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A novel character emerged from the mists of Second Empire France and roamed the boulevards of Romanticism. This man was Baudelaire’s flâneur, but that’s not all he was. In depressing St. Petersburg, he was the anonymous hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. In depressing Kristiania, he was the anonymous hero of Hamsun’s Hunger. He was Malte Laurids Brigge, lonely in Paris, in Rilke’s Notebooks, and he was Antoine Roquentin, lonely in fictional Bouville, in Sartre’s Nausea. After the Second World War, he fled the Continent and was spotted in England consorting with — and often confused for — a mustached man named W. G. Sebald.

Sebald was a solitary German émigré who tramped through archives, libraries, museums, and cemeteries to collect materials on the fate of postwar Europe for use in novels narrated by solitary German émigrés that fade between essay and fiction (with accompanying black-and-white photos). Since Sebald’s death in 2001 his influence has only grown, especially outside Germany, though his preoccupation with the Holocaust has been jettisoned, or transferred to more recent crises. It helps, on first reading Sebald, to have already read your Benjamin, Adorno, Wittgenstein, and Freud. But it doesn’t help, on first reading Sebald’s heirs — say Geoff Dyer, Teju Cole, and Ben Lerner — to have already read your Sebald. Their writer-narrators — who share traits, if not also names, with their authors — practice backpacker-flânerie through the major capitals in the style not of exile but of tourism or study abroad.

“Newark One” © Jeffrey Milstein. Courtesy Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

“Newark One” © Jeffrey Milstein. Courtesy Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

Certainly Dyer’s Jeff (in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), Cole’s Julius (in Open City), and Lerner’s Adam (in Leaving the Atocha Station) and Ben (in 10:04) are still doing the most serious work of trying to patch together a creative self out of the strangers they meet and the artworks they experience. But there’s just so much available for repackaging now that a writer need not be bothered to invent, and this, finally, is the theme of Satin Island (Knopf, $24), a savaging of the Sebald genre by Tom McCarthy, the British avant-garde novelist.

Satin Island opens in Turin, at its airport, Torino-Caselle. The narrator — the browser of this tricksy text — is referred to only as U. This man with the second-person appellation is a British anthropologist employed by a consultancy called the Company to advise on branding, most recently for the undefined Koob-Sassen Project. (This must be a wink at Hilary Koob-Sassen, a multimedia artist and the son of Saskia Sassen, the Dutch-American sociologist who coined the term “global city.”) U. is stuck at the gate; U.K.-bound flights have stopped thanks to an unidentified private jet flying rogue. He cracks his laptop and begins searching for — which means delivering a mini-disquisition on — “hub airport” and educates himself (and the reader) on how the most convenient terminals are designed like wheels, with spokes facilitating “communion between any two spots . . . despite no direct line connecting [them].” Further links tell him that the hub model is used “in fields ranging from freight to distributed computing.” This brings to mind the Shroud of Turin, specifically Jesus’ crown of thorns, which shares its shape, of course, with a hub airport. A childhood memory intervenes: U. recalls coasting his bicycle downhill and being unnerved by the activity of backpedaling: that “you could move one way while rotating the crank in the opposite direction contravened my fledgling understanding not only of motion but also of time.” Remembering this he feels that way again, despite being older and grounded — “the same awkward sense of things being out of sync, out of whack.”

Face of the Christ, by El Greco © Album/Art Resource, New York City

Face of the Christ, by El Greco © Album/Art Resource, New York City

No true plot unfolds, though the circular meme keeps expanding: hubs, crowns, and bicycle wheels morph into pools of oil, jellyfish, deployed parachutes, and the tawaf (the circumambulations of Muslims around the Kaaba). Though each symbol is attached to its own incident in the news — an oil spill, a skydiver who died of a sabotaged chute — none involves U. as anything other than a witness to the cycle, a victim of his associative mind. His clicks revolve around topics for the “Great Report,” which his employer has commissioned to be “The Document . . . the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.” Needless to say, U. will never finish writing it. Or he will, and this novel is it, a record of spiraling stasis.

The flâneur was an early casualty of capitalism, a man who scavenged the marketplace for discarded symbols to link together and sell back as new. McCarthy’s novel applies the technique to the ultimate trash heap, the Internet. But Satin Island refers to a real (if defunct) rubbish pile: its title reproduces the way the words “Staten Island” appeared to U. in a dream. U. becomes obsessed with this most maligned of boroughs, and though he’s constantly searching online for aerial images, when he finally visits New York in the flesh, he doesn’t even bother to take the ferry.

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