Unsentimental Education

In a 2011 discussion on Alain Robbe-Grillet at the Institut Francais du Royaume Uni in London, Tom McCarthy remarked on his admiration for the French avant-garde novelist:

Robbe-Grillet was kind of a marker for me for a literature that mattered, and what it had to do, and the kind of parameters it had to have. And what it had to reject in order to matter ... [he] bypasses all the kind of humanist bullshit of character and depth and emotion. ... He’s a total anti-humanist. He hates anthropocentrism; he hates the kind of sentimentalizaton of the universe you get through imbuing objects with character.

As the primary bearer of the contemporary avant-garde novel, there’s an unmistakable element of the nouveau romancier in McCarthy, a devout anti-humanist whose work upends the convention of sentimentality disguised as realism that defines a type of middling Anglophone literature in the 21st century. It’s a binary that’s become familiar by now: on the one hand, sentimental naturalism, with its omniscient narrators, its devotion to exploring character psychology, and its conviction that language acts a revealer of essence; on the other, the avant-garde, with its empirical, forensic descriptions of the exterior world, its hollowing out of the psychological interior, and its love of repetition, mediation, and non-linear narrative. In McCarthy’s view, as in Robbe-Grillet’s, the former is prescriptive, set on imparting a worldview to the reader by projecting the writer’s subjective experience on characters and places. The avant-garde, then, offers us an antithetic alternative, one in which reality is meant to be listened to and observed rather than qualified. It’s in this way that McCarthy, much like his narrators, acts as a kind of prism through which an enormous breadth of information is refracted and re-contextualized, an almost passive transmitter of varying cultural, theoretical, and aesthetic frequencies. The result, however, despite a lack of humanistic sentimentality, can be
immensely moving.

Satin Island is the fourth of McCarthy’s novels, and the slimmest to date. While his previous novel C might best be described as a take on the 19th-century German bildungsroman, Satin Island seems more like a return to McCarthy’s roots in French and English experimental literature, at times reminiscent of his debut, Remainder, a book that’s been described as “the best French novel ever written in English.”

McCarthy’s latest is narrated by a man named U., an in-house anthropologist at a consulting company (which is referred to only as The Company) involved in something called the Koob-Sassen project, the details of which U. is legally bound from giving us. All we have is a vague notion of its far-reaching effects on virtually the entire world’s population and a description of its architecture as supranational, densely layered, and without a precise beginning or end. It is exactly the type of vast, amorphous network that fascinates McCarthy, whose work reveals an obsession with issues of telecommunication. For McCarthy, technology, in its crossing of signals and its proliferation of language and information, is a prime metaphor for the task of the writer, whom McCarthy sees as working on a plane where signals (or influences) converge and are encrypted into the writer’s work. It’s fitting then that our narrator is a writer himself, assigned the task of composing what his boss calls “The Great Report,” a kind of anthropological manifesto that sums up our era and “speaks [the] secret name” of the present. What we soon learn is that Satin Island is U.’s answer to that report, a catalog of sorts detailing his attempts to make sense of how to approach the impossible undertaking of writing the book both on and of his epoch. The potential entry points are many, among them a massive oil spill and a series of suspicious parachuting deaths in the news, both of which become points of fixation for U. Interspersed with these are accounts of his casual relationship with a woman named Madison, the development of his friend Petr’s terminal illness, descriptions of documentary video footage shot by his colleague, and reflections on everything from his idol Claude Levi-Strauss to online buffering to the infrastructure and methodology of his company.

There’s no clear unifying thread among all of this, and considering McCarthy’s anti-prescriptivism, it seems safe to say that there isn’t meant to be. While themes do present themselves—namely ones of authenticity, ritual, pollution, decay, narrative, societal runoff, and the creative process—they can sometimes dissolve as quickly as they appear, rarely relinquishing their inscrutability. But if there is a key to the novel, it might be in U.’s borderline manic treatise on the oil spill, an imaginary presentation he gives to a fictional audience:

Oil and water, as the old adage goes, do not mix. So what are we observing when […] we watch these liquids thrown together? You might say we’re observing ecological catastrophe, or an indictment of industrial society, or a parable of mankind’s hubris. Or you might say, more dispassionately that we’re observing a demonstration of chemical properties. But the truth is that […] beneath all these dramas, I’d say, and before them, we’re observing, simply (gentlemen), differentiation. Differentiation in its purest form: the very principle of differentiation. Ones and zeros, p and not-p: oil and water. Behind all behavior, issuing instructions, sending in the plays—just as behind life itself, its endless sequencing of polymers—there lies a source-code.

It’s with a kind of religious intonation that U. describes the spill as an act of near transubstantiation, water slowly giving over to an obsidian, viscous mass containing elements that, when examined, reveal traces of the earth’s history. McCarthy’s fiction has always been one of permutation, ciphers, and networks, but Satin Island seems particularly occupied by questions of decrypting the operational logic behind the veil, whether the logic is corporate, religious, ritualistic, scientific, creative, or, in this case, chemical.

And while the entire novel is populated by invisible structures that can’t be fully known or penetrated, it isn’t until the end that U. encounters the most inexplicable instance of this yet, as Madison, in detail, recounts her own torture by an unknown man after being arrested for protesting the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa. Driven to a remote villa and escorted into a stark, laboratorial room by the police, she meets an agent who begins administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod, forcing her to strike a series of classical, vaguely erotic poses that occasionally move him to tears. Whether the man is meant to be seen as an artist of sorts or an emblem of the police state is unclear, but undoubtedly, there’s a rationale behind his actions, the “source-code” of which neither Madison nor the reader ever find out. It’s a surreal scene, and possibly the best reminder that McCarthy’s novels, in addition to being concept-driven, are page-turning and full of tension, not to mention a kind of dark absurdity.

Ultimately, the closest U. comes to getting the inspiration to write the “The Great Report” is after an anomalous dream of a “genuinely deep and intense nature, whose sense eluded me but whose presence radiated, pouring into everything around it.” In it, he helicopters over an island off the coast of an unknown city made up of a single half-ruined complex of buildings that house an enormous trash-incinerating plant. Identified as “Satin Island” by the pilot, the real-life alternative of Staten Island presents itself to U. as a potential revealer of something essential, and it’s in an anti-climactic trip to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal that he balks at the opportunity to encounter the reality, instead, holding back in the terminal, observing the ritualistic cycle of throngs of strangers filtering in and out as they wait and then board the ferry. It’s a final act of observation, and a conceit on U.’s part that, perhaps, the entire project of drawing out an explicit meaning from behind things is a useless, or maybe just undesirable, project to begin with.

It’d be fair to say that McCarthy might be guilty, in his own way, of imparting a worldview on the reader through his fiction—anti-humanistic, anti-anthropomorphic, non-sentimental—that the self is made, not expressed, a theory that obviously predates him but arguably underlies some of history’s best literature. It also seems fair to say that the binary between sentimental naturalism and the avant-garde is more reductive than it is helpful at this point, and that, given that the novel has survived as a form for hundreds of years, the idea among critics of there being only two paths available to it could be seen as fundamentally depressing. But as McCarthy describes in his essay on the workings of literature:

My aim […] is not to tell you something, but to make you listen: not to me, nor even to Beckett and Kafka, but to a set of signals that have been repeating, pulsing, modulating in the airspace of the novel, poem, play—in their lines, between them and around them—since each of these forms began.

Whether he intends it or not, more readers seem to be listening to McCarthy than ever.

Contributor

Keenan McCracken

KEENAN MCCRACKEN is an associate editor at Other Press.

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