Tom McCarthy's Mysterious U.
by Tom McCarthy
Knopf (2015) 208 pages
In his essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works,” Tom McCarthy simply states that his aim “is not to tell you something, but to make you listen.” In his new novel Satin Island, the mysteriously named U., whose first-person introduction is reminiscent of both Franz Kafka and Moby-Dick (“Me? Call me U.”), is an in-house anthropologist for an equally enigmatically named London consulting firm he refers to as The Company.
He is grounded during a flight delay at the Torino-Caselle airport. Even while waiting out a most mundane task like airport delays, U. can't help but study what it is that's happening around him:
Around me and my screens, more screens: of other laptops, mobiles, televisions. These last screens had tickers scrolling across them, text whose subjects included the air delay in which I was caught up.
He tries to ingest all of the information being splashed across the multiple screens and into his conscience. Like the reader, he is trying to consume everything, but unlike the reader, he is incorporating himself by referencing his own delay in the slew of information regurgitation.
In Satin Island, it's obvious that McCarthy's interests lie with how we are viewing, supping, delivering information, or better yet, the culture of information. Do we actually retain it when it first flashes across our screens? Even in an overload where stories are retold over and over again with little difference in iteration, some will poke out, leaving the rest to be forgotten.
While waiting out his delay, U. is rung up by a lover over Skype. After mentioning that she, too, had been to that airport, the screen freezes refusing to allow her to finish the story. Throughout the novel, U. asks her about it to her face, but she is mostly reluctant to let any bit of the tale out.
The Company has scooped a major account, one which requires U. to build The Great Report—“the First and Last Word on our age.” The Koob-Sassen Project is never fully defined; U. refuses to discuss it. Instead, he narrates his love of anthropologists past like his hero Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bronisław Malinowski, the latter whom, according to U., said, “Write Everything Down. That was his First Commandment. You never know (he reasoned) what will turn out to be important and what won't; so capture it all, turn it all into data.”
Some of the news stories have filtered through to U. He spares us from the majority of the news cycle and instead, focuses on a few unrelated events. Most notably (and clearly most interestingly) is the death—nay, murder—of a skydiver, whose chute doesn't deploy. The murder has taken place in the sky, everyone is a suspect. Like a true anthropologist, he immerses himself in the story, pinning up data on his basement office wall. Like the police, U. attempts to solve what truly happened, but any conclusive answer is inadequate.
Like the news cycle, U. and his anthropological endeavors are always moving, changing, and to stand still would be entirely unnatural. Cultures and ideas are divided, but nothing is exclusive. When speaking of the elusive Koob-Sassen Project (no doubt, named for the visual artist Hilary Koob-Sassen, who works with text, video, and sculpture), U. describes it as, “A project formed of many other projects, linked to many other projects—which renders it well-nigh impossible to say where it began and ended, to discern its 'content,' bulk or outline.” It echoes, reverberates. The Project and the novel iterate.
During a 2012 New York City lecture on communication and the way it's received, McCarthy projected the music video for “Antenna,” a song by the revolutionary and highly popular West German electronic band Kraftwerk, whose name translates into English as “power station.” The chorus is repeated,
I'm the Antenna
You're the transmitter
McCarthy's fascination with the sending and collecting of data could easily be proffered as the thesis for both his work and interests. U. finds wherever he is, whether it be considering the New York borough of Staten Island, whose name shares a less than coincidentally similar assonance to the book’s title, or on the receiving end of a text message showing to be from his recently deceased friend announcing his own death. U. knows this electronic missive is from the man's estranged wife, but the removed and bizarre method of transmitting this news is examined by the watchful U., the cultural collector and analyzer. He points out that historically this text message will be viewed in the future as being sent from his friend. No context will be gleaned. Only the verifiable facts (phone records, etc.). No longer is filtering information important, but the reception.
Like the Kraftwerk antenna, U. is the receiver. He is one that McCarthy has formed and created. What the author wants us to know is all we ever will, at least within the confines of Satin Island. Upon finishing the book and reviewing my notes, I wondered if Tom McCarthy had in mind the notion that his novel should be read more than once, an action to be repeated. When I completed the final pages, my reader's mind most certainly forgot aspects, instead, choosing points that were called more frequently or for some reason, I was more able to receive. Even when purposefully leaving information out, McCarthy has transmitted just enough to tangle U.'s notions and obsessions. Satin Island sticks; it makes you not want to blink lest you might miss something.