Public Books — The Novel’s Forking Path

April 1, 2015 — Reading Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, it suddenly occurred to me why his 2005 novel Remainder is so good. It’s not the reason Zadie Smith gave in the New York Review of Books, however important that essay has been to winning McCarthy the readership he deserves. Those who agreed with Smith’s judgment of McCarthy’s earlier novel will probably like his new one, which sets itself the task of thinking about the present as directly as a novel could. But they might also sense a writer whose imagination has flattened, as though newly subject to the force of gravity. Did Remainder really chart a viable way forward for the novel, as Smith promised? What claims on our interest can the novel make now? A few works later in the career of one of the most intellectually ambitious contemporary writers, it’s tempting to try to find an answer to that question in Satin Island.