all already written down, that every time we go on Amazon or Facebook all our kinship-networks, all our sub-tribal allegiances and fetishes and so on are recorded - all this makes the figure of the anthropologist redundant. Again, it’s a stand-in for literature: what I’m really grappling with in this novel is the impossibility of the novel.
As U's seemingly off-topic digressions end up forming the substantial part of the Koob-Sassen Project, could it be said that Satin Island is the Project?
No: the Koob-Sassen Project is modernity; it’s capitalism; it’s omni-data; network-saturation; total surveillance; and the general unholy alliance of Google and the NSA and satellites in space and the phone we carry in our pocket. U.’s digressions feed into that - but his main project is ‘The Great Report’. He’s meant to be coming up with a brilliant, multi-platform, multi-media, multi-everything ethnographic document that will capture and sum up our era. Which, of course, he signally fails to do: he writes the text of Satin Island instead. But Satin Island isn’t that document: rather, it’s the off-slew, the detritus, disjecta, general crap that’s left when you remove the shape and outline of that document from the possibility-equation. It’s like the discarded strips of celluloid left on the cutting floor after the editing-together of a movie - of the world’s greatest ever movie, perhaps, but one that no one will ever see.
If anthropology, as U suggests, is the construction of a fictionalised cultural narrative, does this make novels case studies?
The simple answer would be ‘Yes’. But the correct answer, paradoxically, is ‘No.’ What the great anthropologists of the twentieth century, in particular Claude Levi-Strauss (left), realised, is that anthropology doesn’t work. All the classical distinctions it relies on - between ‘home’ and ‘field’, ‘tribe’ and ‘observer’ etc - have imploded. And lots of this dysfunctionality turns around the act of writing. When Levi-Strauss meets a tribe who don’t know what writing is, and sees the tribe’s chief take his (Levi-Strauss’s) pen and start to scribble (so as to dupe his subjects into thinking that he’s versed in this activity), Levi-Strauss realises that this is what he’s doing too: duping people into believing that his text has some authority. And not just readers: he’s duping himself too: producing moments of ambiguity that hover around that tantalising limit between comprehension and sublime mystique. And he concludes that all his activities are ultimately geared towards producing a ‘residue’ that would somehow survive this process. Maybe novels are all about producing that unassimilable residue.
Peyman, whose Company is aiming to capture the essence of the zeitgeist with the 'Koob-Sassen Project', describes businesses as a fiction. Is this perhaps true of all anthropogenic concepts, such as religion, money and even society itself?
Yes. Self-evidently yes. Nothing more to add - apart from that calling them a ‘fiction’ doesn’t mean they’re fake; just that they are produced, as acts of narrative. Truth would belong to this category too.
Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is a particular inspiration to U, but notes anthropology's issues with observer bias and the feeling of having "come too late". From a novelist's point of view, does this suggest an avant-garde nostalgia for Romanticism's embrace of the sublime and unspoiled nature?
Here the simple answer would be ‘No’. Romanticism, and in particular its utterly reactionary notion of ‘pure’, ‘unspoilt’ nature (look how easily German Romanticism was appropriated by the Nazis), needs to be trashed and defiled again and again - splattered with spilled oil, or ink. But again, the simple answer isn’t quite the right one. Because, at the same time, the notion of the sublime persists. U. Spends most of the book, as indeed we all spend most of our lives, looking at a screen, and for him this screen is like a veil, a pixellated holy shroud; and he’s driven by the hope that, one day, this veil will be torn, rent asunder, and the light of divine meaning will gush out and redeem him. Satin Island a totally theological book. It seems odd to be saying this as an atheist - but it’s true: a new, digital theology for a godless universe.