The protagonist/subject of Satin Island is U., a theorist/anthropologist who expands specific occurrences into social structures and narratives. In this case, U. works for a shadowy corporate entity peddling brand hokum and pseudo mystical marketing (The Project) for immensely wealthy corporate and state clients. Above the Project is a grander enterprise (The Report) and beneath that is a set of ever-growing dossiers on topics as various as parachute murders and oil spills. Satin Island is the story of U. trying to tie this all together, to make sense, to find a key to the world as we now live it, a kind of Social Theory of Everything for Big Data Capitalism.
From the contingent nature of knowledge to the violence underlying capitalism to the emotional emptiness of relationships in the age of social media, Satin Island leverages experimental narrative structure into experimental social critique. The descriptions are brilliant: the systems, the characters, the airports, the conversations. Nietzsche makes an appearance as does Malinowski and Levi-Strauss. It’s a world worthy of a postmodern citizen, a world in which ethics and agency dissolve into endlessly referential frames, meticulously structured and brimming with mysterious metaphors. Once a guide to this house of mirrors, U. eventually becomes trapped in it, reduced by his own observational obsessions to helpless witness, unable to imagine larger meanings or engage in meaningful actions.
If U.’s failure of imagination feels a lot like our own, then McCarthy has made his point: this is what it feels like to trade purpose and commonality for endless informational drift. There are moments of beauty and glimpses of structural clarity, but the absence of any kind of binding coherence haunts Satin Island’s brave new world, an allegory of our collective inability to confront the forces shaping our lives. Going along to get along, U. turns away from struggle, from contact, from meaning. All that’s left is raw data: indefinite, inexplicable, inescapable.