8.1 And all this time, behind these apparitions, another one: the image of a severed parachute that floated, like some jellyfish or octopus, through the polluted waters of my mind: the domed canopy above, the floppy strings casually twining their way downwards from this like blithe tentacles, free ends waving in the breeze. This last picture, for me, produces, even now, a sense of calm: no angry and insistent tow, no jerks and tugs and stresses—just a set of unencumbered cords carelessly feeling the air. This sense of calm, of languidness, grows all the more pronounced when set against the panic of the man hurtling away from it below. He would have looked up, naturally, and seen the chute lolling unburdened and indifferent above him—as though freed from the dense load of all its troubles, that conglomeration of anxiety and nerves that he, and the human form in general, represented. Considering the picture, I found my focus, my point of identification within it and my attendant sympathy, shifting from the diminutive man to his expanded, if detached, paraphernalia. I felt quite happy for the latter, for its liberation into carefreeness. Parachutes, as a rule, are treated badly by their human masters: granted false release and then immediately yanked back into servitude, into yoked bondage. This one, though, had slipped the bridle—literally— and billowed out into a freedom that was permanent and real. Its existence would have been a good and full one from this moment onwards.
8.2 The following weekend, the newspaper—the old-style broadsheet, I mean—carried a longer, more reflective article about the case. Its author was an occasional skydiver himself. He discussed the culture of the sport, its general fraternity. Sky- divers, he informed his readers, are a close-knit bunch. They have, he wrote, the feeling of being part of a tribe. This sentence jumped out at me, for obvious reasons; on reading it, I looked up at the byline, to see if I recognized the journalist’s name. I didn’t. I thought of my Vanuatans once again. In their tower- plunging ritual, the vines, as I mentioned earlier, were measured so as to tauten not in mid-air but rather only fractionally above the earth: the jumps deemed the best, the ones that won the diver most acclaim, were those in which the cords sprang into action as he hit the ground, plucking him back from the very jaws of death into which they’d tantalizingly allowed him, for a fraction of a second, to descend. On such perfectly realized jumps, the diver’s shoulders would flick leaves and brushwood as they jerked back upwards, as though impudently scrawling the man’s signature across the forest floor. The movement was extremely pleasing to observe. It was this act of scrawling, this graffiti-gesture, I now realized, that, above all other aspects of the ritual, had back then made me want to be a tower-plunger, or anthropologist, or both.
8.3 The article kept mentioning “faith.” Skydivers are induced into and graduate up through a world in which faith plays a fundamental role. They must believe in their instructors; in the equipment; in the staff packing their rigs; in tiny ring-pulls, clips and clip-releases, strips of canvas, satin, string. It could be argued, wrote the author, that this belief had nothing of the devotional or metaphysical about it, since each of the things to be believed in had a solid evidential underpinning: the mechanics of a ripcord, say, or a spring-loaded riser—or, of course, on a larger scale, the overall infallibility of physics, its laws of resistance, drag and so on. Yet, he claimed, these things could only carry one so far towards a gaping hole in a plane’s side, and the fundamentally counterintuitive act of throwing oneself through it: to cite the clichéd but apt maxim, they could take the horse to water, but they couldn’t make it drink. That final spur, the one that carried skydivers across the threshold, out into the abyss, was faith: faith that it all—the system, in its boundless and unquantifiable entirety—worked, that they’d be gathered up and saved. 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, from whose mouth he’d sought a whispered affirmation of its very possibility—for that to suddenly be plucked away: that must have been atrocious. He’d have looked around him, seen the sky, and earth, its landmass and horizon, all the vertical and horizontal axes that hold these together, felt acceleration and the atmosphere and all the rest, the fundamental elements in which we hang suspended all the time, whether we’ve just jumped from an aeroplane or not— and yet, for him, this realm, with all its width and depth and volume, would have, in an instant, become emptied of its properties, its values. The vast font at which he prayed, and into which he sank, as though to re-baptize himself, time and again, would, in the blink of a dilated eye, have been voided of god- head, rendered meaningless. Space, even as he plunged into it, through it, would have retreated—recoiled, contracted, pulled back from its frontiers even though these stayed intact— withdrawn to some zero-point at which it flips into its negative. Negative world, negative sky, negative everything: that’s the territory this man had entered. Did that then mean he’d some- how fallen through into another world, another sky? A richer, fuller, more embracing one? I don’t think so.
Excerpted from Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. Copyright © 2015 by Tom McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“McCarthy, author of three previous novels, including the Man Booker Prize finalist C. (2010) and the manic Men in Space (2012), tightens up his offbeat style in his slimmest novel to date….This latest strange, smart narrative experiment showcases McCarthy’s gift for wildly original fiction.”
“A dizzying take on possible conspiracies, corporate philosophies and one man’s idle thoughts…. As the crossed-out subtitles on the cover—including “An Essay” and “A Treatise”—suggest, this is a malleable work, one where dreams of unreal cities carry as much weight as impressions of real ones and where a long discussion of the way Starbucks operates in Seattle may be a key image or a complete digression. There are moments of devastation here, and the way McCarthy reveals them are among the novel’s highlights….the effort to follow its surprising routes pays off. ”
“McCarthy’s newest novel is as delightfully unclassifiable as his last effort, C….This novel of ideas is begging to be read and reread for meaning with pens, diagrams, and maybe even a dossier or two thrown in for good measure.”
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