McCarthy’s Satin Island is a puzzling novel but its also a return to form. Puzzling is what McCarthy does best and its a pleasure to see him back messing around with narrative expectations and throwing signifiers around like confetti. There’s a tendency, which I share, to use the word ‘signifiers’ as something of a catch-all, to denote a writer who appears to be aware of the semiotic weight of the themes (or memes, fuck knows) they introduce into their narratives. In the case of Satin Island, the novel’s protagonist is an anthropologist whose hero is Lévi-Strauss, so the term signifier is not merely apposite, its also necessary for a book where the semiotic significance of the material outweighs the narrative significance.
It might be worth trying to explain or justify that last phrase. McCarthy really doesn’t seem to be all that interested in narrative. Things do happen to the hero, but nothing worth writing home about. He travels a bit, he has a part-time girlfriend, with whom he sleeps, and he works for a mysterious organisation. But if we look at the classical Western narrative model, so beloved by the British, where the protagonist goes on a journey, in the process revealing or discovering things about him or herself, and by extension, the process of being human… forget it. That’s not McCarthy’s bag. Perhaps it’s a matter of minor frustration, because no matter what, narrative does matter in a novel, even in a post-Robbe Grillet anti-narrative novel, but at the same time, it’s not the only thing; and it might be that the British inhabit a literary culture where narrative tends to be prioritised above another key feature of the novel, which is that it is a space of discourse.
I’d like to put those last three words in italics, but shall resist the impetus. What they suggest is that a novel is a place where a writer assembles various thoughts, and these thoughts are perhaps the thing that makes it distinctive, above and beyond the structure. These thoughts are arranged around themes, or memes, or perhaps, even, signifiers. This is where McCarthy comes into his own. He curates signifiers and arranges them throughout the novel. The fact that this is also, effectively, the job of the novel’s protagonist offers a Borgesian twist. The novel is also the anthropological paper which the protagonist is writing. Skydivers; Turin airport; the Gerona G8 summit; the way cancer cells function; all are part of the meaning and meaninglessness of modern life and all documented as such. At times we want to think this is all building towards something, that an underpinning narrative will reveal itself, but this says as much about our inherent need for an external order to be imposed as anything else. It’s a commentary on the act of reading. The novel’s denouement, where the protagonist doesn’t actually get to where he seems to be headed, would appear to reinforce this point.
Perhaps it’s even more puzzling that this novel was short-listed for the Booker prize. The idea of the anti-novel, as practiced by the likes of Chejfec, Toussaint and others, infiltrating the British publishing mainstream is a delirious one. McCarthy may well be the only British novelist capable of being both slyly subversive and successful at the same time.