Is Tom McCarthy ‘a Kafka for the Google Age’?

Another entry in my Shelfie Project:
Shelfie with Satin Island
Still in Prague and looking for something new to read, I saw Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island among the English language books at Palac Neoluxor bookstore on Wenceslas Square. I was curious about the accuracy of the cover blurb that quotes the Daily Telegraph review in which McCarthy is called “a Kafka for the Google age,” so I bought the book. There are those who say Kafka successfully summed up the age in which he lived, and I wanted to see if McCarthy’s work could be said to do the same.

Of course, Satin Island does bring Kafka to mind when the narrator is given a single letter for a name — in this case U., not K — but as the novel opens, the narrator has not yet introduced himself. He is waiting in the Torino-Caselle airport, a hub airport which he tells us is mainly a transfer point rather than a destination. He explains what this means by referring to a diagram found on the airport’s website which shows a rimless wheel, with spokes of different lengths that represent possible further destinations. This image reminds U. of Christ’s crown of thorns, which is relevant because we have just been told that Torino-Caselle is the airport of Turin, a city famous for the shroud some people believe once held the body of the crucified Christ. The focus on connections in this airport scene introduces the novel’s commentary on the nature of our age, an age in which everything seems to be connected, however indirectly.

The first-chapter airport scene also establishes clear links to the main characters and events of the novel (though as U. says early on: “events! If you want events you’d best stop reading now”). U. has a phone conversation with his boss Peyman, who tells him that the Company has won the contract to do the Koob-Sassen Project (which U.  later tells us will have had an effect on us whether we know it or not and which he describes as “formed of many other projects, linked to many other projects — which renders it well-nigh impossible to say where it began and ended…”). He Skypes with a woman named Madison, who says she has also spent time in the Torino-Caselle airport for reasons we only learn near the end of the novel. He sees the screens of the laptops and phones and televisions around him which first show images of a football game and later the scene of a Middle East marketplace bombing and later yet an oil spill much like the Deepwater Horizon disaster. My copy of the novel, published in the UK, is in fact partially illustrated with black oil-like blobs and drooling oil-like drips, but the oil spill is neither more nor less important than anything else we find here. Perhaps a summation of the novel – and of our age? – is already evident by Section 4.5 (the novel is divided into subsections like a legal document): “Who’s to say what is, or might turn out to be, related to what else?”

In any case by this point we know that U. is a corporate anthropologist. “What does an anthropologist working for a corporation actually do? We purvey cultural insight,” he tells us. Because he has been asked to write a Great Report as a part of the Koob-Sassen project, he is both perplexed by and wholly engaged with this process. And to this end he examines a wide variety of phenomena, from traffic jams in Lagos to the unexplained deaths of parachutists.

Of course all writers try to sum up the age in which they live and to make sense of the events unfolding around them. But McCarthy told the Telegraph: “I didn’t want to write a book about a writer trying to write a book, because I just don’t think the world needs one of those, especially not by a white man. But I did want to show this figure within some big machinery, of power and capital and everything else. The opposite of the romantic idea of the writer in his garret. The writer after Kafka, right in the heart of the machine. And then I stumbled across the figure of the corporate anthropologist.” As this corporate anthropologist more or less fails to create any sort of substantive report, yet is given a great deal of credit for his work by his Company, McCarthy suggests the futility of trying to sum up a world in which data increases exponentially every day and the human brain remains the same humble and remarkable organ it has been since the time of the earliest homo sapiens. We can’t really fault McCarthy if the task of summing up our age is not really possible, any more than the Company can fault U.

The book jacket also gives us a teasing description of the novel that looks something like this: A Treatise. An Essay. A Confession. A Manifesto. A Novel. A Report. And so, although this is a book in which a report figures prominently, and it is a book that many times sounds like a report on modern culture, we are explicitly told that it is a novel. When I tried to decide which story or stories from Metamorphosis and Other Stories that I wanted to discuss alongside Satin Island, in order to decide if McCarthy is a Kafka for the Google age, I chose “A Report to an Academy” partly because it is a story masquerading as a report, and partly because it is a story that easily calls for anthropological insights.

Michael Hofmann in his introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories acknowledges that “[u]nimaginable quantities of ink and ingenuity have been spilled on Kafka” but says that this extraordinary interest in Kafka was “…not really older than, say, 1945. It is as though Holocaust, Communism, Existentialism and Cold War all had to happen to validate a handful of texts written in the first quarter of the twentieth century.” So in a sense, Kafka was summing up a set of causal events that led to the world as it was in 1945 and not simply the age in which he lived, since he died in 1924. But Kafka’s fictional commentary on the landmark events of the twentieth century did not require references to current events or real people. Instead he wrote stories and parables that constantly undermine what we think we know. He hinted at political realities without ever actually describing them, and he gave each of us a chance to find our own problems, the world’s problems, and Franz Kafka’s problems in what K or other protagonists were experiencing. He did this by pointing at many possible meanings without explicitly giving us any meanings at all.

In “A Report to an Academy,” Red Peter, an ape, describes how he was captured in the wild and how he learned to become a part of human society. The story was first published by Martin Buber in the German magazine Der Jude (The Jew), and some see it as a commentary on Jewish assimilation and the “demands placed on minorities by intolerant societies.” But the story can also be seen as a description of the way human beings treat animals, without regard for their capacities and needs (in describing the crate in which he was first held captive, which makes it impossible for him to attain a comfortable position, Peter says, “Such accommodation for wild animals is thought to be suitable during the initial period, and after my own experience, I cannot deny its efficacy from the human standpoint.”) The story can also be seen to address the human relationship to the concept of freedom, presaging Erich Fromm’s distinction between positive and negative freedom. (“I quite deliberately do not say freedom. I don’t mean the great feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape I may have known such a feeling, and I have met people who yearn to have it. As for me, I demanded freedom neither then nor now. And, incidentally, freedom is all too often self-deception among people. Just as freedom is among the most exalted of feelings, so the corresponding deception is among the most exalted of deceptions.”) Or it might point toward the experiences of a child being forced by parents or other authorities to conform to societal expectations. (“Dull sobbing, painful flea-hunting, desultory sucking on a coconut, banging my head against the crate in front of me, putting out my tongue when approached by anyone — those were my diversions, early on in the new life.”)

Red Peter tells his story in a dry tone and without self-pity, but the brutal details of his capture and initial imprisonment give his audience cause to pity him. After he has been transported to Hamburg, he realizes that the only two possibilities open to him are the zoo or the variety theatre, and so he becomes a performer. But Peter sums up his situation as follows: “By an exertion without parallel in the history of the world, I have reached the level of cultivation of the average European. In and of itself that might not mean anything, but it does mean something, because it got me out of my cage, and gave me this particular way out, this human way out.”

So how does Kafka’s writerly project differ from McCarthy’s, and is it really fair to compare a novel to a short story? This is not a scholarly work, and I don’t feel a need to make a lengthy argument, but I think that there’s a single germane difference that can be seen here. In “Report to an Academy,” as in much of Kafka, the events of the story are not realistic and the writing doesn’t try to deal with persons, places, or events that are well-known to the reader. We know that apes are intelligent and have been taught to understand sign language, but none has ever been known to present such a complex and self-aware report.

In Satin Island, on the other hand, U. searches for hints of meaning in a wide range of events from cargo cults to police brutality toward activists planning to demonstrate at the G8 conference in Genoa. Many of these events are taken from news reports and none of them are impossible. In addition, the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss is examined for the insights he can contribute. Put simply (and perhaps too simply), instead of leaving it up to the reader to find meanings, as Kafka did, McCarthy tries to give us meaning — or at least tries to guide us toward meanings — and though I found Satin Island challenging and entertaining, ultimately I did not find it truly Kafkan.

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