Satin Island, a novel about anthropology, tribes and corporations

Tom McCarthy’s book Satin Island is a funny and very smart novel. An anthropologist has been recruited by a charismatic CEO to work in a giant corporation – hilarity and insight ensue. The New York Review of Books wrote “As if Kafka and J.G.Ballard had got together to write a Thomas Pynchon novel, with a volume of Nietzsche to hand – yet for all that [Satin Island] is singular, original, and , in its somber way, profound.”  And I recommend it too!

Here are a couple of the protagonist’s musings:

“What does an anthropologist working for a business actually do? We purvey cultural insight. What does that mean? It means that we unpick the fibre of a culture (ours), its weft and warp – the situations it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it – and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fibre so that they can introduce into the weave their own fine, silken thread strategically embroider or detail it with a mini-narrative (a convoluted way of saying: sell their product). ….In essence it’s not that much different from what soothsayers, ichthyomancers, did in ancient times: those wolfskin-clad men who moved from stone-age settlement to stone-age settlement, cutting fish open to tease wisdom from their entrails. The difference being, of course, that soothsayers were frauds.”

“On the Company. No: on companies; on companies and crowds; whatever. In the fifities and sixties, people like me started conducting studies of corporations, presenting their findings back to the academy, for consecration as pure unconditional knowledge. But sometime in the seventies or eighties, all of that changed: now anthropologists found themselves working for the corporation, not on it. So it was with me. It was the Company itself within whose remit I was operating. To whom did I report? The Company. Nonetheless it was hard not to analyze the Company’s own make-up along anthropological lines. In fact, it was impossible.  Forget family , or ethnic and religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe. My use of the word tribe here isn’t fanciful; it’s modern that’s the dubious term. The logic underlying the corporation is completely primitive. The corporation has its gods, its fetishes, its high priests and its outcasts. It has its rituals, beliefs and superstitions, its pools of homespun expertise and craft and, conversely, its Unknowns or Unspokens.”