Book Review: “Satin Island” by Tom McCarthy

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

This book is a bit of fun from self-styled provocateur and amateur anthropologist, Tom McCarthy. This is clearly based on the Dave Barry method, i.e., messing around on the Internet. (How did we do research before we invented the Internet?)

Good points: As a one time undergraduate anthropology major, I have a great fondness for the romance and deep weirdness of traditional Western anthropology. The protagonists musings on Levi Straus, Malinowski, and (McCarthy says), Rabinow are entertaining, at least at an undergraduate level.

The prose is generally engaging and light enough to keep moving. In some places it is fun to read, though many parts are grim and/or embarrassing.   His ignorance of digital technology is profound, and he really should not write about it. (And how can you pretend to write about contemporary culture with such a weak grasp of computer software, I really don’t know.)

Bad points: The novel isn’t about anything, tells no story, and more depressing than anything else. I suspect that McCarthy considers these to be “features” rather than “bugs”.

Don’t expect me to explain what he’s talking about, because I can’t.

Here is an example. Pondering a profound dream in which he flew over what he realized was “Statin Island”, he proceeds:

pinned up … a bunch of images of barges carrying rubbish out to the Fresh Kills landfill site in New York Harbor. Staten Island…both its name and function—had prompted my own dream.
Next, I started following the trail of the word satin….I printed off an illustration showing the exact weave-structure. Then I looked at statins…. Statins are cholesterol-lowering drugs inhibiting enzyme production in the liver. I found and illustration of their chemical composition.” pp. 144-145

And so on. He’sery focused on “images”, and lots of (shallow) word play.  (He is a “media studies” guy, after all.) Not much actual understanding of the phenomena that the words intend to be about.

At the end he finds himself “suspended between two types of meaninglessness”, and wondering, “Did I choose the right one? I don’t know.” p. 186

If he doesn’t know what he’s doing, how can I say? And why should I care?

To be fair, some of his free wheeling, Anthropologize This!, attitude does inspire me in my own pseudo-anthropological analyses of, say, “cryptocurrency narratives”.

Maybe if I dress it up a bit, I’ll have a novel on my hands.


  1. McCarthy, Tom, Satin Island, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.


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