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Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

June 25, 2016


The topic of this book is near and dear to my heart. It is a satire of the world of “big thought” in corporate America. The protagonist, U., is a “corporate anthropologist” for a consulting company, hired by a client to work on a very important project called the Koob-Sassen Project. U. is tasked with authoring The Great Report—a kind of “theory of everything” report that applies the methods of cultural anthropology to modern life, in hopes of gleaning insights that can be leveraged for business. As McCarthy describes it in the acknowledgements, it’s a send-up of what happens when “the tributaries of left-field thought run into the Amazon of new-corporate culture.”

In practice, protagonist spends most of his days staring at projected images of oil spills and thinking about the cultural rituals of native Vanuatans while listening to the hum of the fluorescents and air conditioning in the basement of his office building, procrastinating the impossible task before him. The more he tries to make abstract, bullshit connections between these far-flung observations, the more people celebrate his work. At one point, he delivers a talk at a TED-style conference not about his ideas, but raising doubts about the ideas (“To air the doubt about a concept before airing the concept itself was, I thought, quite intellectually adventurous; I thought it might go over well”). The talk receives a befuddled (at least unimpressed) silence from his audience, though U., absorbed in his own head, imagines it a huge success.

There are moments of comic brilliance here—culminating with U. literally missing a boat, only to look around and wonder if the other people standing there on the berth are also cultural anthropologists. That is the crux of this book—an educated young man with his head in the clouds, searching for connections where there are none, providing heady observations but no practical value to anything. And being rewarded for it.

Intermixed with the absurdity, though, are insightful observations about culture, particularly on the role of modern corporations as tribes. The observations are sometimes astute, sometimes brain tickling, but there is never truly a there there. “So what?” one might ask, but nobody ever does.

Satin Island reminds me some of DeLillo, of Richard Powers. More closely, of James Othmer’s The Futurist and Jonathn Dee’s Palladio. It’s a fun ride, though narratively it never really connects. But then, that’s part of the point.

Satin Island was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015 (the more deserved A Brief History of Seven Killings won).

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