The Last Epoch: Tom McCarthy’s ‘Satin Island’ Takes on the Avant-Garde

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1. Two Sides of the Same Street
If you’ve read a review of any novel by Tom McCarthy anytime in the last 10 years, you know that you don’t have to look very far to find the term avant-garde, and equally as often, the consensus that McCarthy is the new standard bearer of the avant-garde in contemporary fiction. While the claim is no less true despite the ease with which it is repeatedly made, the framing of what this mantle means is less frequently explored, and has somewhat problematic origins. The stone in the pond here belongs to Zadie Smith, who in 2009 contrived a binary between Joseph O’Neill’s bestselling novel Netherland and McCarthy’s debut work, Remainder, announcing the latter as an “assassination” of an exalted brand of realism, and an “alternate road down which the novel, might, with difficulty, travel forward.” The philosophical templates behind this antagonism were well sketched, if muddled somewhat is Smith’s distillation; on the one hand — epiphany, redemption, coherency of language and memory, and the ontological superiority of subjective experience over the world; on the other — method, process, simulacra, hard materialism, and false transcendence.

Simple enough, yes? If there was a charm to the proposal it was in its sincere, if not somewhat mannered frustration about a long-standing though largely non-threatening conflict with traditional literary realism (in Smith’s words: “lyrical realism,” an equally slippery designation.) And though the blemishes of Smith’s argument lie precisely in wind-up prescriptions like the kind mentioned above, it is also a part of her success and influence as a critic –– and lo, in the years since the publication of “Two Paths For the Novel” in The New York Review of Books, the contention that McCarthy is the inheritor of a much needed literary iconoclasm has been almost universally adopted and disputed only by a few. The underlying assumption that both its affirmers and detractors leave largely unexplored however, is the question of what exactly the avant-garde means to contemporary literature, where it is to be found, what defines it, and whether or not it is even possible.

Smith herself can hardly be blamed; her essay –– another addition to an ever-expanding catalogue of literary manifestos –– is merely one person’s testimony in a waiting room full of patients claiming the same malady. The real, albeit incidental insight that emerged in the aftermath of the essay, was that its proposed solutions betrayed a genuine need born out of something endemic, something we are all actually desperate for –– a coherent framing of contemporary literary conflict and an authentic mode of resistance to a increasingly corporate literary monoculture.

Today, manifestos are a cheap commodity, as easy to pen as they are to rally behind, and must, it seems, in order to maintain their integrity, announce this fact; (Lars Iyer’s “Nude In Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After The End of Literature and Manifestos”) comes to mind.) But while its authors aren’t able to escape this debilitating self-awareness, it is precisely in this irony that the manifesto reveals its necessary value. As co-founder and chairman of the International Necronautical Society –– an organization with an foundational manifesto of inauthenticity and a self-proclaimed penchant for death, failure, and false-redemption –– McCarthy seems playfully complicit in the genre’s comic real estate, as well as in the idea that the avant-garde does not inherently represent an obliteration of artistic or intellectual tradition, but is rather a renewable resource. Consequently, McCarthy has found himself enlisted in an argument that he not only didn’t start, but seems to have been working actively to deflate for two decades now.

It would be myopic to view Remainder as an assassination of a lyrical trend the likes of which Joseph O’Neill’s novel represented, since both novels are mutually loyal progeny to their literary ancestors, with Remainder owing as much to Alain Robbe-Grillet and J.G. Ballard as Netherland does to Gustave Flaubert and Vladimir Nabokov. Even though this posture feels affected and outmoded only six years later –– with several critics pointing out how the argument dissolves when taken to its logical terminus –– the attitude of the “Two Paths” model still has currency, though less in its clarion calls than in the subtle and insidious brand of market logic it represents; its inheritors seeking to establish their camps based on the successes and failures of recent novels instead of challenging what the avant-garde means in an increasingly monolithic industry where favored aesthetics are bred based on what brings in the highest profits. McCarthy’s new novel tackles this question head on and in a way that frees itself from the kind of pigeonholing his first novel was susceptible to. If Remainder represented the abandonment of the pure and sacred self against the apparatus of a long held tradition of realism, then Satin Island seeks to reveal how such distinctions are ultimately meaningless.

2. Explain Everything!
Satin Island takes on a lot within the space of its covers. Indeed, for a novel that is fewer than 200 pages, it is remarkably dense and polysemous –– at times it seems to accomplish more in this space than many much larger novels achieve in triple the length. This time McCarthy concerns himself directly with manifestos, and the manifesto here is on perhaps the greatest subject of all: The Contemporary –– which is to say, the Postmodern (whatever that means.) Indeed, this is precisely the joke that surrounds our protagonist –– a “Corporate Anthropologist” (a sort of liberal arts student-cum-corporate cog) –– throughout the novel. Like Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon before him, McCarthy maintains an interest in hidden networks and bottomless bureaucracies that baffle common sense and intuition. As usual, McCarthy remains comically oblique about the presumed details of plot and character, though our protagonist, known only as U. (there’s Kafka again) is certainly not without psychology or ambition. Of “The Company” that employs him in Present Tense Anthropology™ he says only:

“…[it] advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas –– to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.”

This can be read as the mission statement of modern brand marketing: the total dissemination of an idea, not a product –– less concerned with things than with the narrative between things. The “Great Report” for the “Koob-Sassen Project,” for which our protagonist inherits the role of “architect,” is never clearly explained, though it is suggested that it’s a kind of master narrative that explains everything and is everywhere all the time: “It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed…” U. discusses the Project in circumambulatory fashion, (assuming some non-disclosure clause) and only ever describes it in relation to his visions of a titanic, desert-bound work site:

I saw towers rising in the desert — splendid, ornate constructions, part modern skyscraper, part sultan’s palace lifted from Arabian Nights: steel and glass columns segueing into vaulted cupolas and stilted arches, tiled muqarnas, dwindling minarets that seemed, at their cloud-laced peaks, to shed their own materiality, turn into vapor. Below them, hordes of people — thousands, tens of thousands — labored, moving around like ants, their circuits forming patterns on the sand; patterns that, in their amalgam, coalesced into one larger, more coherent pattern, just as the meandering, bowing, divagating stretches of a river delta do when seen from high enough above.

In addition to many others, this vision belongs to U.’s private bank of revisited images –– including footage of oil spills, hydraulic machines stretching taffy, and a possible murder mystery surrounding the death of a sky diver.

When collected, they reveal how the corporate superstructure (or supra-structure) can become a lattice through which one can view all human activity, and diagram that activity into a single coherent narrative. After all, anthropology, in its most ambitious form, is essentially totalitarian, seeking to explain all human behavior –– not simply to diagnose what prompts that behavior, but to find a grid through which it can be connected and codified. In short, everything that appears distinct and separate is actually a different version of the same thing. In The Gift, Marcel Mauss was convinced that however foreign and irrational the trade practices of primitive societies appeared to westerners, the most sophisticated and advanced industrial economies rested on the same integral logic of exchange. That everything can be explained with a narrative that allows all features to co-exist in apparent disharmony is the dream of the structural anthropologist, the father of which, Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. tells us, is his hero. This is also the dream of the modern corporation, is it not?: to assimilate all culture into a single, interchangeable narrative, which continues to succeed despite internal variance and transition. If this is the dream, than the Koob-Sassen Project is its manifesto.

Historically the novel and the manifesto have been the two delivery systems for the avant-garde. While the latter hopes to goad the former into existence by commanding a switch in consciousness, the novel creates consciousness on its own terms and for its own sake. Manifestos are inherently arrogant and utopian by nature, seeking to explain the whole of their time and replace the miserable, vulgar past with an exalted vision of the future. Often bound to hard ideologies, like fascism and communism, it is no surprise that the early 20th century was the heyday of the form (F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism and the 1918 Manifesto I of the De Stijl group are perhaps the best examples of this.)

To regard the manifesto as something that serves an art form is to slightly misunderstand its usefulness. As a genre it is essentially self-satisfying, always benefitting its loyal disciples more than the form as a whole. McCarthy, of course, is all too aware of this, having described the manifesto in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist as “macho” and “inherently ridiculous,” and indeed he seems to have laid this attitude into the marrow of Satin Island’s satirical bones. So, if the ambition of the avant-garde is essentially constructive, seeking to establish a kind of new world order, than McCarthy’s novelistic treatment of this idea seems to be one of negation and dismantlement.

A high ideal of the avant-garde would be a Heideggerian one –– to erupt a new form of consciousness out of a kind of nothingness, and to hurl ourselves through that consciousness which we are scarcely prepared for and desperate to understand, ahead of which only oblivion lies. This certainly appears in the pious avant-gardism of the modernists, vis-à-vis Marinetti’s sleek futuristic visions and Ezra Pound’s refrain “make it new.” In this sense, the challenge that faces new novelists is always epistemic –– an attempt at “new knowledge,” which is ultimately what lies at the heart of U.’s work with the Great Report.

McCarthy himself has spoken about the reusable, or recreational avant-garde –– the kind of experimentalism that beats ahead by reaching back into tradition and appropriating old forms to the standard of our time, sometimes subverting that tradition, sometimes disrupting it violently, sometimes remaining faithful to its origins. This is the avant-garde of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, whom U. seems to hint at when he imagines, “…cells of clandestine new-ethnographic operators doing strange things in deliberate, strategic ways, like those conceptual artists from the sixties who made careers out of following strangers.” In a sense, all appropriations of existing narratives are a form of the avant-garde, from Don Quixote’s demented and bathetic recreations of chivalric romance to the plays of William Shakespeare. This seems to be the avant-garde that McCarthy is most interested in both disrupting and verifying, and providing a fictional framework in which both its braggadocio and its necessity can co-exist.

In Satin Island, the battleground of this vision of the avant-garde is the modern bureaucracy, that node of systemic knowledge, that endless vista of departments, branches, and research. Through this, the novel immerses itself in the vertiginous and ever-expanding matrix of networked human experience. In other words, McCarthy doesn’t seem to subscribe to the redemptive power of the avant-garde novel within a monolithic industry, but sees the form rather as an endless discursive palliative to a circuitous conflict that only ends with failure and stunted-epiphany. Some authors chose to abandon the novel’s most immediate and natural resources in order to achieve a similar dismantling effect, mainly character and coherency of language as a means of apprehending the World. Jorge Luis Borges sought it through metaphysical abstraction and speculation; writers like Thomas Bernhard and Lázló Krasznahorkai through exhaustive language; theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet –– who seemed to regard the novel’s natural resources as ultimately inadequate –– were more willing to saddle their fiction with a philosophical treatment at the expense of things like character and plot.

Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet are obvious influences on McCarthy, but McCarthy himself seems to work more out of the left brain, or perhaps more appropriately, the gut. More often than not, Satin Island operates in the open and imaginative spaces that one would sooner associate with Kafka. Indeed, for all his continental headiness, McCarthy thinks like a novelist better than pretty much anyone, with an acute sense of irony and negative capability thoroughly worked into his characters and not just his theoretical schemas. But where his post-war ancestors believed that form, language, and other aesthetic techniques could be used as tools to overthrow existing orders, McCarthy has seen (if only by virtue of hindsight) that the mainstream coopted this hope of the avant-garde long ago.

3. The Long Last Stop
Nostalgic for eras that have yet to begin, the other side of the avant-garde is equally concerned with the end of institutions. Postmodernism, as Frederick Jameson reminds us, is concerned with the end of things: “the end of art,” “the end of philosophy,” etc. –– an old Hegelian an idea that regained traction in the 1960s when the prospect of a cultural-wide revolution seemed imminent, and continued on through Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history,” after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the end of Weekend (1967) Jean-Luc Godard announced that the film was “the end of cinema,” intuiting some kind of upheaval that would destroy the cultural patrimony and make art as it had previously been thought of no longer possible. As both McCarthy and Iyer seem to understand, this is the reality in which the manifesto, and its literary counterpart, the avant-garde novel, has to exist, if it is to exist at all.

Jameson most notably described the Postmodern “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features.” (This is the best definition of Postmodernism I know of, and the only one that has ever made any sense to me.) It could also be the thesis statement for the Koob-Sassen Project. For today, this “cultural dominant” is the modern corporation. Think about it. It explains how The Beatles’ “Revolution” (actually a counterrevolutionary song) can be the soundtrack for a Nike commercial, or how Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers!” can be used as a narrative to hawk Levi’s jeans. The corporation is at the forefront of the avant-garde, the central engine of appropriation, which is to say, that if the modern avant-garde exists in any form, it is in appropriation, only in what can be hijacked and redeployed. This is precisely what I believe is at the heart of McCarthy’s novel. At one point U., in describing his intellectual style within the company, relates how he stole Gilles Deleuze’s idea of “folds” (or le pli) as a way of explaining various levels of meaning found in the stitching patterns and creases of Levi’s jeans. Here, the engine appropriation appears in disquietingly familiar terms:

“This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company: feeding in vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that reweaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero [Lévi-Strauss] would have called a master-pattern — or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.”

(“…always from the left side of the spectrum.” This is one of many iconoclastic sentiments woven into the protagonist’s noble vision of his profession. On another occasion, in one of U.’s scripted fantasies, he describes the cleanup processes of a massive oil spill as “a putsch, a coup d’état.”)

But, if the Postmodern can only be defined by negation, as a kind of everything and nothing, then its very definition as an aesthetic under which artists might choose to band together or writhe in discontent is essentially meaningless. If we are living in an age beyond epochs, beyond movements or era –– one of perpetual transition and integration in which disparate and often mutually contradictory ideas are swallowed into a larger pattern that ironizes them into co-existence –– can one make a rallying call like Zadie Smith’s with any kind of honesty, without seeming like a mere reactionary? Consider the grim concession of Iyer’s essay –– we can only entertain the illusion that true resistance is possible anymore. Can one eschew popular trends in favor of niche cultures, like the American hipster, without also being a slave to that niche? Isn’t all resistance to the market via consumption itself ultimately an illusion of pluralism and independence?

The overriding fear here, is what Theodor W. Adorno warned us about long ago: that to challenge something is to inherently confer power upon it. Adorno believed that the machine of institutionalized culture made any alteration to that institution, however disruptive, a mere continuation of that system, and that which appeared different was only a stylistic variance; in this system, the avant-garde becomes a set of “additional rules” to the standard vocabulary, in which it “merely increases the power of the tradition which the individual effect seeks to escape.”

McCarthy, respectfully aware of this, offers “the individual effect” as a potential escape hatch for his protagonist, who later in the novel begins to fantasize about destroying The Great Report and the entire Koob-Sassen Project by way of technocratic guerilla-type sabotage: “And then my cohorts, that semi-occluded network of covert anthropologists I’d dreamed into being already…Together, we could turn Present Tense Anthropology™ into an armed resistance movement.” This is the necessary deviation from the system, as Adorno foresaw, which the system itself breeds into existence, reintegrates, and then stabilizes. And fearing the prospect genuine redemption, U. informs us later, rather laconically, rather dispassionately, that the Project, despite his efforts to destroy it, succeeded all the same.

It was perhaps Lévi-Strauss’s greatest and most prophetic premonition that humanity was doomed to monoculture in the absence of space –– in other words, a disposable culture, a non-culture, one that could be created one day and discarded the next, in which the avant-garde is less a genuine adversary of the mainstream than a ventriloquist for dissent. This is the monocultural dead end, the existential equivalent of Coke or Pepsi? Apple or Samsung? And think again about Smith’s essay: Realist or Anti-Realist? It’s no different than a T-Mobile ad that boasts switching providers as a form of liberation and self-definition. And still further into the literary conversation: the hip, enervated insouciance of Tao Lin or the new sentimentalism of David Foster Wallace? To think of the avant-garde this way is to treat it as a mere genre in the cafeteria of literary identity; both are the same kind of unfreedom, different forms of the same essential meaninglessness. The irony inherent in this misplaced sense of independence is exactly what lies underneath U.’s ultimate refusal to visit Staten (Satin) Island at the close of the novel –– that materialist wasteland, the dumping ground for all culture past and present, success or failure:

To visit Staten Island –– actually go there –– would have been profoundly meaningless. What would it, in reality have solved or resolved? Nothing. What space would I have discovered there, and for what concrete purpose? None…And so I found myself, as I waded back through the relentless stream of people, struggling just to stay in the same place, suspended between two types of meaninglessness.

So what are we to take away from this? While the ending of the novel is depressingly bleak, suggesting a perennial void, there is a muted resilience that underscores its very effort, something beyond what the manifesto with all its dogmatic prescriptions could ever hope to achieve. At the risk of sounding formulaic, taking on the idea of what the avant-garde means seems to be the truest path forward for the avant-garde. Satin Island is a successful work of the contemporary avant-garde, I submit, because it does exactly this.

However you wish to group the terms, McCarthy remains one of the few novelists we have who consistently challenges our conceptions of what the novel is for and what it can achieve, even if it never quite succeeds, as the end of Satin Island would suggest. But maybe it does succeed. It succeeds, like the Koob-Sassen Project, even when it attempts to fail, and is always failing even when it appears to have succeeded, with one always elegantly contained in the other. Maybe this ambiguity is the not-so-sexy virtue to abide by. Freedom (however we choose to define it in art) will always go, as Rosa Luxemberg once said, to the one who thinks differently. (But wait, there’s one more caveat: can we uphold this as a single-entendre ideal when one of the most successful marketing campaigns of arguably the most successful company in the history of western capitalism is “Think Different?”)

The avant-garde, in whatever form it takes, ought to be heralded as the last territory of free intellectual and creative identity in spite of this, even within the obvious indefinability of “The Contemporary.” One thing’s for sure, the literary climate we should avoid at all costs is the one in which the avant-garde continues to be a commodity, a standard that is handed off from one writer to the next. Literature has always been a project of the self, a project out of which new forms of consciousness can be forged, and the self is not a supermarket, even when the rest of the world feels like one. As the corporation has coopted the tenets of the avant-garde, so too should the avant-garde (wherever it is to be found) take back the language of corporations and use its own grammar against it. I still like to believe (if only because I have to) what Walter Benjamin said; that a writer can either dissolve an order or found a new one. Today however, the dictum seems slightly different: in an era beyond eras, writers can either choose to found an order or steal one back, even if, like U., we continue to find ourselves forever in between.

Oh well.

Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.