Am I not clever enough to enjoy Satin Island?

satin island

I’m just not enjoying it, and even if something is not my taste, if it’s good, it still holds my attention and I gain something from it. At first I wondered if it was me, am I not ‘getting it’? And was my hope for a story of some kind was colouring my opinion? Maybe not. I have read and enjoyed two volumes of Proust (so far) and the last two Will Self books also required a fair bit of processing of ideas, while surprisingly little in the way of events took place, and I liked them.

It just feels hollow. Cold to the point that I’d like gloves to touch it with, and it smells slightly of hand sanitiser. The other problem may be that along with it I’m reading the Booker winner Marlon James’ ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ and also Alisdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’, both of which are dripping with ugly humanity and all it’s engaging noises and smells, and so they provide a stark comparison. There’s not a sterile sentence in them anywhere, whereas, ‘Satin Island’ has numbered paragraphs within the chapters, just like instruction manuals and academic reports.

I wonder if that is supposed to be the point? The protagonist ‘U’ works for a swish consultancy firm, compiling dossiers on things from an anthropological point of view, such as oil spills, cultural trends, and also buffering, what it is to look at a spinning wheel of patience on a screen. There’s quite a lot about that. Maybe our grandchildren won’t have to put up with buffering, and this book will educate them. His relationships seem viewed as a spectator, his friend has cancer and he occasionally has sex with a girl we know very little about. He is more interested in a news story about a parachutist whose chute was tampered with and died, and how the crime scene was technically the sky, not the piece of ground where the body fell. He’s not likeable, except for one paragraph where he talks about his childhood, and the Vanuatan ritual of jumping off a wooden tower suspended by vines round the ankles –

After watching the documentary, I’d climb up on my younger sisters’ bunk bed and, fastening t-shirts and pyjamas round my ankles and bedpost, leap repeatedly, head first, towards the carpet. If a Vanuatan hesitated or refused a dive, his womenfolk would whip themselves with thorns and nettles, to shame him into action; I made my sisters whip themselves with flannels.

However, a lot of passages are like this –

It’s about identifying and probing granular, mechanical behaviours, extrapolating from  a sample batch of these a set of blueprints, tailored according to each brief—blueprints which, taken as a whole and cross-mapped onto the findings of more “objective” and empirical studies (quantitative analysis, econometrical modelling and the like), lay bare some kind of inner social logic, which can be harnessed, put to use.

There is nice writing, and as a first person perspective novel, an interesting distance between the narrator and the words, but I’m just glad it didn’t win the Booker. And also, that it’s not a really long book, as I’m not sure I’d have been chuffed about finishing it if it were 600 pages. I need a narrator I can like, or hate, but not ‘meh’.

And I have learned something, this book made me google ‘difference between anthropology and ethnography’.

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