Satin Island: Tom McCarthy

Satin Island: Tom McCarthy

Event: Satin Island – Tom McCarthy in conversation with Nicholas Lezard

Venue: London Review Bookshop

Report by Alex Masters

Two minutes into their conversation and Tom McCarthy and Nicholas Lezard are discussing the meaning of time. ‘There was a decade when I wanted to write a book about the present,’ Tom explains, ‘…even though I don’t believe in the present.’

Tom says he feels this even more acutely in an age where ‘everything is recorded and digital culture is so dominant’. Indeed, the digitised world and its influences are explored at length in Satin Island. A reverent, church-like hush descends on the crowded room at the London Review Bookshop as he reads an extract from early on in the book. It’s the part where the main character, U, is contemplating the buffering on his laptop as he waits in an airport lounge, to the point where ‘buffering becomes everything’.

‘Buffering is something not quite rendered,’ Tom explains. ‘There’s an “unresolvedness” between the “it” and the fiction… when the roulette ball is still spinning.’ Nicholas refers to an acknowledgement in the book which refers to ‘the impossibility of circular logic’. Is this a nod to Remainder (Tom’s earlier book which asks questions about perceived reality) he wonders. Tom admits that was a ‘deliberate nudge’.

’If you’re trying to write a definitive book on something, it ends up not being about it,’ Tom explains. ‘You get offcuts. I like the idea of disjecta.’ He casually quotes Mallarmé, the French poet and critic, to support his point. ‘There’s a famous line: “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”  – the book is the mausoleum of our soul. Imagine Mallarmé now, in the digital world,’ he muses. ‘He would not have been happy looking at Google!’

Nicholas also points to a Joycean element of Remainder with its panoptic narrative. ‘Writing doesn’t quite access the experience,’ he says excitedly. ‘There’s more to it than that. In Remainder, there are unresolved journeys. However, there’s also something a lot deeper at work here.’

Tom McCarthy reads an extract from 'Satin Island'

Tom McCarthy reads an extract from ‘Satin Island’

A new reality

Nicholas is also intrigued by how, in the first half of Satin Island, certain words like ‘be’ and ‘event’ are italicised. ‘It’s as if you have to be italicised to try and approach the reality,’ he says. In fact, Tom states, that wasn’t deliberate. ‘But I’ll claim it now!’ he jokes.

‘It does put those words into question: being and happening,’ Tom says. ‘Like in Remainder, “the real” is unresolved. What would the “real” be? Certainly not something naturalist. Empirical? Everything is working towards a massive supra-governmental level; a huge project to produce ‘it’ – a new reality. We’re not told about it.’

The discussion on Remainder  continues. ‘The book begins with an event that happens,’ Nicholas says. ‘The character says the problem about being dead is you can’t tell what it’s like.’ ‘I was interested in Blanshard and Mallarmé and Derrida…philosophy on death and literature,’ Tom says. ‘To say that death in literature is certain is obvious.’

‘Would you describe yourself as an avant garde novelist?’ Nicholas asks. ‘You write experimental fiction.’ There’s a comedic pause. ‘And you were nominated for the Booker Prize.’

‘That was a mistake!’ Tom retorts either out of horror or modesty. ‘I think they thought it [Satin Island] was historical.’ In fact, he sees himself as ‘a very traditional novelist’. ‘Is Joyce not part of the canon?’ he argues. ‘I think that’s what it’s all about: a radical, ineluctable inauthenticity, like Hamlet.

‘A character is never good or bad – it’s just the way they are. Mallarmé describes the image of people cycling over space as a way of people traversing over history. He was the great thinker of the moment and the event to come.’

‘Yes,’ Nicholas interjects. ‘Mallarmé said, “consider me dead!” like zombies.’ Tom even admits that the first draft of the book ‘ended on the zombie parade… it was zombie porn.’ He pauses. ‘I won’t go into that!’

He also admits that he ‘more or less stole a line from Shakespeare’: Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar: ‘And the first motion, all the interim is/ Like a phantasma…’ He adds: ‘It’s an extraordinary thing that Brutus is saying when he’s killing the head of state. The killing isn’t the radical act; it’s the delay that’s subversive.’

Intellectual debate: Nick Lezard interviews Tom McCarthy

Intellectual debate: Nicholas Lezard interviews Tom McCarthy


Satin Island is absolutely wonderful,’ Nicholas suddenly gushes, ‘It’s about everything and nothing – a remarkable achievement.’ Characteristically, Tom rebuffs the compliment, and then adds a reference to time. ‘Any novel that’s contemporary is incredibly dates as soon as it’s written.’

Satin Island begins in Turin – ‘where Nietzsche went mad’. ‘The sky is cut open with vapour trails, going bloody. It’s quite a metaphysical book.’ Tom admits that ‘it sounds like I’m quite politically depressive or nihilistic’. He continues: ‘U is dangerous in that he realises what he’s doing may not be great but it’s still pretty fucking sinister. He is genuinely thinking: “What can I do?” In Star Wars, the point is to blow up Death Star. Here, there is no single point like that. U has very William Burroughs fantasies of blowing things up! At the end of the book, he hasn’t sabotaged anything. He thinks everything will be resolved if he takes a ferry, like the Styx.’

It reminds Tom of Balzac’s Le Père Goriot. ‘He leaves Paris, looks at rest of world and then turns back to Paris, into the heart of the machine as U does – he takes that restless anxiety and malevolence. He’s the bug in the machine. If he finds the right vectors, he could corrupt it, but not yet.’

For Nicholas, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus springs to mind (naturally). ‘It makes you ask, is this a fluke?’ ‘Yes,’ Tom concurs. ‘He has that fantasy that everything will become clear and heave into alignment and constellate.

‘There are suggestions that Satin Island is a theological book in that we see things through a veil of pixelated images, like the shroud of Jesus with a hope that the god of meaning will gush in and clear everything up… something transcendental. It’s the same with Kafka when he says: “We’re in a holding pattern around truth.”’ He pauses and repeats the line more slowly, savouring the words: ‘“We’re in a holding pattern around truth.” That’s the line of approach I’m trying to stage in the book.’


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