This book that left the format of the book itself behind

by Kelvin Smith

In Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the Company is working on the Koob-Sassen Project, and the narrator is hired to write the “Great Report…The first and last word on our age”: an exciting prospect.

“When Peyman, with his visionary vagueness, handed me my epic, my epochal, commission, this Great Report, the sense that anything might end up forming part of this made everything I came across, every event I lived through, glow and buzz with potential even more.”

The author soon discovers that any project that is too open-ended will founder.  Although the commission is not from a publisher but from the mysterious Company, there’s a need for direction and editorial guidance, as anyone might realise, including Peyman.

“I pictured Peyman back, once more, with all his moguls, mover-shakers and connectors, laughing at me, laughing at the thought that I could have believed, even for a moment, he was serious…Even when I reasoned these last, deranged notions back out to the fringes of my mind, I was still left with the immovable fact of the thing’s unwritability.  This filled me with anger, and a feeling of stupidity, and sadness, too – grief not for the actual loss but, worse, for a potential or imaginary one: this beautiful, magnificent Report; this book, the Book, the fucking Book, that was to name our era, sum it up;this book that left the format of the book itself behind, this book-beyond-the-book; and beyond even this, the tantalising and elusive possibility of transubstantiated now-ness, live-ness it was to inaugurate – the possibility, thetis, of Present-Tense Anthropology ™. All that was gone. Which, in turn, raised the question: What was I still there for?”

In an age of grand ambitions for publishing – with their vortices of digital accumulation, voracious remixes and mash-ups – the author’s role remains to pick and choose between the possibilities, muster the serendipity of choices, and go, as the narrator does at the end of this fascinating novel, “back into the city”.

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island, 2015