On Books: 'Satin Island' By Tom McCarthy

Aug 5, 2016

On Books is a new literature review series by NPR Berlin made possible in part by Shakespeare & Sons.

What is the meaning of it all – of life, of being alive, of living in the here and now? It is these large, philosophical questions that have accompanied humankind ever since its beginnings. Tom McCarthy's Satin Island tries to solve them – but not in the way that one might expect.

Tom McCarthy's book "Satin Island."
Credit Knopf Doubleday
In its center – if there is a center to this novel at all – is "U.". U. is an anthropologist tasked with writing the "Great Report" by an unspecified company - a written document that is to contain everything: "The First and Last Word on our age." And very much so, the book reads like a report, structured into sections and sub-sections, which at first seem trivial and random. U. is fascinated by everything: The way in which news is covered, how the traffic works in the city of Lagos, or how many ways denim can be creased. He sees patterns and connections in all aspects of human life.  Satin Island is astonishing in many ways: From the first page to the last, it draws its audience into this stream of observations due to U.'s personal experience with friends and his use of Claude Lévi-Strauss' complex ethnological theories. Instead of plot, setting, or even protagonists, the novel only provides the findings of this unnamed narrator. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide what the answer to life might be, or whether there is one at all. Either way, there is no such thing as the self and the other – only patterns that repeat themselves and connect us all.