Yesterday the winner of the Booker Prize was announced – and in case you don’t know it was Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Every year in the run up the award the YCAA runs a Booker Debate at the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil. A panel of six people read and review the shortlisted books, and for the past few years I have been honoured to take part. Some years none of us think we have the winner. This year three of us did, which I think reflects the interest and diversity of this year’s shortlist.
This year I was allocated Satin Island by Tom McCarthy to read.
Now if you look at the reviews for the shortlisted six you might notice that Satin Island comes off quite badly being slated for being boring and pretentious. But I think it is wrong to write it off so easily, because it is in fact a really interesting book.
Yes. It is quite pretentious. For example the name of the main character, U, I think is meant to draw analogy between U the character and You the reader.
The characters we meet are vague and thinly drawn. U has a friend called Petr and a woman he sleeps with called Maddison but none of these characters are given any great depth; their relationship with U superficial. It is almost as if U is swamped with so much else that the real world lacks definition.
U Works for The Company and is tasked with writing the Big Report, both of which are also frustratingly vague. In fact U spends most of his time at work in his basement office surfing the internet and navel gazing.
And yet there is so much more to this book. U is constantly bombarded by images, news reports, the internet. Too much information for any one individual to assimilate. In fact the whole novel feels like it’s buffering – that frustration you get when you try to watch something but it simply won’t get going.
And this is where, in my opinion, this book is extremely clever. We live in an age of information overload. In a way we are buffering as we try to take it all in, and I think this is the effect the author was trying to achieve. In which case it works. Satin Island is a true reflection on our times and the world we live in.
I also found it surprisingly readable – for a book that never actually goes anywhere and has no characterisation, no plot, and nothing actually happens.
This is a book that I suspect everyone will see slightly differently and we will all come away from it with a different perspective. And it is this multi-layering that I think is where the genius of Satin Island lies. Yes, it may be pretentious but I suspect it could also just be brilliant.
And I reckon that sometime in the future someone will be writing a PhD thesis about it and how it reflects this world of information overload we live in.