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more from the
March/April 2015 issue:

Interview: Claire Tancons
The Political Aesthetics
of Carnival

– D. Eric Bookhardt

On Informality and Nomadism
– Timothy P.A. Cooper

Life Altars
– Iyawó (Kristin Naca)

Glossary: TMAI
– Shumon Basar

Creating Matter: The Prints of Mildred Thompson

– Dan Weiskopf

Book Reviews:
Islands of the Day Before
and After

– Jerry Cullum

Art Papers
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Book Reviews:
Islands of the Day Before and After

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island
(Knopf, February 2015)

Carrie Gibson, Empire's Crossroads:
A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day

(Atlantic Monthly Press, November 2014)

Review / Jerry Cullum

John Donne's familiar Jacobean-Renaissance assertion that "no man is an island" has been trumped by a 21st-century realization: islands are not islands either, but more or less temporary elevations of differently disintegrating solidities that are connected as well as separated by an immense surrounding fluidity. On Earth's continuous surface concealed by water, Greenland's plateau extends to the North Pole, and Denmark has staked its territorial claim accordingly; coral islands erode, and high islands' mountain peaks diminish as ocean levels rise. Yet the network of planetary relations surrounding them remains relatively intact—relatively, since the death of reefs changes the physical structure supporting the more fragile and transitory nodes of stability above the surface.

At the same time, truly transient and indeed floating islands emerge in what is now widely known as the Anthropocene; the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is as authentic a body of interlocked objects as the effluvia of volcanic action that throws up short-lived mounds of naturally occurring islandification.

Then there are the landlocked islands that receive the honorific only metaphorically, traffic islands being an example commemorated not only in J.G. Ballard's novel Concrete Island (1974), but also in a chapter of Alastair Bonnett's study of geographic anomalies titled Off the Map in the United Kingdom and Unruly Places in the United States. The latter is the more accurate title, for apart from accidentally isolated stretches of turf, secret military cities, and unacknowledged and ill-defined local zones of authority, most of these sites are perfectly mappable—as mappable as the specks of land in German artist Judith Schlansky's Atlas of Remote Islands (2010), a geography of reality and imagination in which small and isolated truths about small and isolated places are presented for our perusal.

The gyres creating the garbage patch find their way into William Gibson's new novel, The Peripheral (2014) (albeit peripherally, in a work mostly about other possible futures for the junctures of virtual and physical reality), and a trash-created location of a different type provides the title for Tom McCarthy's even newer novel, Satin Island (2015). To discuss its role in the plot would constitute a spoiler of the worst sort. Suffice it to say that it comes as a sort of revelation to the urban anthropologist employed by a corporation to produce the Great Report, a metadocument that will somehow contain the sum of all the variables in the intrinsically indefinable contemporary condition. Whether the island plays the role we would expect, based on prior novels of this type—to spell them out here would be a different sort of spoiler—is beside the point; or rather, of course it doesn't, because we are not dealing with models from historical precursors, but with a "fictional anthropology of the contemporary." (This term actually occurs in the novel without a nod to Paul Rabinow's apparent coinage of the phrase, despite the protagonist's prior eagerness to footnote Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou and his no longer fashionable hero, Claude Lévi-Strauss.) Actually, we are not dealing even with that anthropology, but with what it might mean for an ex-academic toiling in the literal basements of corporate London to deploy such a (multi)discipline in the service of a for-profit visionary venture.

McCarthy has gained fame in recent years as a conceptually oriented artist whose semifictional International Necronautical Society (and its "Declaration on Inauthenticity") played a role in the 2009 Tate Triennial, and whose mock newspaper burlesquing plotlines from Ballard's aforementioned Concrete Island and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (2009-2010) formed the matrix surrounding the catalogue insert for Stephanie Rosenthal's recently concluded Mirrorcity exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. McCarthy's career as a novelist, however, has been easier to map, even if his first novel, Men in Space (2007), was published some eight years after it was written, and two years after his second novel, Remainder (2005), established him as a defining presence in British experimental fiction.

McCarthy's announced concerns with repetition and inauthenticity extend to the point that his 2010 novel, C, is very nearly a response or riposte to Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963), touching not only on many of the same themes but on the same time periods. Given that fact, we might well expect from the plot summary that Satin Island would be a parody of what might be described as Pynchon's subsequent Great Reports, from Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to the even more sprawling Against the Day (2006). McCarthy's latest, however, attempts no such thing, and the book clocks in at around 200 pages. The reasons for that comparative brevity, startlingly unexpected given the novel's enormous declared conceptual range, might in themselves be worth contemplating, given world enough and time. Of course, the reasons may be as simple as might be surmised from McCarthy's flat-footed remark about Satin Island to Christopher Bollen in a 2012 exchange in Interview magazine: "don't hold your breath, it's going slowly. I'm about 12,000 words in. I've written about forty thousand words but only 12 of them are any good."

McCarthy's various protagonists from Remainder through Satin Island may or may not be islands, but they are assuredly adrift, bereft of any sense of secure community or even of secure epistemology, and all of them are, so far as I can tell, white. (It might be interesting in and of itself to speculate on whether a person of color could navigate his protagonists' complicated existential situations without having his or her ethnic heritage remarked upon at some point. Whiteness remains the default position that need not be noted.)

It might be interesting to explore McCarthy's fictional themes through the lens of an actual history that gave rise to theories about what it means to be condemned to an indeterminate inauthenticity—some of the earliest of these having been expressed in Frantz Fanon's classic Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon's examination of the question finds its brief reference alongside hundreds of other things and events in Carrie Gibson's new Empire's Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day (2014). Dr. Gibson's extraordinarily readable but reliably scholarly narrative manages to cover 522 years of history (or actually 599, since the story begins with the conquest of Ceuta in 1415) in just over 350 pages, not counting the timeline, bibliography, and extensive notes. As she observes in the introduction, "This book does not contain every fact about every island .... Rather, the aim is twofold. The first is to present a picture of this complex region, and how this new world grew out of the violent combination of many others: European, African, Amerindian, Asian, North American, while becoming a crucial link to the global chain of goods, peoples, and ideas. Second, a history of the Caribbean is a chance to meditate on a few modern issues, not least so-called 'globalization' and consumerism."

The modern issues on which Dr. Gibson meditates include the birth of Bob Marley's reggae out of Jamaica's plans for urban renewal, a private faux-Haitian village owned and maintained by Royal Caribbean masquerading as an example of local authenticity, and many more instances of unintended consequences and outright self-deception than any review of comfortable length could cover. She offers, however, very few examples of the region's encounters with the global art world, as distinct from the world of music or of literature; Aimé Césaire is mentioned, but Wifredo Lam isn't. Even the world of literature is perfunctorily dealt with: Derek Walcott's 1992 Nobel lecture is quoted to great effect, but the passage is about the social situation of the islands, not his poetry. Likewise, Césaire and Édouard Glissant are discussed as political figures rather than poets, and though Glissant's embrace of créolité makes it into the text, Césaire's earlier négritude is lumped namelessly in with "other competing schools of thought that argued that French islanders should look to Africa for their cultural heritage." By contrast, Dr. Gibson succeeds in packing Jamaica's reggae, rocksteady, ska, and "the newer (and often controversial) dancehall" into one astonishing genre-surveying sentence that is preceded by the observation that "Puerto Rican star Daddy Yankee had a crossover hit with 'Gasolina' in 2004, introducing reggaeton to a wider English-speaking audience."

In fact, the sum total of the contemporary in visual culture is encapsulated in the observation, "Caribbean art enjoys a wide following, especially the work of Haitian painters." This sentence allows a segue into the topic of 20th-century misrepresentations of Haitian voodoo and the contemporary "fascination with zombies ... with television shows like The Walking Dead and contemporary films like Shaun of the Dead taking the idea of the Haitian undead and placing it in a white, suburban setting, following in the footsteps of The Night of the Living Dead and subsequent zombie films directed by George A. Romero." By the time Dr. Gibson has ended this swerve into film culture, she has directed her narrative back into a discussion of present-day legal restrictions on Haitian voodoo practitioners, which allows her to segue in turn into a paragraph about current attitudes toward creole languages in Jamaica and the Dutch Caribbean, followed by a paragraph that begins, "Another cultural hybrid celebrated in the Caribbean is Carnival."

Despite the breakneck pace of its discussion of cultural practices, this book is one that can be studied productively by an art world readership—at least as productively as Satin Island. In addition to its useful summations of centuries of Caribbean history, Empire's Crossroads provides multilevel evidence of how all human networks are warped by previous historical traumas. Logically devised transportation networks and systems of exchange between islands are still impossible today because of which side won a battle for possession 300 years earlier. Yet geography, apart from the notable exception of rising sea levels, is not destiny. Islands may be linked by undersea plateaus, but the gulfs of culture are too often deeper than the unifying factors of nature.

– Jerry Cullum

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