‘Tom McCarthy, the Disinterested Novelist’, by Michael G. Donkin

I was so sickened by what I had just witnessed that I turned to throw up against the wall in front of the Aida coffeehouse…

Thomas Bernhard


There is nothing to be learned or enjoyed in Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, Satin Island, that can’t also be found in his essay for The Guardian, “The Death of Writing”. Satin Island dramatises an argument that McCarthy makes in the essay: the impossibility, today, of any human being producing a great novel, an all-encompassing account of reality, a novel that–like Ulysses–convincingly depicts an entire culture. But McCarthy’s argument suffers because it assumes that novelists are meant to be disinterested. No author of consequence, past or present, has ever held this view; and since all that is intended to be meaningful in the book hinges on this view, reading it soon becomes boring, for McCarthy has set out to investigate and resolve a problem that does not exist.

McCarthy has set out to investigate and resolve a problem that does not exist.

Satin Island’s narrator, U., is an anthropologist who works for a corporation for which he is to produce the “Great Report”. What follows are U.’s idle and meandering reflections on the form the report might take, his struggle to start writing it and, of course, his all-too-sudden realisation that doing so would not only be impossible, but unnecessary. The rest of the book consists of U. reconciling himself to this new perspective.

It is in fact surprising how limited McCarthy’s conception is of the “writer” or novelist. In “The Death of Writing” he explains,

As a novelist, I am fascinated by the figure of the anthropologist. What he or she embodies for me is a version of the writer minus all the bullshit, all the camouflage or obfuscation – embodies, that is, the function of the writer stripped down to its bare structural essentials. You look at the world and you report on it. That’s it. You spend time with a tribe, observe the way they fish and hunt, discern the contours of their rituals, beliefs and superstitions, tune into their unspokens and taboos. Then, after a year or so of this, you lug your note-packed trunk down to a dilapidated jetty from which a series of small rubber-trading boats and giant ocean liners carry you back to your study, where, khakis swapped for cotton shirt and tie, saliva liquor for the Twinings or iced scotch your housekeeper purveys you on a tray, you write the Book on them: the Great Report that maps the world you have been observing at its deepest and most intimate level, sums the tribe up, speaks its secret name.

This tells in unambiguous terms why McCarthy has chosen to cast his hero as an anthropologist. For him, the anthropologist and literary writer are substantially the same. However, he goes on to argue that the role of the “anthronovelist” is now obsolete:

The rise of corporate capitalism, and the astonishing, almost exponential rate of its recent acceleration … present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function, to remap their entire universe.

What’s more, without our having to do anything, the Great Report is already being written. Thus long past are the days when the novelist would do well to heed the practical wisdom of the father of modern anthropology, Bronisław Malinowski, who, McCarthy says

may have urged his craft’s practitioners to Write Everything Down … now, it is all written down already. There’s hardly an instant of our lives that isn’t documented. Walk down any stretch of street and you’re being filmed by three cameras at once – and the phone you carry in your pocket is pinpointing and logging your location at each given moment. Every website that you visit, each keystroke and click-through are archived: even if you’ve hit delete or empty trash it’s still there, lodged within some data fold or enclave, some occluded-yet-retrievable avenue of circuitry.

And so the end of the novelist’s work. McCarthy explains that as corporations have replaced universities as hubs of inquiry, and the anthropologist’s field of study is the “developed” as opposed to “primitive” world, we are finding that it is software which exhaustively maps our world. McCarthy even asserts that if James Joyce were alive today, he would work for Google, sensing–correctly–the pointlessness of writing a Ulysses in light of how much has changed.

Surely, though, there must be another route available to a writer than working for Google. Indeed, there is: it is to do what McCarthy has done, and examine this state of affairs, especially as it relates to the writer, and to do so dispassionately. How dull!

It is remarkable that throughout Satin Island – aside from one implausible and brief account of righteous indignation – U. never adopts a passionate position of any kind. Instead he prattles, arbitrarily dropping one reference after another from that body of writing called Theory, relating concept after concept in (tenuous) connection with his task of writing the Great Report.

Despite McCarthy’s belief that this is an essentially different world from that described by Joyce, U. resembles a member of the literary school of Naturalism–which, along with Symbolism, served as an important influence for Joyce, specifically with respect to Ulysses, not just in terms of its methodology but also in its characteristic nonpersonal, “objective” attitude. If McCarthy is the novelist for our time, why does he so strongly remind us of Flaubert, Ibsen, or Zola – though of course without their technical skill, or underlying political commitments?

Surely, though, there must be another route available to a writer than working for Google.

It is no coincidence that the Marxist philosopher György Lukács discusses the arbitrary, gratuitous nature of the detail Joyce chooses to include in Ulysses. This arbitrariness has to do with the fact that, like the Naturalists, and indeed like Joyce, who had also sought to capture the world in toto, McCarthy endeavors to capture the entire textual, or theoretical, world. It is clear that McCarthy’s approach is indebted, ideologically, to Naturalism, at least Naturalism at its worst–and this might explain why the anthropologist is such an alluring figure for McCarthy, indeed why McCarthy has confined the role of the writer to that of the anthronovelist.

Another influence on Joyce, of which McCarthy is aware, are the writings of Stéphane Mallarmé, the high priest of Symbolism. It is striking how similar U.’s sense of the world is to Mallarmé’s. Mallarmé is the poet who felt the world was no longer real, and so he fled from it in pursuit of another, ideal world. Mallarmé understood from the very beginning–as U. may unconsciously have known with respect to his Great Report–that he was to fail. In light of this thematic preoccupation, it is little surprise that McCarthy quotes Mallarmé in Satin Island’s epigraph.

McCarthy’s univocality–which gives the impression that he is absolutely indifferent to his readers–derives from a mindset strikingly like Mallarmé’s, if not precisely the same. This worldview, like all worldviews, is historically conditioned. Feelings of alienation, isolation, decay: these have plagued the artist since the emergence of industrial capitalism, and they explain McCarthy’s disturbing unwillingness to engage his readers. These feelings are responsible, also, for certain qualities that one finds in Mallarmé’s work–its resignation, its insistence on privacy, its meditativeness. One senses the poet is impotent to address others, for the poet’s traditional role as voice-of-the-community, and with it the poet’s identity, has disappeared with the rise of a new, alien way of life.

Mallarmé’s poetry can be so hermetic as to successfully resist the intelligence. It provokes pity in readers, but it also often succeeds in engaging them on a personal level. Whereas Mallarmé’s lyrics–with their evocative power, their mystical, even musical, logic–are capable of giving pleasure, McCarthy’s prose largely bores. Just as it did with Naturalism, Satin Island bespeaks an ideological affinity with Symbolism. Following in the footsteps of Mallarmé, McCarthy too feels his world to be “unreal.” It is simply the condition of living under capitalism.

In his review of Satin Island for the Sydney Review of Books, Emmett Stinson establishes another important writer for McCarthy–or I should say, a writer with whom McCarthy wants to be associated but could not have less in common–the Austrian gadfly Thomas Bernhard. Stinson points out that, by frequently alluding to Bernhard, McCarthy encourages an unflattering contrast. Where Bernhard at his best is simultaneously tragic and funny, his prose rhetorically rich–rife with ambiguity, musical as very little “musical” prose is–McCarthy is tedious, almost entirely without charm.

Stinson shows that U.’s inability to begin his report, in spite of having prepared his desk, is a reference to Bernhard’s novel The Lime Works. It seems also to be a reference, I think, to Bernhard’s Concrete, not to mention The Loser. In each novel Bernhard’s hero maniacally explains his inability to begin a certain ambitious book he has been preparing in his mind for years. Both describe their narrators’ extravagantly neurotic efforts to fight stagnation. Yet the mere telling of struggle in these works is itself engrossing. McCarthy, perhaps, had intended a similarly ironic effect, but Satin Island misses the mark, leaving one wishing McCarthy himself had been unable to pick up his pen.

Another reference to Bernhard can be found in the name of U.’s shadowy boss, Peyman, a pseudo-intellectual corporate guru, and the man responsible for assigning the report to U. Toward the end of the novel, U. suspects that Peyman had known the project, as U. originally envisioned it–i.e. as being akin to Ulysses–was doomed from the outset. It is only after U.’s sudden epiphany that the Great Report could never be written that he perfunctorily contrives a vastly different report, which ultimately benefits the company. It is unfortunate that McCarthy should have named this character after Claus Peymann, the director of Bernhard’s most scandalous dramatic works. The implicit analogy is clear enough, but it is tasteless to compare Bernhard to the absurd U., and Peymann to a corporate charlatan.

It is almost as though McCarthy–seemingly an admirer of Bernhard–doesn’t understand Bernhard at all.

It is almost as though McCarthy–seemingly an admirer of Bernhard–doesn’t understand Bernhard at all. If he did, he might see that Bernhard’s work offers an alternative path for today’s novelist. Not only can Bernhard’s sickly, alienated protagonists be interpreted as burlesques, parodies, of Mallarmé and his alienated consciousness: for all their isolation and inwardness, in a sense they become voices of the community.

Unlike McCarthy, Bernhard did not consider his novelistic function as that of an objective reporter on his tribe: on the contrary, he was passionately interested–a partisan, a gadfly. An effusive, maddened Socrates, Bernhard delivered ferocious invectives against those he believed to be responsible for the decay of his world. The very opposite of a dispassionate scientist, Bernhard aimed to injure his enemies–enemies of his polis.

Bernhard’s reputation rests largely on his novels, yet he was arguably a lyric poet in disguise. The traditional role of the poet seems to have been forgotten–it was forgotten long before Mallarmé’s time (it is merely that Mallarmé twisted free, once and for all, of this public role). Today’s poets are primarily private and meditative in orientation; they are certainly not concerned with a “you.” There are others, I think, who resemble Bernhard, other poets who have turned their backs on Symbolism. Pier Paolo Pasolini is one. At an impasse, unsure of what sort of poet to become in the wake of Symbolism, specifically after Rimbaud, he opted to make of himself, in the words of Enzo Siciliano, a “civil poet,” an “ideological poet.”

Contrary to McCarthy’s cynical argument, Joyce would have had more sense than to work for Google. On the other hand, Pound repeatedly scolded Joyce for his indifference to politics. Still, I cannot help thinking, if Joyce were alive today, he would wake up, having found that the problems of his own time had mutated and intensified–thus presenting an even greater threat to art and literature, which he cared about above all else. McCarthy’s Satin Island alone would perhaps be enough to turn even James Joyce political.


Michael G. Donkin is a student at the CUNY Graduate Center. He has another review soon to appear at Chicago Review, and recently finished a collection of poetry and satire.