Craving Authenticity: a reading of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island

“Reading Tom McCarthy’s fiction induces a certain kind of mania,” writes Duncan White in The Telegraph. “It demands to be unpacked and decoded, charted and mapped. Every chapter – no, every sentence – invites you to plunge deeper into the book’s dark pool, groping for the submerged pattern. It is as if you are trying to read two books at once. There is the conventional one – paper and ink – but this is only the gateway to the second, which is a vast virtual blueprint of the novel’s hidden architecture, detailing its dizzying connections. Reading a McCarthy novel is like being in a McCarthy novel: everything is part of a fizzing network, the scope of which can never be fully apprehended.”

It’s an uncannily accurate description of this uncannily accurate novel. I recognized the sensation instantly: that induced mania.

satin-islandThere were times, reading this novel, when I felt almost euphoric. Lightheaded with this sense of blissful recognition, a dawning awareness, a desire to pull closer, read faster.

Perhaps this has something to do with a certain nostalgia that it evoked for me: sometime shortly after the turn of the century, when I was obsessed with authors such as Pynchon and DeLillo and David Foster Wallace and William Gibson. (The unrelenting masculinity of that list does not escape me.) For a long time that was the kind of fiction I aspired to write.

It was around this time that I also became obsessed with the concept of apophenia. I was euphoric with the idea that everything was connected, all of it, and if I worked very hard, if I looked very closely, I could understand the connections, map it all out, find that meaning.

I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Possibly eighteen.

Satin Island evoked for me all those teen feelings: reckless ambition, desperate desire, the greediness of raw curiosity and unformed ideas.

Phil Hogan in The Guardian writes of U., the novel’s narrator, “Under his restless scrutiny, everything connects, patterns emerge, trends leap out, themes recur, disparate things resolve into one, as the promise of some supra-meaning takes shape.”

I guess my euphoria was one of recognition.

I don’t think the word “apophenia” appears anywhere in this novel; it doesn’t need to. In infects the narrative at the cellular level; it’s woven into every aspect. This is a story about apophenia but also, simultaneously, paradoxically, the overwhelming interconnectedness of every damn thing.

There is a hint of the epiphany in this: the rapturous and futile search for an overarching meaning that underpins the world.

There’s also more than a hint of the sinister. As Jeff Turrentine describes it in his review for the New York Times, “the emergence of complex networks whose structures are unfathomable to us, even as we serve them and their hidden architects.”

Satin Island is a brilliant and masterful book, unreservedly.

And yet as I sat with that combined feeling of euphoria and nostalgia it occurred to me that I no longer dream of writing a book like this. That my desire to channel DeLillo is long past and it disappeared somewhere around 2007 or 2008 when I began painstakingly chipping my way through that wall of influence, breaking my way into a much different aesthetic, one that feels more authentic to the world as I see it now.

The voice that permeates that postmodern fiction that once affected me so much: for the most part it is one of cynicism, detachment, a sort of self-conscious irony. It lives in the intellect. It is the vantage point of someone who observes, someone without much skin in the game. Someone, perhaps, whose inherent privilege will always protect them from the most extreme versions of the world in which they live, allowing them to inhabit that space as an observer. The anthropologist.

What is it that allows us to live as observers, even in our own lives?

At one point in the book, U. visits his friend, who’s in the hospital, dying. The worst part about dying, the friend says, is that there’s no one to tell about it. When asked to elaborate…

“Well, he said, throughout my life I’ve always lived significant events in terms of how I’ll tell people about them. What I mean is that even during these events I would be formulating, in my head, the way that I’d describe them later. …When I was eighteen and I found myself in Berlin the day the Wall fell, he went on, as I watched the people streaming over, clambering up on it, hacking it down, I was rehearsing how to recount it all to friends after I got back home.”


Which dovetails with the narrator’s reveries on the challenge of being an anthropologist to a world in which you’re intimately familiar yourself — every experience is both being experienced and being digested and analyzed as something to recount later, with the protagonist fulfilling dual roles as participant and observer.

There are moments when I’m engaged in some mundane, uneventful activity that is unremarkable yet at the same time expresses everything about a time in my life (like the “generic” that anthropologists pursue) and I pull back for a moment, seeing myself chopping carrots or sitting on the deck in the sunshine or stirring the fire in winter and I think, when I look back on this year of my life, it will be composed of moments like this one. That brief moment or gesture or whatever it is becomes this symbol of a certain time or era or feeling and somehow that fiction makes reality feel more real than it actually is.

And yet at the same time I’ve also lived moments of such raw emotion that I was not observing the moment, I was not narrating it as it happened, I was simply in it.

I’m far more interested in those moments, and exploring them in fiction.

I no longer believe that authentic, unmediated experience is impossible. Improbable, perhaps. But certainly not impossible.


The Oil Spill that permeates Satin Island—so to speak—is put forth as a sort of platonic Event, a generic happening which is sort of the average imprint of a chain of similar or related events.

“An anthropologist’s not interested in singularities, but in generics. Oil spills are perfectly generic: there’s always one happening, or one that’s recently transpired, or, it can be said with confidence, one that’s on the verge of happening.”

And later, as the narrator images an imaginary talk, delivered in a parallel world version of TED or Davos, he sees himself saying:

““There’s always an oil spill happening, I’d say. Which is why. That’s the reason, gentlemen. Which, gentlemen, is the reason we can name it in the singular: the Oil Spill—an ongoing event whose discrete parts and moments, whatever their particular shapes and vicissitudes (vicissitudes! I’d susurrate the word time and again), have run together, merged into a continuum in which all plurals drown.”


There’s always an oil spill happening.

And yet for the people who are directly affected, The Oil Spill is the one that destroyed their community, their livelihood, their way of life. Not generic, but singular. A localized apocalypse. Same for the creatures caught in it, engulfed as if by Biblical plagues.

To me the voice of postmodernism has become perplexing: it centers the narrative emerging from the other side of a screen instead of the story of whoever’s caught in the lake of fire.

It privileges the numb sense of helplessness and despair that comes from seeing the apocalypse happening elsewhere, instead of the raw unfiltered pain when the apocalypse comes to you.


Early in the book, the narrator’s boss tells him that Seattle is filled with “stealth” Starbucks, Starbucks masquerading as quaint indie coffee shops, a Starbucks by any other name. “People crave authenticity,” he insists.

And I see this and recognize it, but as an experience it feels like an artifact from a different time, a time I associate with the heyday of Radiohead. In this age, the idea of craving authenticity strikes me as the affectation of a by-gone era.

Or perhaps that’s just me, already preparing for and anticipating a future that hasn’t quite arrived.

Our future is not something we can shape through narrative, but more like an ancient mythology come to life: a story of cataclysms and extinctions, great dyings, great floods.

The realities of this future have nothing to do with media representation, with simulacra, with life on the screen.

Authenticity is coming, whether we crave it or not.

In the end I think love Satin Island as an elegy to a time that I feel is already slipping away, a time that I already think of as a more innocent one: when it was still possible to see these events as media spectacles, ourselves as permanently isolated from the real, protected from authenticity as if padded in bubblewrap. When our understanding of our environs was still primarily mediated by the media machine. When nothing was real — at least not to us.

Elsewhere, the bombs have always been falling, the hurricanes have always been breaking, the deserts have always been spreading. Elsewhere, the real has always been unavoidable.

Everything is connected, and we can no longer look at the world with ironic distance. We are not just observers. We are the only ones here.