Buffering in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island

Devin Thomas O’Shea
26 min readAug 1, 2019

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…

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Devin Thomas O’Shea

Devin’s writing is in Slate, The Emerson Review, Jacobin, The Nation, Protean, Current Affairs, Boulevard, and elsewhere.