Buffering in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island

At the end of his 2015 article in The Guardian, Tom McCarthy asks us to re-imagine contemporary literature somewhere in the microscopic middle of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ research notes. The article’s title may be mere click-bait (The Death of Writing — If James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google) because McCarthy doesn’t seem to believe that writing, or fiction writing, is dead. Plus, Joyce as a programmer only vaguely comes up. Instead, McCarthy discusses the shifting tension for the contemporary writer between two poles: the collection and availability of data on one end, and dramatic narrative on the other. McCarthy proposes one side of this equation has changed in that the writer can’t compete, “in the shadow of omnipresent and omniscient data that makes a mockery of any notion that the writer might have something to inform us, and of a technologically underwritten capitalism that both writes and reads itself.”

Because of this dilemma, we should consider a specific area for literature to operate within: the miniscule space between Lévi-Strauss’s writing paper. Scribbled on one side, are the ethnographer’s field notes that would become Tristes Tropiques. On the other side is a draft of an epic drama[1], which Lévi-Strauss composed to preserve his sanity while stranded in the Amazon.

With this orientation, and the note that McCarthy (most likely) wrote this article in order to advertise his new novel, it isn’t a leap to say that Satin Island is the sort of contemporary book he is imagining. In section 11.4[2], the protagonist suggests as much. U. wonders which side of his idol, Lévi-Strauss’, paper the Great Report (U.’s anthropological project to define the current cultural moment) would be written on, and if the book we are currently reading might inhabit that middle ground. The purpose of this essay is to examine how McCarthy imagines and illustrates this microscopic middle, the effects it produces, and how it got there. In other words, why has digital media pinned literature between drama and anthropological data?

I’ll first look at the precursors to the Great Report, and literary ancestors of projects like it. I’ll note some of the parallels between K., from Kafka’s The Trial, and the protagonist of Satin Island. Finally, the essay will examine buffering, and the depiction of buffering in the novel, and the role that it plays in McCarthy’s artistic goals.

Mapping

In the same way readers are primed for the novel, I would like to frame this essay by looking at the Alfred A. Knoff cover art that was chosen for the 2015 hardcover edition[3]. As far as I am aware, McCarthy did not approve or advise the cover art. However, in keeping with some themes in the essay, I think it’s beneficial to see how this book is advertised through the publishing company, and to note its suggested category that appears on the title page.

The 2015 hardcover art mirrors a feeling I experienced while reading and thinking about the novel; it is hard to interpret and that’s probably intentionally. The line of drizzled paint that first catches my eye is in the top right section that’s a blend of green, blue and purple and points, vaguely, to “A Novel” before reversing direction. These paint splotches mimic the poetic descriptions of oil that take place throughout Satin Island. They also suggest inkblots that might be used in psychoanalysis, or Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist paint smatterings. These droplets are on a background of a rectangular graph with unmarked axes. This suggests a scatter graph or some sort of empirical, scientific, study. Throughout the graph — in diagonal, horizontal, and vertical configurations — are possible categories for the book that are struck through. The exception, what is not crossed out, is “A Novel” and the “A” in each possibility. It’s a something.

For me, this cover art signals two things. First is that the book is already concerned with its categorization. It is rejecting a number of literary possibilities. McCarthy has written nonfiction essays on literature before. As an author, he’s fully capable of writing Satin Island in any of the crossed out forms. That leads me to look for the particular aspects of why this book points out that it is a novel. It encourages me to pay attention to how the text conceives of itself.

On the title page, the listed categories are, “1. Mind and Reality — Fiction. 2. Psychological fiction.” I would like to keep the term “psychological fiction” in mind for considering Satin Island’s relationship to Kafka and in the larger context of the book as an art novel or book of ideas.

Encyclopedic Footnotes

Satin Island’s story is that a cooperate anthropologist named, simply, U.[4] is tasked with writing the Great Report by his CEO, semi-deific, boss, Peyman. This report is also described as, “The Document,” “the Book,” and “The First and Last Word on our age.”

Edward Mendelson, in writing about James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Pychon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, defined the encyclopedic novel as the, “attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge.” As Joyce himself said that, in Ulysses, his aim was to illustrate, “every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the somatic scheme of the whole.”[5] Dante’s Divine Comedy is also cited as an encyclopedic work. Not for its qualities as an index or reference resource, but within the interpretation of the Latin, pseudo-Greek, root, “an all around education,”[6] or a circle of knowledge. The aspiration of the encyclopedic novel has always been a large, complex, attempt to ‘capture the whole thing.’ If some novels are pictures of a place and time, the encyclopedic novel is the wide-angle, 360 degrees, panoramic shot.

Artistic aspirations aside, the scope of this sort of book strays outside the typical idea of what a fiction writer does and moves towards something a sociologist, philosopher, or anthropologist might undertake. Notably, these sorts of goals come in the younger stages of a field of study’s development. With the proliferation of material, in any field but especially the history and study of humans, an anthropologist would study a very specific aspect of a very specific culture. Modern anthropology organizes itself this way out of necessity, the sort of all encompassing study that Lévi-Strauss did has too many resources for one person to consume and utilize in one lifetime. U. observes this when thinking about his idol. When you are the founder of your field of study, you don’t have to get caught up with its contemporary conversation. Conversely, and in some ways closer to U.’s dilemma, is Leibniz; who U. thinks of as the last intellectual to have been at the forefront of every field — math, science, theology, philosophy, etc. While this could be construed as nostalgia, for a time when one person could be a true polymath like Da Vinci, I believe it’s the realization that gives Satin Island its form. I also think that realizing, and grappling with this idea is — for McCarthy and the novel — a fundamental aspect of living in contemporary society where the distance between any scholar, writer, artist, philosopher and Gottfried Leibniz is getting exponentially larger every day.

Backing away from a writer who could synthesize ‘what’s going on right now’ into one work, we can analyze what sort of writer McCarthy points to as an alternative. The writer as a half artist, half anthropologist begins to sound a lot like the ambitions that made Lévi-Straus the father of modern anthropology. Given that Lévi-Straus also wanted to be a poet or a novelist, it isn’t hard to imagine a version Tristes Tropiques that’s distilled into an Encyclopedic novel with a Pynchon-esque battalion of characters, each from a different Amazonian tribe, and a backlog of footnote data explaining the cultural nuances and similarities between each personality.

Satin Island doesn’t represent a time-specific city immortalized through art the way that Joyce treats Dublin in Ulysses. It’s not an index, or a behemoth, or thousand-page catalog of high and low culture, with narratives and plots that weave in and out of each other, in the vein of Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow. Instead, McCarthy chose to write a fairly slim collection of vignettes with a postmodern lack of plot. U. warns us in section 2.2[7] that if we are looking for events, “you’d best stop reading now.”

When U. discusses what it means to be an anthropologist working for a business, he says, “We purvey cultural insight… we unpick the fiber of a culture (ours), its weft and warp — the situations it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it — and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fiber…” Here, I think McCarthy is obliquely pointing to his definition of what any writer ought to do. Given the ambition of that project, the encyclopedic novel is the logical conclusion for ‘unpicking the fiber’ of something as large and data-rich as an entire culture. I think McCarthy agrees that, at one point, the maximalist route was the way to go. But now something has changed, and he wants to point us in a different direction, away from the doorstopper novel and towards something else. The way he wants to illustrate this is through the Koob Sassen Project[8] and failure of The Great Report.

Just the Cruft

David Letzler, in his essay “Encyclopedic Novels and Cruft of Fiction: Infinite Jest’s Endnotes,” argues that the notes in question can be read as both evidence for the novel’s place in the encyclopedic category and its redefinition of what that category does for fiction. It is also a structural technique that reinforces the theme of the data-saturated novel that, at its core, is grappling with entertainment and the easy, unchallenging, nature of consuming (some) television and movies.

Letzler cites Stephen Burn’s claim that the demands for the encyclopedic novel, compared to its precursors, have changed in a post-war era because the “mass of data exceed[s] the synthesizing powers of even [the encyclopedic novelist’s] encyclopedic grasp.” Under this reading, the encyclopedic novel shifts from the aspirations of Gaddis’ The Recognitions, (arguably) to encapsulate what it meant to live and make art in New York City in the 1940s and 50s, towards dealing with the impossibility of those aspirations in the present.

Letzler adopts a programming term for what Infitine Jest is doing, cruft. Cruft is a programming term, normally used to describe a non-linear, circuitous way of coding. The point of which, usually, is an ineffective work of programming that does everything it is suppose to do, but, none the less, is mechanically inefficient. There are more lines of code than what is necessary to accomplish the same goal.

Translated to fiction, the example Letzler uses for this mass of circuitous data is Himself’s (the protagonist’s father) video archive that is meticulously listed in the footnotes of Infinite Jest. Most of this archive contains information that isn’t necessary to the plot or understanding of the novel. However, there are a few crucial incites into the novel’s family that Letzler argues is the raison d’être of the whole data dump. Those bits of useful information — not available anywhere else in the novel — reward a close reader for the ability to sift through the cruft and find value hidden within. In a data abundant world, the skill of paying attention is something that literature still values. It’s something that David Foster Wallace returned to again in The Pale King and elsewhere. Letzler also brings up the ornamental catalog that weaves in and out of House of Leaves as a pure form of cruft. The catalog of furniture in the paradoxically large house is used as a textual blunt object, or frame, that reader is not asked to read word for word.

Cruft functions as a way of disciplining the reader with too much information. Satin Island’s sections, I believe, can be read as the unused footnotes for U.’s Great Report and function in the opposite way of Infinite Jest’s foot notes. The numbered sections act as information packets or a carving up of the narrative into bite-sized chunks. Often, chapters being with language that suggests the narrator had just been discussing something else. 5.1 begins, “On the Company…”, 2.1 begins, “Me? Call me U…” as if a question were just asked. Obviously not every section begins as a digression on a previously unmentioned topic. But the way Satin Island suggests its construction is that it is made up of U.’s incomplete field notes from the Great Report. Therefore, the story bounces between digressions and narrative.

In Opposition to cruft, all of the information in Satin Island matters in its cumulative affect. Like the Jackson Pollock inkblots on the cover, the feeling of reading the novel, that is ultimately the footnotes of a larger uncompleted work, reflects the experience of U. attempting to grapple with his encyclopedic task, and failing to derive meaning in the data he amasses.

Parallels in The Trial

Hillary A. Clark points to recycled narratives as a defining trait in the encyclopedic novel. For example, Ulysses is a retelling of The Odyssey and Gravity’s Rainbow mimics a cycle of Tarot Cards, Infinite Jest updates Hamlet. Epics adventure narratives are a favorite to recycle in these books. The form seems to fit long, retellings of journeys and conquests. Satin Island moves in a different direction; towards the art novel, and the novel of ideas. It also has a precursor that it consciously maps onto in Kafka’s The Trial. Here I would like to note some similarities and interpretations of what it means for McCarthy to find that the Kafkaesque has renewed incite for contemporary literature.

Aside from the single letter name similarities between K. and U., I would like to consider Kafka’s protagonist as suspended in the court/justice system’s middle ground. The nightmare of that system is its ubiquity in both the private and public space as well as the Kafkaesque paradoxes that prevent escape or compromise.

Writing is an important aspect of Kafka’s universe and in K.’s relationship as an individual to his court case. In the much analyzed first page of the novel, K. is inducted into his trial when he wakes up and rings a bell. Instead of having breakfast served, he is greeted by the men who are going to arrest him. The subject of K.’s identity, and proof of it soon come up and, comically, K.’s first scrap of identification is his bicycle license.

In this system, K. is dividualized, to put it in Deleuze’s term. He is a court case and the set of documents like his birth certificate — the first inscription of himself within the system. Later in the book, K. attempts to remedy his court case with an encyclopedic project. Midway through his trial, having failed to manipulate the system ,or successfully navigate his way out of it, K. decides that the only way to prove his innocence is to write out a detailed account of himself, his petition.[9] Since he doesn’t know the ‘nature of the charge’, K. decides this petition will have to be an exhaustive examination of himself “from all sides.”

With purpose, Satin Island aims to do this with the nightmare dialed down. U. is never actually in personal jeopardy. Instead, the Kafkaesque nightmare in the background is climate change. Its slight obscurity reflects the reality of the threat and our interaction with global warming through the media. For example, climate change, and the implications of the Anthropocene, depicted in the constant oil spills that U. observes ‘blooming.’ Or, in the creeping fascism and oppressive government action against protests to combat climate change in Madison’s story. The real threats in Satin Island are in the background, in the media, and in other character’s stories. The nature of those problems is one of Kafkaesque power dynamics, in systems that seem unchangeable. And we can look to Deleuze to have already made this point.

“…in the societies of control one is never finished with anything — the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states of coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. In The Tiral, Kafka, who had already placed himself at the pivotal point between two types of social formation, described the most fearsome of juridical forms.” — Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control

K.’s trial is unique in that the judicial system never physically detains him in order to make a ruling. Instead, for example, K. pursues his case after waiting for further communication from the courts when he takes the lack of a summons, “as an implicit summons to appear again at the same building at the same time.”[10] Rather than being forced through a system like the prison, K. willfully participates.

The parallel here is in U.’s participation in Peyman’s Great Report and the Koob-Sassen project. Neither U. or any other scholar is forced out of academic anthropology, he’s coerced through the normal language of the corporation (money) and economic osmosis (the shifting societal role of academics). As U. puts it, “anthropologists found themselves working for the corporation, not on it.”[11] As Peymen put it, universities “have become businesses — and not even good ones.”[12]

A key distinction in the reading of The Trial is that (despite some of the film adaptations like Orson Wells’ 1962 adaptation) the innocence of K. is ambiguous and there is no mastermind behind the system that K. is caught up in. This reading posits that The Trial is closer to Foucault’s disembodied conception of power than it is to a version of Orwell’s 1984. Kafka’s judges, the old men in oil paintings that watch over the judicial system through oil painting, are what some readers want to point at as the endpoint of power in the system. However, they are not described as overlords, but as myths and legends. They are stories and parameters that function in the background of everything that goes on in K.’s trial but they, as masterminds do not. Similarly, we can look at Peyman as a possible man behind the curtain, but what we find is just another actor in U.’s reality.

Near the end of The Trial, a priest in a cathedral tells K. a parable called Before the Law in an effort to provide some incite K.’s anxious situation between bureaucracy and justice. The parable is unique in that, while there are many interpretations of its meaning, it manages to deploy a number of symbols and concepts that are familiar in themselves, but resist a simplistic interpretation. There is a guard at the door of justice and salvation, and the traveler is not allowed inside at this time (appropriate for K’s situation) until he grows old and dies.

Madison’s story, while not a parable, has some uncanny parallels with Before the Law. While protesting the G8 summit in 2001, she and a large group of activists are rounded up and arrested by the Italian police. They’re taken to the police station where they are beaten, humiliated, and forced to sing Mussolini era, fascist, songs. Madison is taken from the police station to, what seems like, a labyrinthine hotel, to a single room where she forced to pose, under threat of cattle prod, for a portly man[13] who receives unintelligible radio transmissions from a vague machine. She does this posturing[14] for hours until the portly man seems satisfied and then she is let go.

What I want to suggest is not a definitive reading of Before the Law or Madison’s story, but the contrast between McCarthy’s use of this kind of ‘story within a story’ that mimics Kafka’s. Both are intentionally difficult to cleanly deconstruct — an aspect of Kafka’s parables that McCarthy is mimicking. At the same time they seem to gesture towards something profoundly important to the character and the meaning of the novels they are contained in.

In the relationship between protagonist and storyteller, the priest and Madison are both communicating pertinent information to the protagonist’s task. For K., his relationship to justice is essentially spiritual, and he seeks the comforts of religion for guidance. For U., one of the underlying currents of his project is climate change and the political. While the stakes of the two projects differ, there’s a point to the fact that both Madison and the priest have greater claims to what the protagonist is after. The priest, as a spiritual figure has greater access to the ‘salvation’ or he has “know[n] the story longer than [K.]” Thus, he’s able to impose his interpretation of the parable upon K. Inversely, in Madison’s story, she is outside the control of The Company and going against the grain of capitalism and the larger political forces that allow a more obvious interpretation for the oil spills that U. is concerned will. All that is embodied in the 2009 G8 summit and the use of force employed by the Italian police.

Another parallel between K. and U. is their character relationship to reader and writer. Neither conceives of himself as paranoid. As readers, we might see U.’s stockpiling of skydiving information and pattern seeking — his apophenia[15] — as a red flag for his mental health. Likewise, K.’s fear of the system works to tempt the reader, at different times, to question his innocence[16] and his sanity. However, neither character seems to dwell seriously on their own psychology. As readers we are lead by the author to question the characters sanity, but never explicitly. narrator we are questioning and for K., Kafka (or an unnamed narrator). To them, the system is a real and present thing to decipher or escape.

At the core of both novels is a ritual of truth[17], where the production of truth is disguised as discovery. Both systems have their clerk protagonist pushed though labyrinths. Not by force, but by coercion. Both systems ask the protagonist to participate in a kind of maximalist ‘inscribing’ of themselves, and reality, into writing. The faceless courts, and The Company, both desire this compiling of absolute information. K. is directed inwards to evaluate and distill and full record of innocence by leaving no stone unturned in the history of himself. U. is tasked with accounting for the exterior: society, culture, and ‘our age’. Both projects are doomed to failure, and ultimately rejected, for reasons concerned with time. K. makes sure to point out that he can devote every moment of his personal free time to writing the petition, but he’s never able to summon up the willpower. U. finds the Great Report fundamentally “un-writable” in any “medium or media”, because it is “un-plottable, un-frameable, un-realizable”.[18] He’s not the second Leibniz because, today, in order to become an intellectual polymath of that caliber, you would need more than one lifetime to process so much information. And that task is now best accomplished, or pursued, by computers.

In light of these parallel (impossible) rituals of truth, what does is mean for the larger systems to require this kind of written documentation? When discussing ‘the examination’ in Discipline and Punish, where the inmate, patient, student, or newborn are inscribed in the registers of power, Foucault writes, “This turning of real lives into writing is no longer a procedure of heroization[19]; it functions as a procedure of objectification and subjection.”[20] For both authors, this corruption of heroization, and the rejection of its project inside a larger system, is what shapes both texts.

Instead of reading a detailed account of Josepf K.’s life ‘from every angle’, we get The Trial. Instead of the Great Report, we get Satin Island.

What we can distill from this parallel is that both authors have chosen not to write encyclopedic accounts of their characters and that both assert that a data rich task like that is in the language of the inhuman: the bureaucracy and the cooperation. Therefore, for McCarthy, the human has to be found somewhere in the middle of Lévi-Strauss’ notes, suspended in microscopic animation.

A Buffering Consciousness

So far I’ve looked at the ways in which the Great Report and U’s anthropological project resemble the encyclopedic novel, the significance of Satin Island as constructed of footnotes that belonged to the absent Great Report, and the use of Kafka’s The Trial in interpreting some of the themes within Satin Island’s narrative. Finally, I would like to think about what it means for U, the parachutist, the dying character Petr , the novel itself, and the society depicted in Satin Island, to be buffering.

Almost every page of Satin Island seems to have a clue about what binds the novel together. And yet, as the reader collects hints and puzzle pieces, the whole never seems to come into view. In talking about his A Beautiful Mind style file keeping, U. remarks that, maybe, “all the various files would one day turn out to have been related all along, their sudden merging leading me to crack the case. What was “the case”? I didn’t know — but that was the whole point: the answer to that would become clear once all the dossiers hove into alignment.” It is important to note here that U is speaking about a project that ultimately fails. Unlike the Skype call with Madison at the beginning of the book, the pixilated picture here is not going to crystallize into a whole.

As evidence for this, we can look to some of the other instances of buffering. One of the most notable is found in the parachutist’s story. In section 6.7, U. decides the location of the murder (the sky) but dwells on when the parachutist was killed. If, in fact, his bag was sabotaged days before the jump, and with a twist of Schrodinger’s cat logic, U. says,

“I tried to picture him walking around in that state: already effectively dead, his body and his consciousness, his experiences, and, beyond these, his experience of his experience — his awareness of himself, his whole reality — mere side effects of a technical delay, a pause, an interval; an interval comparable, perhaps, to the ones you get down phone-lines when you speak long distance or on Skype: just the hiatus created by the passage of a command down a chain, the sequence of its parts; the interim between an action and its motion, like those paralytic lags that come in hideous dreams.” — Satin Island, page 60

The grim implication is the line drawn between buffering as a ‘hiatus’ in the chain of command and mortality as, in programming terms, the ultimate execution in that program. Here, McCarthy is illustrating buffering not as an annoyance or an inconsequential pause in computation. I don’t think that he’s depicting a determinist worldview either. Rather, the continued dwelling on buffering in Satin Island is a meditation on the existential mode of being. It’s a repeated articulation of Heidegger’s Dasein if we consider both buffering and Dasein, “in the mode of “having to be” but never is.” and, “Anticipating in the mode: not yet.”[21] If death is not an event within existence, because it is the very possibility of existence, we can consider the state of buffering, of a processing or loading, as analogous to Dasein in that, once the program is executed, there is no longer anticipating.

Does it seem vulgar to equate consciousness with the traditionally annoying process of buffering? In a surface level consideration of it, where the ‘thing of value’, the video or picture, comes on the other side of buffering, yes, that may seem vulgar. However, I think that we are asked to imagine buffering through U.’s conception of it as metaphorically wrapped up in quasi-divine being and Dasein.

The clearest example of this is in section 11.2[22]. Here U. blends the circular, the cycle[23], and buffering. While having sex with Madison, U. pays particular attention to her eyes as she approaches orgasm, noting, “…those small circles of intelligence and colour that you think of as the apertures leading to what’s behind the eyes, to their owner’s being or essence or whatever…” and then describing this as a, “stretched out moment,” and, “endless buffering.” This is all equated with the Turin Airport as a ‘spinning’ site of divine mystery plus a callback to the first section, 1.1, and the circular logic in radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin. That, “the negative became a positive, which means that the shroud itself was, in effect, a negative already.” Here, buffering isn’t stalling or an annoyance. It’s a mode of contemplation, connection, thinking, and noticing the passage of time. It can be an elongation of time, it can disrupt out conception of time[24]

When U. is visiting a dying Petr in the hospital, Petr says, “throughout my life I’ve always lived significant events in terms of how I’ll tell people about them.” Petr says that he even does this formulating during the event that’s happening and U., “tried to tell him: that’s a buffering probl…”[25] but Petr isn’t paying attention anymore. Buffering is a mode of being that’s preoccupied by the future communication of its own current experience. It’s interesting to juxtapose this with U.’s idea for Present-Tense AnthropologyTM. In section 7.10, when U. has his first epiphany — his fulgeration — on the Great Report becoming this new form of study, he asks, “What if the Report might somehow, in some way, be lived, be be-d rather than written?” The use of the term ‘be’ here is enough to summon Heidegger to mind, not to mention the quasi-mystical call to evaluate ‘the now’ as a form of study. It’s here that I want to bring up cruft again and point to Present Tense Anthropology as its direct inverse. Where as Infinite Jest’s endnotes are asking us to pay attention to gratuitous amounts of information in the text, here Satin Island is asking us to contemplate outside of the text.

The experience of reading McCarthy’s novel[26] is one of head scratching. This is where McCarthy believes our culture is shifting toward in its relationship to the novel. If David Foster Wallace’s solution was to double down on raw text and page length, McCarthy’s solution is to double down on ideas and to push the emphasis of what the novel can do into philosophy. At various points, when U. considers Present Tense AnthropologyTM, the skydiver’s dilemma, or Madison’s story, or any number of the vaguely interpretable vignettes that make up Satin Island, McCarthy is demonstrating that the value of the art novel can reside outside its text, somewhere in the reflective experience after reading. This is asking a lot of the reader, but fiction and postmodern fiction has to compete in a marketplace of constant twenty-four hour news, events (both historic and philosophically vague), and media distractions that are only getting better at holding our attention. The novel that rich in ideas, as well as drama and a touch of anthropology, is something that fiction can uniquely still provide.

Additionally, I don’t think it is a stretch to believe McCarthy has Heidegger and technology on his mind. As evidence, I’ll point to an essay by McCarthy that may help us read the ending section of Satin Island.

At the end of the novel is an echo of Tristes Tropiques that ends with Lévi-Straus leaving the Amazon, having saved his sanity via play writing enough to complete the book, on a boat and reflecting on man’s place in the universe. Likewise, U. is on a ferry that’s just arrived at Staten Island. He fights against the movement of the crowd that is and remains behind, “suspended between two types of meaninglessness.” Its route completed, we’re invited to think of the ferry as an impulse or go-between that’s crossed its synaptic gap and arrived at its node, its information dispersed. In poetic, and increasingly digital, language U. remarks on pools of light that “was spreading right towards the ferry, swallowing it up, dismantling it pixel by orange pixel.” In McCarthy fashion, the poetic language blends with the technological, illustrating the suspension between art and data. Here is where we would expect a sort of existentialist manifesto from U. His character should demonstrate a change, he has failed to construct the Great Report, Madison’s story should affect his thinking. All this combined, he should have a revelation and complete a narrative arc. Instead, McCarthy rejects a great, all encompassing, narrative point. Instead, I think, U. simply has a status change. He is moving away from the hope of deriving meaning through corporate anthropology, and back into that suspended animation between Lévi-Strauss’s field notes and drama.

And the suspended animation depicted is intentional, both broadly and in this final scene. McCarthy says so himself in The Death of Writing, “Here and elsewhere in my writing, I have nothing to say.” U. is in medius res. He’s listening and observing in that new found Lévi-Strauss middle ground. He observes that the configuration of security guards, himself, and the homeless man are stationary and that the ferry fills back up with passengers, this pattern is obscured and lost and that is all. However, the significance of this can be contextualized.

In his essay, Transmission and the Individual Remix, McCarthy is interested in the depiction of systems and communication networks. He traces this broadcaster/receiver theme back to Aeschylus’s Orestiea and the system of Greek beacons that were lit to announce the fall of Troy. In following this idea (an imbeddedness in a communication network) McCarthy moves from Rilke to Jean Cocteau and finishes with a elaboration on Heidegger’s conception of speaking, listening, and thinking.

A sample of Google’s “Deep Dream” art

“Thinking, Heidegger continues, should also take the form of listening: that is how we will come to appreciate how it all — world, being, heavens, time, all that wonderful Heideggerian stuff — fits together, plus how language itself works. The philosopher, like the poet, needs to listen to what, in a parallel essay, The Nature of Language, Heidegger calls Zusage, to-saying, “saying to which the nature of language is akin.” “Speaking is listening,” he decides, “listening to the language that we speak. Thus, it is a listening not while but before we are speaking.” The proposition is quite paradoxical; it requires that time be first split up (speaking right now, I am inhabiting a previous moment, a moment of previousness, of which the now, right now, is but an echo), then coiled back into itself in an endless feedback (speaking is listening to speaking, which, as we’ve just learnt, is listening-round and round).” — Transmission and the Individual Remix, section 3

This, I think, can point us to the significance of U. as a writer, standing on the ferry, both paradoxically observing, listening, as a character and dictating, speaking, as narrator. The political overtones of post-9/11 security staff, and the homeless man, might lend us a hint towards what McCarthy believes is worth noting. I believe this demonstrates the model for McCarthy’s contemporary literature, in that middle ground of anthropology and drama, and its significance.

Compared with the fate of U.’s parallel ancestor, K., who is observed by his executioners after being held down and stabbed, “cheek pressed against cheek, as they observed the decisive moment.” That gruesome moment is the end of K.’s trial, shows society observing the individual. It seems that U. has escaped that sort of fate, and his observation as artist anthropologist is turned, “back into the city.”

Works Cited

Boswell, Marshall, and Marshall Boswell. David Foster Wallace and The Long Thing: New Essays on the Novels. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Edward Mendelson. Encyclopedic Narrative, from Dante to Pynchon. Http://www.columbia.edu/. Columbia University, n.d. Web. 6 June 2016.

“encyclopaedia | encyclopedia, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 6 June 2016.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.

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Joyce, James. Selected Letters of James Joyce. New York: Viking, 1975. Print. Page 271.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. London: Penguin, 1994. Print.

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Mewshaw, Marc. “In Satin Island, an Effort to Map Humanity Goes Awry.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 09 June 2016.

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[1] The plot resembles Caesar Augustus vs. Brutus power struggle.

[2] Satin Island, page 124

[3] The design is by Peter Mendelsund

[4] Read another way, “You.” As David Haglund puts it in The New Yorker, U. is named “…either cleverly or too cleverly, depending on your tolerance for that kind of thing.” My note on the ‘cleverness’ of U. is that the name succeeds in pulling the reader between two poles, somewhere in the middle ground of character and reader (or voyeur), which contributes to a theme of the novel.

[5] Selected Letters of James Joyce. Full citations are at the end of the essay.

[6] Oxford English Dictionary

[7] Satin Island, Page 14

[8] Presumably named for the artist Hilary Koob-Sassen. McCarthy is a close acquaintance and probably chose to name the project after his friend’s namesake for the thematic similarities in their work. (http://hilarykoobsassen.com/)

[9] The Trial, Page 88

[10] The Trial, Page 34

[11] Satin Island, Page 42

[12] Satin Island, Page 62

[13] The priest suggests at one point that the guard in Before the Law may be the one who is deceived in the same sense that the ‘portly man’ who tortures Madison could be deceived by the messages from the radio.

[14] There’s some sort of biopolitics commentary to be had in this posturing. It also mirrors the restricted physical access to justice in Before the Law.

[15] The human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data.

[16] For me, the idea that this plays with is something like, ‘If you’re innocent, you have nothing to hide.’ The inverse — an incompetent, and or oppressive, bureaucracy — gets twisted around and inverted in contrast to private innocence, blurring the public and private all over again.

[17] Discipline and Punish, Page 42

[18] Satin Island, Page 126

[19] As opposed to the traditional novel.

[20] Discipline and Punish, Page 192

[21] Technics and Time, page 5

[22] Satin Island, page 121

[23] Here we can also consider the ‘always becoming’ of the gif, and the buffering/loading icons that are depicted in Jason Lazarus’s twohundredfiftysixcolors.

[24] An example of which is the Skype call that is interrupted between U. and Madison that calls attention to the fact that the video call is merely a series of still frames. Each can be interpreted and considered separately, but that is disguised by the process of live streaming.

[25] Satin Island, page 137

[26] As Marc Mewshaw puts it in his review for The Atlantic.

writing in Boulevard, Paterson Literary Review, Midwestern Gothic—a sample of his novel manuscript is published in Embark Literary Journal. @rev_cherrycoke

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