4 – Catastrophe(s) in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island


D’après son étymologie grecque, le terme « catastrophe » suggère un changement soudain et malheureux dans une situation donnée, d’où l’idée qu’une catastrophe est essentiellement un renversement inattendu de l’ordre naturel ou habituel des choses. Cependant, de nombreux critiques (Ebert, Dupuy, Virilio) ont fait remarquer qu’une définition aussi classique n’est peut-être plus pertinente pour les XXème et XXIème siècles, qui ont vu l’irruption et la multiplication de catastrophes d’origine humaine, prévisibles et potentiellement évitables, supplanter les catastrophes naturelles, aléatoires et incontrôlables. Cet article prend comme point d’entrée le sens étymologique du terme et se concentre sur la notion de renversement au cœur de la catastrophe dans Satin Island (2015) de Tom McCarthy. La première partie est consacrée aux différentes occurrences de catastrophes, d’accidents ou de tragédies personnelles dans le roman afin de démontrer que le traitement médiatique de ces événements crée un schéma d’échos et de répétitions qui renverse littéralement la définition du terme. La deuxième partie de l’essai se concentre sur la dimension herméneutique de la catastrophe, tandis que la dernière partie interroge la possibilité de représenter et les stratégies esthétiques utilisées pour dépeindre ces « hyperobjets » complexes qui, conformément à la définition de Morton, semblent défier la compréhension et la représentation.


Based on its Greek etymology, the term ‘catastrophe’ suggests a sudden, unfortunate change in a given situation, hence the idea that a catastrophe is essentially an unexpected reversal of the natural or usual order of things. However, numerous critics, (Ebert, Dupuy, Virilio) have observed that such a classic definition of catastrophe may no longer be relevant to the 20th and 21st centuries, which have seen the irruption and multiplication of man-made, foreseeable and potentially avoidable catastrophes supersede natural, random and uncontrollable disasters. In keeping with the etymological roots of the term, this article focuses on the notion of reversal at the core of catastrophe in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (2015). The first part is dedicated to the various occurrences of catastrophes, accidents or personal tragedies in the novel in order to demonstrate that the media treatment of such events traces a pattern of echoes and repetitions that quite literally reverses the definition of the term. The second part of the essay focuses on the hermeneutic dimension of catastrophe, while the final part questions the possibility of representing and the aesthetic strategies used to depict such complex ‘hyperobjects’ that, in keeping with Morton’s definition of the term, seem to defy understanding and representation.

The Greek etymology of the term ‘catastrophe’ – literally a ‘turn down’ – suggests a sudden, unfortunate change in a given situation, hence the idea that a catastrophe is essentially an unexpected reversal of the normal, usual order of things. The classical acceptation of the term implies that a singular and discreet event interrupts the ordinary or expected succession of predictable days. Subsequently, such a radical upheaval disrupting the natural order or a regular system entails the notion of finality, and may also designate, by extension, the conclusion or ultimate event of a dramatic piece. However, numerous critics such as David John Ebert, Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Paul Virilio have observed that such a classic definition of catastrophe – a single, final event provoking ruin and destruction – may no longer be relevant to the 20th and 21st centuries, which have seen the irruption and multiplication of man-made, foreseeable and potentially avoidable disasters – Chernobyl, 9/11, the 2010 BP oil leak etc. – supersede natural, random and uncontrollable disasters. While Virilio stresses that the reoccurrence of incidents, accidents, catastrophes and cataclysms turns everyday life into “a kaleidoscope where we endlessly hang into or run up against what crops up ex abrupto” (2007, 3), Dupuy states that “catastrophe in the singular” can no longer designate a single upheaval, but “a whole system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes that are the consequence of exceeding critical thresholds” (2013, 21). Tom McCarthy’s novel, Satin Island, published in 2015 and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, opens with the representation of two such simultaneous catastrophes – a marketplace bombing and an oil spill – that the main character witnesses on multiple TV screens while waiting for his delayed plane back home in Turin’s airport lounge. Dennis Duncan describes the novel as “an essay on the information age and the novelist’s role in an era where our activity is already so exhaustively logged and recorded” (8). This seminal scene certainly sets the tone for the narrative as, throughout the book, catastrophes work as reoccurring patterns that U., the narrator, attempts to decipher and comprehend, in a parody of the Levi-Straussian method of semiotic analysis. In keeping with the etymological roots of the term, this article will focus on the notion of reversal at the core of catastrophe. The first part will be dedicated to the spectacular representations of catastrophes and accidents in the novel in order to demonstrate that the reoccurrence and media treatment of such events trace a pattern of echoes and repetitions that quite literally reverses the definition of the term. The second part of the essay will focus on the hermeneutic dimension of catastrophe. Disasters, filtered through the critical lens of the anthropologist, are either aestheticized or systematized through his perspective, therefore reversing and neutralizing the shock value and inherent trauma caused by a catastrophe. Finally, the loss of the initial ‘telos’ of classical catastrophe will lead to examine the specific aesthetics and temporality of catastrophe in the last part of this article.

I. The un-spectacular spectacle of catastrophes

Satin Island focuses on an unnamed anthropologist – U. – employed by an enigmatic Company to write an all-encompassing and mysterious ‘Great Report’. U. travels from city to city with a view to unearth secret patterns explaining everything. The novel starts in medias res over the course of one such work-related trip, while the main character is stuck in Turin’s airport. During these long waiting hours, simultaneous events are relayed by the media on the multiple screens of the lounge.

Around me and my screen, more screens: of other laptops, mobiles, televisions. These last screens had tickers scrolling across them, text whose subjects included the air delay in which I was caught up. Behind the tickers, news footage was running. One screen showed highlights of a football game. Another showed the aftermath of a marketplace truck bombing somewhere in the Middle East, the type of scene you always see in this kind of report: hysterical, blood-spattered people running about screaming. One of these people, a man who looked straight at the camera as he ran towards it, wore a T-shirt that showed Snoopy lounging on his kennel’s roof, the word Perfection hovering in the air above him. Then the scene gave over to an oil spill that had happened somewhere in the world that morning, or the night before: aerial shots of a stricken offshore platform around which a large, dark water-flower was blooming; white-feathered sea birds, filmed from both air and ground, milling around on pristine, snowy shorelines, unaware of the black tide inching its way towards them; and, villain of the piece, shot by an underwater robot, a broken pipe gushing its endless load into the ocean. (6-7)

The first striking element of this description is the feeling of saturation, produced by the many enumerations that mimic the continuous flow of information produced by rolling news channels. Such an overload of data may first be felt through the accumulation of screens, and secondly, through the superposition of messages relayed simultaneously. This excerpt appropriately illustrates Justus Nieland’s analysis of McCarthy’s previous novels – Remainder and C – as “media archaeology,” or “a story of medial catastrophe, its gaze trained on an ever-mounting pile of wreckage, much like Benjamin’s angel of history” (582). While the written information on the tickers provides one type of content – amongst others, the current situation of the narrator and the delays at Turin’s airport –, the images in the background apprise the audience of a marketplace bombing, of the results of a football game and of an ongoing oil spill. Interestingly, both catastrophes conjured in the passage are man-made disasters and they exemplify what Dupuy, in The Mark of the Sacred, either attributes to “the brutality of human beings” (21) – as is the case for the marketplace bombing – or describes as “a consequence of our own faculty of action, which is to say our ability to irreversibly set in motion processes that are liable to turn against us, with lethal effect” (22), as typified by the oil spill. The impression of saturation is multiplied as U. contemplates the news from the screens mirrored on window shops, amplifying this multilayered effect as the polished glass sheets “[reflect] the lounge’s other surfaces, so that the marketplace bomb-aftermath replay[s] across the pattern of a shawl, oil flows and reflows on a watch’s face” (11). At first, such a media treatment tends to de-hierarchize the importance of these news items, placing an ecological disaster, a terrorist attack and a football game on an equal footing. This passage ironically stresses the idea that the reported catastrophes are, quite literally, part of the background as they are integrated within the surfaces of items on display in duty free shops, as if demonstrating that such news is part and parcel of everyday life, barely garnering more interest from the busy airport crowd than the results of a football game. This leveling effect culminates when U. receives multiple text messages from his colleagues, informing him of the new contract his company has concluded. He first associates the congratulatory text messages with the football game results, before all the images he has seen superimpose in his memory in a completely different configuration:

The effects of my chance exposure to this football game lingered after I’d read these; so it seemed to me that Bayern Munich’s striker, roaring with delight towards the stands, was rejoicing not for his own team and fans but rather for us; and it even seemed that the victim with the Snoopy shirt on, as he ran screaming towards the camera, was celebrating the news too: from his ruined market with its standard twisted metal and its blood, for us. (9)

Such an amalgam of information illustrates Ebert’s statement that “on a planet in which catastrophes are becoming a daily occurrence, the classical understanding of the word no longer seems to fit. […] Catastrophe has become our new environment, a total surround, inside which we exist, but without noticing the strangeness of it, precisely because of its very ubiquity.” (Ebert 1). Tellingly, all news items are immediately and equally assimilated within the stream of the protagonist’s everyday life and integrated within the routine cycle of the corporate academic, featuring lectures and business meetings, equating a crowd of supporters cheering and a terrorist attack victim screaming while connecting them to the business-related news he got via text message.

U.’s perception reinforces such an impression of trivialization or lack of urgency. In an interview with James Corby and Ivan Callus, Tom McCarthy describes his main character as “a guy who can’t follow anything through – his attention is jumping around, he’s moving sideways through the data sphere, like all of us all the time, looking at a bunch of screens, trying to constellate it all into something coherent.” (143) While the audience is being informed of two catastrophes striking at the same time in different parts of the world, the protagonist’s analytical and dispassionate anthropological eye spontaneously focuses on the details and on the editing techniques used to shoot the footage rather than on the content of such images or on the particulars of the catastrophic events. Timon Beyes describes Satin Island as a novel that calls attention to “the problem of reporting on, and from within, the conditions and effects of today’s ubiquitously networked – and thus pervasively organized – spheres of life.” (230) As the scene is filtered through U.’s point of view, the exact dates, places, and number of casualties remain undetermined, and the readers are led to zoom in on the Snoopy printed T-shirt of a victim rather than on its injured panic-stricken wearer while the spill becomes a refined “dark water-flower blooming” within a dramatized presentation of the pipes leaking oil – the obvious “villain of the piece” (7). Similarly, U.’s appreciation of the editor’s decision to use a “fade” effect to link the shots together, rather than the more abrupt type of succession that recalls old slideshow carousels, which he deems “the right effect to use, aesthetically speaking” (10), effectively brings awareness to the deliberate choices – i.e aestheticizing the oil spill or designating villains and victims – made to create entertaining and visually striking media narratives. While U. contemplates the marketplace bombing mirrored on luxury shops’ reflecting surfaces, he observes:

The overlap between these various elements, and the collage-effect it created, was constant—but, as the hours wore on, the balance of the mixture changed. The luxury objects and their cases stayed the same, of course—but little by little, football highlights and truck bombing faded, clips of them growing shorter and less frequent; while, conversely, the oil spill garnered more and more screen time. It was obviously a big one. (11)

The narrator seems unable to appreciate the severity of the oil spill, unless the screen time dedicated to its coverage provides him with a scale against which he can measure its importance. Such a lack of reaction and concern from U. stresses the resulting desensitization of audiences, while at the same time, his analysis reveals the critical role of the media narrativization of events. McCarthy’s novels expose “the inhumanity of the media,” and endeavor to recover “dirty media” that is to say, “the constitutive impurity, otherness, or heterogeneity of media, its way of being technically contaminated by alterity, noise, and the stochastic” (Nieland 574). The introductory airport scene allows to take the full measure of the complex adverse effects of live media coverage, as it conveys the impression that the tragic quality of a catastrophe is not inherently contained in the event itself, but rather brought about by the dramatization of the footage and the length of the news cycle. This may be the first reversal that catastrophes undergo in the novel, as they are both distant yet present, pervasive yet unreal, spectacularly displayed in dramatic narrative forms, yet obscured by an over-exposure that makes them go unnoticed, as if they were engulfed in the very fabric of our existence, merely a routine component of one’s everyday life.

II. The hermeneutics of catastrophe

Although apparently relegated to the background of the story, as exemplified by the opening chapter of the book, catastrophes and their development regularly reoccur in the text. Discreet yet consistent references to various past man-made or natural disasters surface through various similes and metaphors throughout the novel. For instance, U. finds himself having a reaction of awe similar to the one he had when he “watched the Twin Towers falling down on live TV” (149); he compares oil-coated birds to “living Pompeians” (132), while the Frankfurt anthropology museum’s concrete walls remind him of “those giant sarcophagi they pour around damaged nuclear plants to stop the radiation leaking out” (117), and the blighting dazzle reflecting on the surface of the sea is described as “a great holocaust of light” (216). These figures of speech reference such diverse catastrophes as the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of the Vesuvius, the explosions of Chernobyl’s or Fukushima’s nuclear power plants, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or the genocide of Jewish people during World War II so as to inscribe them in the very fabric of the text and the very essence of our current reality. Such metaphorical references determine a timeline of reoccurring tragedies – or, drawing on Nieland’s work, an “archeology” of catastrophes – that still reverberate in the narrative’s here and now and reveal underlying patterns of repetitions. Those passing references act as echoes and variations of previous disasters whose ripple effects are still palpable today and continuously shape our understanding of the present.

Indeed, the notion of catastrophic pattern is crucial in the novel, since U.’s frame of understanding is based on uncovering and understanding such reoccurrences, in a very Levi-Straussian manner: “To the anthropologist, there’s no such thing as a singular episode, a singular phenomenon—only a set of variations on generic ones; the more generic, therefore, the more pure, the closer to an unvariegated or unscrambled archetype” (74). Shortly after the opening sequence, the narrator learns of a suspicious parachute accident, which may actually be a murder. Both the oil spill’s progression and the inquiry into the parachute incident are the objects of multiple updates in the news within the course of the novel. Those news items quickly become an obsession for U., who sets about creating files compiling catastrophes-related data:

The oil spill that had started while I’d been in Turin was still making the news headlines, but I didn’t confine myself to that one: I read about all kinds of oil spill, going right back to before the First World War. An anthropologist’s not interested in singularities, but in generics. […] I printed off tables of data, statistics about frequencies of oil spills, their clustering by region, year and company; images of tankers trailing long, black tails; of birds coated in oil; of people in white suits pushing brooms over vinyl-coated beaches. (42)

While seemingly keeping disasters at bay with his analytical lens on the one hand, the narrator also reveals, with facts and figures, that catastrophes follow recurring patterns over an extended timeline. By uncovering such repetitions, McCarthy illustrates almost to the letter Dupuy’s idea that it is no longer possible to speak of a catastrophe in the singular or rather that “catastrophe in the singular” can no longer designate a single upheaval, but applies to “a whole system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes that are the consequence of exceeding critical thresholds” (21). This redefinition of the term in the contemporary era is parodied in the novel, when U. imagines himself delivering an admirable talk summing up his discoveries in a fantasized conference:

There’s always an oil spill happening, I’d say. […] Which, gentlemen, is the reason we can name it in the singular: the Oil Spill – an ongoing event whose discrete parts and moments, whatever their particular shapes and vicissitudes (vicissitudes! I’d susurrate the word time and again), have run together, merged into a continuum in which all plurals drown” (128).

In Christa Grewe-Volpp’s analysis of the novel, the oil spill demonstrates how “some elements or forces cannot be contained, but keep flowing and reshaping themselves in endless forms of liquid matter over time,” which, she argues, metaphorically stands for ‘the impossibility to ever write a conclusive interpretation. At the same time […], it reveals the always persistent and by no means always controllable agency of matter which points well beyond its property as discourse.” (145) Despite U.’s euphoric imagining of an ideal conference, his exposé on “The Oil Spill,” reconfigured as one singular extended moment of successive crises fused into one, points to the notion that disasters, specifically ecological ones, have now escaped human control and have gained an agency of their own, in a manner reminiscent of hyperobjects.

As defined by environmental philosopher Timothy Morton, a hyperobject is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (Hyperobjects, 1) and has the following properties: it is “‘viscous’ – whatever I do, wherever I am, it sort of ‘sticks’ to me. It is ‘nonlocal’ – its effects are globally distributed through a huge tract of time. It forces me to experience time in an unusual way. It is ‘phased’ – I only experience pieces of it at any one time. And it is ‘inter-objective’ – it consists of all kinds of other entities but it isn’t reducible to them.” (Morton, “Introducing”). U.’s activity, as he starts collecting exhaustive accident-related data to make sense of them, demonstrates that catastrophes are similarly phased, for they can only be experienced as separate occurrences, and nonlocal, as evidenced by the records of analogous disasters appearing across the globe over an extended timeline. Disasters in the novel are also figuratively – and, in the case of the oil spill, literally – viscous, as they become an obsession for U. Precisely because one can only see pieces of a hyperobject at any one moment, Morton underlines the intrinsic difficulty of thinking and grasping them intellectually (Hyperobjects, 4). Seen as a hyperobject, the oil spill underlines humanity’s loss of control over matter on the one hand. On the other, it points to the fact that catastrophes can no longer be apprehended in their totality, which in turn reveals the failure of traditional structures of understanding and frames of references to explain and contain non-local hyperobjects.

According to Christoph Reinfandt, the motif of oil spills stands for materiality “as it is absorbed into […] the Anthropocene, i.e. a period marked by crucial and irreversible human impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystems’ while the image of the parachute floating and suddenly failing stands for ‘the knowledge that human beings put their faith in to be kept afloat and in charge’, which the novel gradually makes very clear have failed” (Reinfandt 566). Indeed, trying to emulate his models and heroes, Levi Strauss and Malinowski, U. strives to find patterns, archetypes, and overall meaning in the compiled data in order to complete the Great Report commissioned by the Company. To quote McCarthy, he is looking for “some kind of absolute – a codex or a moment that would make sense of everything” (“CounterText interview”, 140). During brief epiphanic moments, all those disparate elements seem to coalesce into a meaningful coherent whole, only to be subsequently shattered. For instance, U. experiences a moment of “total clarity” (148) during which he has the revelation that the parachutist accident/ murder he is researching was actually a Russian Roulette pact between the jumpers (148-149), only to see this evident truth proven wrong later on: “The next week brought a massive disappointment: I discovered that my parachutist theory didn’t work. It was bogus; full of shit. The basic logistics of packing and storage, the security measures put in place to prevent tampering, and so forth—all this rendered it impossible” (151). In a similar moment of enlightenment, U. imagines the Great Report to be “a whole new Order of anthropological experience” whose pieces would eventually fit together into the “stable and coherent pattern” of what he calls “Present-Tense Anthropology™; an anthropology that bathe[s] in presence, and in nowness” (90). It is needless to say that by the end of the book, that new anthropology has not panned out and the Great Report never gets written, demonstrating the impossibility to comprehend hyperobjects in their complexity. U.’s successive failures in his hermeneutic quest prove anthropology to be a useless tool to grasp the changes at work in the contemporary era, which may be the main catastrophe of the novel. In what is probably the only non-comedic moment of revelation experienced by U., he articulates the following observation on the parachutist’s death:

For this man, though, the victim, that system, its whole fabric, had unraveled. That, and not his death, was the catastrophe that had befallen him. We’re all going to die: there’s nothing so disastrous about that, nothing in its ineluctability that undermines the structure of our being. But for the faith, the blind, absolute faith into whose arms he had entrusted his existence, […] for that to suddenly be plucked away: that must have been atrocious. (98)

Though U. never quite comes to this conclusion, it appears to readers that the failed epiphanies he experiences throughout the novel are akin to the parachutist’s final realization. In this regard, Daniel Lea compares U. to “an intellectual parachutist” who has to face the possibility that his supports – i.e his heretofore infallible research method – have been irrecoverably severed: “His fall is into a knowledge of meaninglessness, but it is only marginally less catastrophic than the plunges of the parachutists, for its destination is equally terminal.” (151). As the tools U. trusts to make sense of tragedies systematically fail him, readers come to measure the failure of our ability to understand, or to give shape and meaning to senseless events. As hyperobjects exceed the capacity of metalanguage to contain them, our general lack of agency, the limits of our faculties to encompass and put a stop to an endless ongoing state of emergency, and the meaninglessness of such attempts seems to be the ultimate catastrophe of the novel. Based on the assessment of the limits of classic structures of knowledge and research methods, Satin Island leads to question the very possibility of writing about catastrophes. Since the medias’ spectacular yet partial coverage is inadequate to report on catastrophes, while the magnitude of such events has exceeded our faculty to process them, how, then, is the novelist then to write about them?

III. Representing Catastrophe

The impossibility to understand catastrophe through its specific manifestations – i.e the sum of oil spills or parachute accidents across time – suggests that the poststructuralist thought U. represents is an inappropriate tool to grasp the scale of catastrophe as a hyperobject, and thus ultimately questions the very communicability of catastrophe, and the possibility to represent it. In the novel, disasters are either aestheticized and trivialized by media overexposure or systematized and misunderstood by U.’s anthropological perspective; a double bind that Tom McCarthy sums up in a joint declaration with Simon Critchley: “our current age […] has to be understood through the lens of catastrophe. This is both necessary and impossible: how could we stand outside or beyond the catastrophe? Conversely, it is equally impossible to penetrate its core, experience it fully, merge with it” (McCarthy and Critchley). Whether he is reading and garnering data about catastrophes or failing to make definite sense of the spare parts he has gathered, the protagonist is neither outside nor beyond the catastrophe, demonstrating that the essence of a disastrous event may be located at a crossroads, caught in between two extremes. It is to be found in between the overexposure of catastrophic events that desensitizes viewers and neutralizes the shock inherent to trauma, and the opacity of its meaning due to the failure to understand its mechanisms and to imagine ways to solve it.

Faced with this conundrum – on the one hand, a necessity to acknowledge the extent of the ongoing catastrophic state of modernity and, on the other, the impossibility to grasp its full extent or represent it adequately – Tom McCarthy chooses negative or oblique modes of representation. In his view of the novel, although the kind of frames or interpretative systems through which the Great Report might be understood in an old-fashioned sense collapsed, U. is trying to navigate that “wreckage” while “mapping this new emergent landscape of fragments, and constellating these into new micro-systems” (“CounterText Interview”, 140). While U. appears insensitive to global catastrophes and numb to the suffering of his friend Petr dying of cancer for instance, he is plagued by recurring dreams of destruction and ruin: a wave of tarmac covering Paris and obliterating all its landmarks and history (77), an island overtaken by a monstrous living landfill (161-163) and a fantasy of hacking and sabotaging the Koob-Sassen foundation from within, wreaking havoc on the very project he is yet still working so hard to complete in his waking hours. Thus, he muses that something as simple as providing faulty data, or issuing “erroneous interpretations and assertions,” mere insinuations “might engender, three or so steps down the chain, a sewer-monster of gargantuan proportions that, Godzilla-like, would rise up and smash everything” (155-156). U. ponders the possible ways his Present-Tense Anthropology™ might turn into a potent tool to destroy our current systems and social structures, prophesizing a potential, credible apocalyptic future:

These fantasies grew on me. In my mind, I saw administrative buildings, bunkers, palaces come crashing down, heard glass splintering, stone tumbling, saw flames licking the skies: the Reichstag, Hindenburg, the falls of Troy and Rome, all rolled into one. And then my cohorts, that semi-occluded network of covert anthropologists I’d dreamed into being already: they could join me in the cause. Together, we could turn Present-Tense Anthropology™ into an armed resistance movement: I pictured them all scurrying around to my command, setting the charges, using their ethnographic skills to foment riots, to assemble lynch-mobs, to make urban space itself, its very fabric, rise up in revolt. I saw manholes erupting; cables spontaneously combusting; office wi-fi clouds crackling their way to audibility, causing hordes of schizoid bureaucrats, heads given over to cacophonies of voices, to flee their desks and tear about the streets, blood trickling from their ears … I had these visions as I sat down in my basement, rode the tube, or drifted off to sleep. (156-157)

Those contradictory thoughts and actions, the antithetic impulses to either bring every spare part together into a coherent and sensible whole within a new Present tense anthropology or to use it as a weapon to destroy the ethnologic enterprise of the Great Report signal the very essence of literature, which, for McCarthy, is mainly characterized by its ‘indirection’: ‘It’s not about what’s there, it’s about what’s not there; it’s not about what’s being said, it’s about what’s not being said. […] I’m very taken with this idea of marks and traces of things. […] That’s what writing is: the stain left by the other thing that you’re never actually seeing.’ (“Live Theory”). And indeed, this idea appears in the novel, articulated through U.’s friend Petr, when he laments that “[t]he worst thing about dying […] is that there’s no one to tell about it” (157). The real tragedy, the ultimate experience of dying, the core of catastrophes cannot be communicated directly; they may only be represented metaleptically, through their causes and consequences.

As noted before, catastrophes are constantly re-emerging through discreet yet consistent references that surface through similes and metaphors. They also appear very straightforwardly yet indirectly, in headlines, in U.’s dreams and in his research, which are as many oblique ways to evoke catastrophes through their representations, through the discourses that are produced around and about them. If U. is overtly standing in for the novelist attempting to determine the function of writing in an age when everything is always already being written and recorded by a system of CCTVs and geolocalization, the homophonic pun between ‘U.’ and ‘you’ additionally addresses readers directly. Christoph Reinfandt notes that the protagonist’s introductory words “Me? Call me U.” (12) open up an intertextual echo with characters such as Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) or Robert Musil’s titular character Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities (1930–1943). It also establishes “an observer position that calls out for adoption by the reader[s],” (Reinfandt, 561), forcing them to address their own limitations in trying to grasp the shape and meaning of catastrophes and their responsibilities in shaping the future in the Anthropocene. Just like U. is left to navigate the “wreckage” of our traditional frames of understanding, readers are left with such traces of the contemporary form of the catastrophe to navigate: headlines, images, news flashes, updates and files compiled by U., dreams and fantasies creating a vertiginous archeology or a complex map of disasters which are both omnipresent, yet seemingly distant and unreal, filtered through screens.

Such a contradiction or indirection as to the necessary actions that should or may be taken might be the result of a specific temporality involved in the representation of contemporary catastrophes. In the terms of Critchley and McCarthy, “the time of the catastrophe is not easily graspable. As Blanchot so eloquently puts it in The Writing of the Disaster: ‘We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future: it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat’” (McCarthy and Critchley). This statement regarding the elusive quality of the time of catastrophe, its being both always already past and yet always about to happen constitutes a third reversal of the original meaning of the term, in its narrative acceptation of denouement or conclusion. Timothy Morton raises a similar concern in his definition of hyperobjects:

It seems as if there is something about hyperobjects that is more deeply challenging than these “disasters.” […] What does this mean to nascent ecological awareness? It means that humans are not totally in charge of assigning significance and value to events that can be statistically measured. The worry is not whether the world will end, as in the old model of the dis-astron, but whether the end of the world is already happening, or whether perhaps it might already have taken place. A deep shuddering of temporality occurs. (16)

Hyperobjects, as ongoing, nonlocal catastrophes, challenge a linear, teleological representation of time with an implied beginning and end, questioning the succession of events according to a traditional past/ present/ future distribution. Such a temporality is made tangible in Satin Island, despite the apparently chronological succession of events it features within clearly numbered chapters and paragraphs, in the style of a report. Most strikingly, none of these chapters bear titles, nor do they contain distinctive or remarkable episodes building up to a narrative progression in the traditional sense. In his reading diary of the novel, Derek Attridge observes that the telling is clearly in the present, while the story being related happened in the past, leaving the temporal location of the narrator unclear. As most time markers remain vague and relative to one another, the only indications of time passing in the novel are arguably provided by the decaying health of Petr from his diagnosis to his burial, a decline that could equally stretch over months or years. The likeness of each chapter, in terms of both content and structure, lays a strong emphasis on the repetitive nature of U.’s tasks and on the relative uniformity of his daily routine, which consists in data collection and sterile speculation punctuated with occasional trips to various similar-looking airports and cities. In an interview with Nicholas Huber, McCarthy mentions that all his books feature characters “in search of an absolute present tense that they can never quite find. They’re always in the space of deferral” (180). Ironically, while the narrator seems to the readers to be stuck in an endlessly stretching and repetitive daily routine, he strives to capture the essence of an absolute ‘present tense’ through activities that involve either documenting or referencing past catastrophes or considering possible future apocalypses in dreams and fantasies, while remaining apparently impervious to contemporary or immediate tragedies, as exemplified by his emotionless reception of televised disasters or his detached account of the slow decay and passing of a cancer-ridden friend.

According to Dupuy, representing catastrophe requires a specific skill so as to incite rather than discourage audiences:

[T]he prospect of catastrophe, if it is to be credible, must be made to fully exist in the future, so that the suffering and deaths foretold will be believed to be inevitable, the inexorable result of something like fate. […] The paradox is that if one succeeds too well in fixing a catastrophic future, one will have lost sight of the purpose of the metaphysical exercise, which is precisely to stimulate awareness, and thus bring about action, so that the catastrophe does not occur […]. The way out from this paradox, I believe, is to regard the catastrophic event simultaneously as something fated to occur and as a contingent accident, one that need not occur—even if, in a completed future, it appears to be necessary. (204)

Similarly, Timothy Morton contends that “the strongly held belief that the world is about to end ‘unless we act now’ is paradoxically one of the most powerful factors that inhibit a full engagement with our ecological coexistence here on Earth” (Hyperobjects, 6-7). In order to adequately raise awareness and spring readers into action, Dupuy argues that the adequate tense to depict catastrophe is the future perfect, because “[t]he future, […] lacks a property that the past fully possesses: the fixity of what has already been determined by its occurrence. Now, the future perfect accomplishes the remarkable feat of granting the future tense, and therefore the future itself, exactly this property. For from the point of view of the day after tomorrow, tomorrow belongs to the past” (204). In other words, the appropriate way to depict catastrophe is to paint it as having occurred in the future, to make it vivid and real, but also as something that may still be averted if sufficient action is taken in the present.

Of course, Satin Island does not use a literal future perfect tense in its grammatical sense. However, in her analysis of Remainder, Christina Lupton uses this notion to examine how the novel mediates “a relationship of exteriority to the book that is fictional because it states how the future is to be occupied but does so before it has arrived” (505) and argues that “[w]hile not obviously counterfactual, [a tense like the future perfect] is a discursive operation that introduces the future as a matter of fact while it is still a matter of fiction” (508). Likewise, Cynthia Quarrie observes that the novel is saturated with “an uncannily future-oriented” melancholia, in which “loss takes the form of disorientation and groundlessness in the face of technological finance capital, terrorist threat, and environmental collapse” (162). The dispassionate anthropologist provides a perspective metaphorically evoking the future perfect, combining glimpses of the past, with a snapshot of an indeterminate present and the possible fantasized future outcomes of our inaction. In a dream sequence, U. admires a “regal” landfill located on an island outside a “great, imperial city” (161) which he believes to be called “Satin Island” (163). He gazes in awe and fascination at the morphing colors and glowing ooze secreted by the piles of rubbish (163) and the dream haunts him in his waking hours. Further Internet research leads him to discover that his dream was prompted by the real-life Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, closed in 2001 and since then rehabilitated into a park (165). This episode epitomizes the idea of a prospective catastrophe narrated in the future perfect tense. While U.’s dream forecasts the bleak future of a planet submerged by its own refuse, and the fascination of the spectator mesmerized by the vision of an ongoing disaster, his active research reveals its actual existence in the past and the possibility to impact the environment positively at the same time. Satin Island is narrated along the lines of a future perfect mode as defined by Dupuy. The spectacular representations of catastrophes and accidents that are put forward in the news, in U.’s dreams, in his files or in discreet echoes in the novel are as many ripples that indirectly represent the event, as many ink blots readers are asked to interpret and make sense   of, with a view to potentially raise awareness and sensitivity to the new shape of the impending, ongoing contemporary catastrophe. 


In the novel, the spectacular representations of catastrophes, combined with the reoccurrence of such events evidenced by U.’s anthropological research, trace a pattern of echoes and repetitions that quite literally reverses the seminal definition of the term. Overexposed by a continuous stream of information that the masses barely have the time and means to process, they have paradoxically become integrated within the very fabric of everyday life. Far from a singular upsetting event, catastrophe has become a systematized self-engendering hyperobject that escapes control and understanding. Through U., Satin Island excavates past disasters and this archeology of catastrophes allows the novelist to draw a map of the present, while alluding to an uncertain future when disasters become a norm, an autonomous man-made machine that overwhelms humanity. The issue of time is crystallized within the motif of buffering, another reoccurring feature in the novel. According to Daniel Lea, if writing requires, for the character as much as for the novelist, “the distance of untimely reflection, and […] the imposition of a speculative framework of meaning, then present-tense anthropology and the contemporary novel are oxymorons. Writing can never be self-present; it is always, to use U’s analogy, the red cursor following the grey buffering line, but never sufficiently swift to achieve synchronicity with the experience itself” (150). Buffering, then, is a manifestation of the inability for the novelist to process information fast enough and of the delayed reaction of writing. It is also a metaphorical future perfect, as the future that appears in grey, not yet realized, not yet actualized, opens up a potential for action in the present. Though the standpoint of a character deprived of affectivity and moral compass, we are led to react, if not emotionally, at least intellectually to the depiction of a society overwhelmed by man-made ecological and technological disasters, devoid of empathy and direct connections, desensitized to global as well as local tragedies. Nünning and Scherr conclude their analysis on the aesthetics of the essay-novel with the idea that the “ethical potential” of McCarthy’s novels is located in the “act of reading itself” (502). Along these lines, Wrethed argues that Satin Island, through U.’s point of view, induces an ethical and aesthetic reading by prompting a “provocative literary cognition”: rather than affective, the readers response is meant to be “an intellectual reaction to some of the more urgent questions of our posthuman condition” (Wrethed 2). The novel concludes with a bewildering choice: U. stands at the ferry station in New York, with the intention of visiting Staten Island, the eponymous Satin Island. Dazed and confused, he eventually decides to walk “out of the terminal and back into the city” (173). The absence of a final catastrophe, in its dramatic acceptation of resolution or denouement, mirrors the ethical potential of the novel. The narrative’s indirection and the refusal to bring it to a conclusion incite both a disorientation and a cognitive reaction, a realization that is not empathetic or affective within readers. This bleak assessment of the contemporary alerts us to the most prominent features of the ongoing catastrophe of the Anthropocene – the ecological and existential crises, an overall lack meaning and loss of faith, the desensitization to suffering and the resulting absence of compassion – and despite the limited power of agency of human beings, it reaffirms our moral responsibility to act in the present against a forecasted bleaker future.

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