SETTINGS SOMEWHERE IN the purlieus of gigantic internet companies are getting to be as common now as fictions set wholly or partly in the former Soviet bloc were in 1990s. Dave Eggers's The Circle, Dara Horn's Guide for the Perplexed, Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers, the new Franzen (so I hear, haven't read it yet), probably quite a few more I don't even know about, and this one. Must be the zeitgeist.
As the setting is familiar, so is the basic problem. Our narrator, U. (ha!), is an anthropologist hired by an internet mega-enterprise to...well, to suss out the zeitgeist, basically, and write a report that will contribute to a project of global domination. We sense early on that he is not going to be capable of pulling this off--not in any way that will satisfy his employers, at least. Like the protagonists in Cohen's Book of Numbers, Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, and a fair number of the fictions of Ben Marcus, Gary Lutz, and Gary Shteyngart, the amazingly confected opportunity that has been handed our man on a golden platter is going to wind up all over the front of his shirt and over most of his lap. Beautiful women will snicker; accomplished men will snort; the tender-hearted will look away in embarrassment.
The coming-apart is more poignant than farcical in McCarthy's hands, though. Bristling with theory and preternaturally gifted at pattern recognition, U. is nicely situated to map the zeitgeist, so when he homes in on the future being a trash-incinerating plant on Satin (Staten) Island, you have the feeling that he is right, even as you suspect that the Company will not be keeping him around much longer.
Not quite the jolt to the cerebellum that Remainder or C. was, I would say, but McCarthy remains someone I will be keeping on my radar. Need to go back and read that first one.