The Novel’s Forking Path

Mark McGurl

Reading Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, it suddenly occurred to me why his 2005 novel Remainder is so good. It’s not the reason Zadie Smith gave in the New York Review of Books, however important that essay has been to winning McCarthy the readership he deserves. Those who agreed with Smith’s judgment of McCarthy’s earlier novel will probably like his new one, which sets itself the task of thinking about the present as directly as a novel could. But they might also sense a writer whose imagination has flattened, as though newly subject to the force of gravity. Did Remainder really chart a viable way forward for the novel, as Smith promised? What claims on our interest can the novel make now? A few works later in the career of one of the most intellectually ambitious contemporary writers, it’s tempting to try to find an answer to that question in Satin Island.

Smith admired Remainder for how it dispensed with the conventions of contemporary “lyrical realism” evident in novels like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, with their well-made fictional characters and carefully crafted moments of personal insight. By contrast, Remainder went after something perversely avant-garde. What might an ordinary man do, it asked, with a large cash settlement he has received for injuries sustained from junk randomly falling out of the sky? Supposing he had no taste for the usual luxury items, or impulses to charity—and supposing also that, unbeknownst to him, he has been designed to exemplify the search for authenticity ridiculed in so much postmodern theory—he might do what Remainder’s narrator does: commandeer comically enormous human, material, and logistical resources in order to recreate, as though in a life-size diorama, and complete with human actors, a single perfect, if also perfectly banal, and possibly imaginary, moment from his past, only to be foiled by the inherent messiness of matter. For Smith, the way McCarthy “works through the things we expect of a novel, gleefully taking them apart, brick by brick,” is much to be preferred to O’Neill’s anxiously pretty performance.

And so it is. Remainder is that rarest of things: experimental fiction that works. But I think that Smith buries the lede when she notes, in passing, that Remainder’s narrator is “simply a bloke,” who shows no awareness of the lessons of postmodern theory his actions seem intended to illustrate. While his voice cannot help but vibrate with some of the wit and intelligence of his author, he is for the most part kind of dumb, this narrator, and that makes all the difference. The opacity born of his limitations becomes the reader’s puzzle to solve.

His accelerating ethical obtuseness, in particular, is disturbingly hilarious. Cats are casually allowed to die, workers’ well-being ignored, banks robbed, people killed, and planes hijacked, all in pursuit of his trivially Proustian bliss. But it is also flattering to a certain kind of reader, one who has, however casually, considered the “postmodern condition” as an object of intellectual curiosity and reflection. One senses the relevance of the golden age of Theory to the narrator’s quasi-artistic activities, and can begin tentatively to apply its lessons for him: don’t you know that in a world of simulacra, a world of copies without originals, any pursuit of authenticity in the artwork is bound to fail? Haven’t you heard about the materiality of the signifier, my man? It makes a mess of everything. As theory this is old hat, but as fiction it works wonderfully, lending Remainder some of the visceral appeal of a pratfall.

Not so Satin Island, in which the ironic separation of narrator and author is traded for a personification of the contemporary literary intelligentsia, of which McCarthy himself has become a notable member. Coyly calling himself “U.,” this narrator is an anthropologist who made his name with a theoretically sophisticated ethnographic study of the London club scene. Although he is not without his depths, he is narratively single-leveled, without any gaping canyons of irony needing to be leaped over to get at his meaning, only a few slippery patches of cynicism.

U. has been hired by a corporate consultancy to feed it high-minded, free-associative reports on various aspects of contemporary culture. On the one hand, he works on the contractually classified, multi-tentacular transnational neoliberal Koob-Sassen Project; on the other, he tries to “name what’s taking place right now” in the Great Report he will write at the inspiration of his mega-wealthy employer/patron. These are the drivers of a plot that moves like someone searching for parking, distracted by the late-afternoon sun glinting off skyscrapers. In the foreground of the novel are a series of what amount to mini-essays, possible pieces of the Great Report, not unlike the think pieces published under McCarthy’s own byline in the Guardian and London Review of Books. In the background are a few more conventional plot trajectories: the rapid decline and death of a friend from what was supposed to be a curable cancer, leading to what feels like the novel’s one moment of irrepressible rage: a semi-serious relationship with a woman, Madison, whose past as a political protester yields, in turn, the novel’s only compulsively page-turning sequence.

the novel of ideas is also the novel of how ideas feel.

For the most part it’s all about ideas. Ideas about the experience of postmodernity and about the idea of that experience as an experience of ideas. U.’s intellectual hero is Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of McCarthy’s own recent enthusiasms, but in his work he draws from a larger cast of postwar intellectuals, “feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine.” It’s not just that critique has run out of steam; it’s that it has been wholly subsumed by capital and directly serves the powers it once held in contempt. In this the narrator seems impeccably knowing, impeccably 2015. And yet as the novel unfolds along the byways of U.’s free-associative intellectual sensibilities, one senses tremendous pressure being put on it, perhaps more than it can bear, to always be “smart.” This is not nearly as fun as Remainder’s spiraling farrago of sociopathy, though it has some inspired moments.

We live in a world of networks, don’t you know? Everything is connected, and yet layered hierarchically, and so those connections are tentative. In this world the primitive is as inauthentic as the modern, and has been as long as there has been anyone on the scene to appreciate its authenticity. By the same token, the inauthenticity of the present seems authentic on the plane of shimmering sensation, as sensation, and even more so as it bears witness to the lumpy imperfections of any representation, which promise the eventual collapse of everything. Some of these ideas were already up and running in the first three novels. They express a generally poststructuralist-postmodernist view of things, with further readings in media theory. As in the work of McCarthy’s prolific philosopher friend and co-performer Simon Critchley, ideas that peaked in interest long ago are made compelling again by reminding us of the gloomier, death-haunted implications they always carried, which, for a while there, it’s true, seemed like they might get lost in the blinding light of all our servile screens.

This glamorous darkness was, in turn, carried over intact from an otherwise dead-in-the-water postwar existentialism, slain in the early 1960s for its sins of mystified individualism. Come to think of it, Satin Island fits in a tradition of existentialist fiction stemming from Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’s Stranger, in which moody, alienated individuals confronted the possibility that life is meaningless. A line can be traced from Roquentin’s famously nausea-inducing encounter with the “black, knotty mass” of a chestnut tree’s roots in Nausea to McCarthy’s fascination with the mattering of matter.

Not all of the novels in this tradition have aged well, but the way they try to test philosophical positions against individual experience is highly interesting, trading the outlandish speechifying of the more traditional “novel of ideas” for something closer to actual intellectual life. The credo driving such works is Sartre’s famous slogan, “existence precedes essence,” by which he meant simply that we are thrown into the world of experience before it could possibly occur to us to philosophize about it. In this mode, the novel of ideas is also the novel of how ideas feel.

But how is one supposed to react to stuff like this, found on the first page of Satin Island?

We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen. When the shapeless plasma takes on form and resolution, like a fish approaching us through murky waters or an image looming into view from noxious liquid in a darkroom, when it begins to coalesce into a figure that’s discernible, if ciphered, we can say: This is it, stirring, looming, even if it isn’t really, if it’s all just ink-blots.

Thematically this is a variation on that highly teachable moment in Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 when Oedipa looks over the circuit-board landscape of Southern California and feels a “revelation” trembling “just past the threshold of her understanding.” In Pynchon it certainly works, but here I am ambivalent. All these years removed from the 1960s, how thick a patina of irony has been laid upon McCarthy’s rendition of the pomo-hieratic pronouncement? Isn’t it too soon in the book for such finely wrought epiphanies? Is this writing too pretty, too … lyrical? Are we—gasp—coming full circle back to the “lyrical realism” that McCarthy was supposed to have overturned? Is that what happens when the ironic distance between narrator and author is allowed to collapse? Earnest intellection.

The road away from lyrical realism has itself split in two.

There was always something as nostalgic about McCarthy’s version of literary avant-gardism as there was about a lovely realist novel like Netherland, so perhaps they were destined to converge. Zadie Smith had already noticed how they meet around the sacrificial figure of the person of color—the cricketer friend in O’Neill; the murdered gangster in McCarthy—forced yet again to signify the possibility of authentic experience for white men. I wouldn’t put it past McCarthy, connoisseur of circuits, to have engineered a further convergence in just this way. Strikingly, Staten Island is where the protagonist of Netherland plays cricket, while here it is a word that comes to U. in a sort of fever dream, distorted into the “Satin Island” of the title. Veddy interesting. And yet, at the risk of committing the smallest spoiler in book review history, it should be noted that McCarthy’s narrator, unlike O’Neill’s, never actually gets to Staten Island. He almost does so, right at the end of the novel, having some time to kill in New York before flying back to London, but turns away from the ferry at the last second. As though to say: lyrical realism—can’t quite go there.

And so McCarthy keeps faith with the avant-garde, refusing most of the props of lyrical realism and yet, if anything, turning up the dial on the existential melodrama:

Nothing ever goes away. And as for the structures of kinship, the networks of exchange within whose web we’re held, cradled, created—networks whose mapping is the task, the very raison d’être, of someone like me: well, those networks are being mapped, that task performed, by the software that tabulates and cross-indexes what we buy with who we know, and what they buy, or like … Pondering these facts, a new spectre, an even more grotesque realization, presented itself to me: the truly horrifying thought wasn’t that the Great Report might be un-writable, but—quite the opposite—that it had already been written. Not by a person, nor even by some nefarious cabal, but simply by a neutral and indifferent binary system that had given rise to itself.

For me it’s crucial how McCarthy’s comic pessimism almost literally ballasts his flights of poetic-theoretic inspiration. Whether it is random junk falling out of the sky or a series of failed parachute jumps or a market bubble, or fifty other examples, things in McCarthy are inevitably, in the long term, due for a fall. So, yes, Satin Island testifies to the conversion of terms once used to critique the regnant economic order into toothless clichés, a tiring insight by now. It’s the traumatically unruly reappearance of the negative—the ink-blot, the gnarly carrot, the cancer cell—that keeps saving the show. Without this resistance from matter, the vertiginous infinity symbols whirring in McCarthy’s imagination might simply get boring, as they occasionally, if briefly, do in this novel. But the rhetorical highs of Satin Island’s narrator are usually deflated just in time. His corporate-sponsored Great Report is exposed as a fraud even as it is pursued with surprising earnestness. Its would-be inspired vertical leaps of cultural analytical symbolic synthesis all turn out to be kind of lame. The postmodern Totality escapes comprehension once again. It’s a complicated world.

What would once have been called existential despair, this novel calls “depression,” and the way it weighs Satin Island down is also its partial artistic salvation. Should he have gotten on that ferry to Staten Island?

What would it, in reality, have solved, or resolved? Nothing. What tangible nesting space would I have discovered there, and for what concrete purpose? None. Not to go there was, of course, profoundly meaningless as well. And so I found myself, as I waded back through the relentless stream of people, struggling just to stay in the same place, suspended between two types of meaninglessness. Did I choose the right one? I don’t know.

This may not be lyrical realism, but it is a form of realism.

And what form of realism would that be? My sense is that, since Zadie Smith published “Two Paths for the Novel” in 2008, the road away from lyrical realism represented by Remainder has itself split in two. On one side is the phenomenon of contemporary literary fiction no one could miss: its eager embrace of the apparatus of once-tabooed genre fiction, in particular the forms of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. From David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks to Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, from Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things, and Bennett Sims’s A Questionable Shape, to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and now Buried Giant, writers of high literary ambition have been trying to produce what could be called genre effects. These are the equivalent of special effects in movies, and they suggest a crisis of faith in lyrical realism, in its aesthetic and also, possibly, market potential.

To produce genre effects is to send up a flare to distracted readers, reminding them of fiction’s capacity to produce its version of the richly artificial pleasures on offer everywhere else in contemporary mass culture. It is to show off the sheer power of fiction to alter the real, to brighten, re-order and re-color it, as in a children’s book. Ironically, this is especially true of the ubiquitous postapocalyptic variant, which imagines profoundly awful, even starkly depopulated worlds. Of course, one shouldn’t discount the premonitory wisdom embedded in these works, warning us away from dystopian futures, or miss the deep desire for cultural renewal they encode. But this world un-building is first of all a supremely dramatic narrative effect. No wonder so many writers are trying it out.

It turns out to be easy for a novelist to kill off almost everyone. This clears the way for the apparently much harder task of rebuilding the social world in terms other than straggling, incipiently fascist authoritarianism. In this mode, every novel is epic again. The apocalyptic edge of the contemporary novel of genre effects distinguishes it from earlier marriages of the literary and the popular, such as magical realism, although it is by all means continuous with them. The desire to reconnect with readers through the medium of wonder is not new, and when it’s done well it’s like reading as a child again. Even Remainder has a bit of this, as it slowly evolves into a caper novel, complete with elaborate bank robbery.

<i>Staten Island Ferry</i>. Photograph by Patrick Nouhailler / Flickr

But that’s not Satin Island, not at all. I would instead associate McCarthy’s novel with another path away from lyrical realism, one we can label after David Shields’s compellingly readable book Reality Hunger. While the novel of genre effects wants to save the literary novel by turning up the dial on its fictionality to 11, the novel of reality hunger can barely stand being a novel. All of its charisma, such as it is, will have to be borrowed from reality itself, reality at its most really real. That charisma is often considerable. Think of the large audiences still commanded by biography, history, and memoir: the novel of reality hunger is hungry for some of that action. In some cases, as in Shields’s own The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, the pretense to fictionality is altogether dropped. It is a shockingly direct meditation on the living body of the author’s father, and if it is reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Patrimony in some ways, it is compelling in its insistence on unvarnished truth-telling grounded in the body, including lots of morbidly interesting facts and figures.

A few years ago Roth himself notoriously said he was no longer reading fiction, preferring in his old age to learn new facts about history and biography. He spoke as a man who has written some of the best, most honestly offensive, works of lyrical realism of all time, but he could be speaking for all the writers walking the path of reality hunger, even those who quixotically persist in looking for the real in the form of fiction. Writers in this mode are driven in different ways by a conviction of the high interest of what simply is and was, no genre effects required, although the temptation to lapse back into the lyrical is constant. And why wouldn’t it be? To the extent that “lyrical” simply means a beautiful voicing of individual perception, adding that kind of value to the raw matter of the world will probably always seem a good bet for writing something worth reading. Think, here, of the unstructured-seeming encounters with layers of historical fact in the Sebald-inspired fiction of Teju Cole, encounters nonetheless presented as emerging from individual experience and perception.

This is where I would locate Satin Island. Its self-conscious convergence with the corporate research report gives it, for all its stylishness, a documentary character. The dream of radical alternatives to the present has not been driven from its mind entirely—it’s there in the Madison plot, in her stories of protest past. For the most part, though, everything in the novel stays true to the realist spirit of the Report, which, if it is intellectually serious, theoretically informed, and meticulously observant, is also finally a bit suffocating, a restatement of truths we already know too well: the hungrier one is for reality, the more aware one becomes of the ubiquity of fiction, and vice-versa. I suppose that is the inherent risk of taking an “anthropological” perspective on one’s own culture. You can only passively observe, and not resolve, not even aesthetically, the contradictions that structure it. But this is partly why it is so tempting to keep returning to his earlier novel, whose looniness registered at least one political reality better and sooner than any other work I know of, and in such a witty way as to make one feel, however momentarily, free of its depressing weight. In retrospect, its sociopathic narrator seems a powerful premonition of the soon-to-be-identified “one-percenter” of contemporary neoliberalism. Sure, he had none of that tribe’s taste for luxury, but what was he really? Not an artist but a rich client, a customer, an unlikely princeling of the postmodern service economy, bending the world toward the perfection of his own experience. Satin Island is bereft of such a wonderful antihero, and seems flatter as a result. When, near the end, U. desperately imagines “some spot, some tract from which other terrains might open, realms where everything was different,” one doesn’t know whether to welcome the glimmer of utopian longing he confesses to feeling or pity its perfect emptiness.