Solar Bones by Mike McCormack — Julian Hanna

Mike McCormack’s fifth book is set in County Mayo at the start of the sovereign debt crisis that reduced the once roaring Celtic Tiger to frail skin and bones, a ghost of its former self. The crisis transformed Ireland from a tiger to an honourary pig: the PIGS (or PIIGS) being the countries in Europe where the grip of austerity was most keenly felt. In a sense the novel is a requiem not only for the Conway family but also for Ireland as a whole; the turbulent events recounted in the novel lead to the demise of both. The trope of the backward glance, the moment of reflection, is therefore apt – and it works as the structure for a surprisingly gripping thriller, starting at the end and moving back to piece together the journey that brought us to the opening scene, to figure out what happened, again on both a modest personal scale and a wider community and national level. It is, moreover, a damn fine ghost story for the spooky season.

I happen to be writing this on November 2nd, All Souls, the Day of the Dead, when the line between the natural and supernatural worlds is said to be at its thinnest. This is also the setting of the novel: ‘these grey days after Samhain when the souls of the dead are bailed from purgatory … so that they can return to their homes’. The closeness of departed relatives is felt especially on this day, when the living sit in prayer for the dead. (Here in Portugal, where I am writing from, a little old woman just passed my window on her way to church dressed from head to toe in the very blackest black.) So, without spoiling too much – the blurb on the book jacket shouts: ‘MARCUS CONWAY IS DEAD’ – it is fair to say that the author picked an ideal time and place for his story. Solar Bones begins in the kitchen, and it is the site to which the narrator keeps returning from his flights of Proustian remembrance. The kitchen is a natural hub of human activity: not only of student parties but also of family life, in good and bad times.

But before anything else there is the bell: the disembodied sound of the Angelus bell, the devotion bell (for you heathens) that rings thrice daily, roughly at dawn, midday, and dusk. The time of day at the start of the novel is initially unclear –

the bell

            the bell as

            hearing the bell as

                        hearing the bell as standing here

                        the bell being heard standing here

                        hearing it ring out through the grey light of this

                        morning, noon or night

                        god knows

– a hazy, stuttering start, a Beckettian start; the narrator seeming disoriented or amnesiac, born anew into the world of the story. The bell rings throughout the narrative, returning us again and again to the present moment, ‘standing in the kitchen / hearing this bell’, or ‘sitting here at this table / waiting for my wife and kids to return’. At one point it is clearly the middle of the day: ‘that awful hour of the day, this soft hour bracketed between the Angelus bell and the time signal for the one o’clock news’; later there is ‘a change in the light’, suggesting perhaps a move toward evening at the novel’s close.

Even as the scene of the story becomes gradually clearer, the elliptical style persists: the broken lines like something out of The Waste Land, or the scarcity of proper nouns to anchor the setting in objects. Marcus, the narrator – who sees in the mirror a ‘burly man with a suit and tie on him and the raw winter face of a farmer’ – does not worry much about brand names and other signifiers. He is an engineer, a rational man and deeply principled, his rationality tempered with ‘the old ecclesiastical training’. The self-described ‘spoiled priest’ counts himself lucky to have married Mairead, ‘a girl steeped in French existentialism’; a sensual, earthy Molly Bloom to his scientific-minded Leopold. They have two grown children: Darragh, somewhere in Australia, and Agnes, a young artist who achieves notoriety using her own blood and body as materials. They are a close family, but also realistically raw and fissured. Reflections on marriage and parenthood make up some of the strongest passages in the book.

The father-son relationship, in particular Marcus’s relationship to Darragh and the memory of his own father, is one of several recurring themes in the novel’s complex network of ideas and motifs. Mourning, consciously or not, the loss of his relationship with his son, he also fears losing his own sanity as he stands in the twilit world of his empty kitchen: ‘this same sort of unspooling coupled with the same fatal aptness for fantasy that consumed my father and unravelled his mind in that last year of his life’. The curse of heredity is captured in the memory of his aging father’s sudden decision to sprout a dense beard: ‘a genuinely shocking sight on a man who had been clean-shaven his whole life but now would not hear a word against it saying that his father had had a beard and his father before him’. In terms of motifs, bridges frequently appear – not surprisingly, given Marcus’s profession as civic engineer – as do borders and thresholds: transitions from one stage of life to the next, single to married life to parenthood to the so-called empty nest, until the final crossing.

Key moments in the novel often come as a surprise: the end of a call with Darragh on Skype, for example, becomes the occasion for a soaring flight of prose that sweeps up in its wings the tragedy and futility of human relations and the disappointment of life in general, not to mention the sense of impending environmental collapse that colours so much of everyday life in the Anthropocene:

I watched the screen cloud to a fizzy interference as it shut down, leaving the room to dark silence and a burnt feeling behind my eyes as if the light from the monitor had scalded them to the core, the kind of feeling you imagine you would have just before the world goes up in flames, some refined corrosion eating away at the rods and cones, collapsing their internal structure before they slope out of their sockets and run down your cheekbones, leaving you standing hollow-eyed in the middle of some desolation with the wind whistling through your skull, just before the world collapses

            mountains, rivers and lakes

            acres, roods and perches

            into oblivion, drawn down into that fissure in creation where everything is

consumed in the raging tides and swells of non-being, the physical world gone down in

flames

mountains, rivers and lakes

            and pulling with it also all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw

the world into a community, those daily

            rites, rhythms and rituals

            upholding the world like solar bones

The familiar routine feels like it will never change or end, until the day it does. The ‘rites, rhythms and rituals’ so perfectly recalled and described in the book become part of its structure, along with the refrains of the Angelus bell and the periodic returns to the kitchen table. It is no accident that the narrator is a structural engineer: the story he tells is worked out to the last screw, whether he is conscious of it or not. He tries to keep uncertainty at bay, and for a while succeeds. Then the daily rituals are overturned by events beyond the narrator’s control: illness, politics, the decisions of others, implacable fate. Death haunts the novel: as much as the narrator tries to avoid it, death always finds a way to seep back into his consciousness. When he recalls listening to the kitchen radio after work with Mairead, for example, what he remembers are the death notices, ‘the roll call of the dead’: ‘half the county sitting at their kitchen tables with mugs of tea in their hands and their ears bent to hear who has died or gone with the majority as my father used to say’ – all of which makes the Ireland of the early 21st century seem not so distant from the Ireland of a century earlier, the Ireland of paralysis described by Joyce in Dubliners, not least in ‘The Dead’.

solar-bones-cover-267x400Reviews have drawn comparisons between Solar Bones and the classics of Irish modernism. These comparisons are warranted, both in terms of McCormack’s ambition and achievements. Along with Kevin Barry (whose novel Beatlebone won the Goldsmiths Prize last year), Eimear McBride, and others, McCormack embodies a resurgence of the spirit of Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien. The flowing ‘riverrun’ rhythm, the single-day setting, the rendering of everyday lives through an experimental style, the rural gothic of O’Brien (without the bicycles), the bleak purgatory of Beckett – these texts all, to a greater or lesser degree, haunt the pages of Solar Bones.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Solar Bones has been shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, awarded (on November 9) to ‘fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form’. From what I know of the list, which includes strong competitors like McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, and Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, Solar Bones stands out for its blending of high-minded experimentalism with a down-to-earth and idiomatic humanity (worthy of Joyce himself), and for being something I did not expect: an absolute page-turner. McCormack takes on a staggering range of contemporary themes in the space of this relatively concise novel, from aging and illness, to civic responsibility and globalisation, to the role of politics in art, doing so in a way that feels both agile and weighty. He also manages to convey a highly particular sense of place, not least through the use of dialogue, while constructing on a more universal scale a devastating portrait of human experience.

found my way home again

home again

to sit at this table

and drift through these rooms

room by room

Solar Bones unravels over two hundred pages in a single sentence, chopped into free verse lines with a deft use of enjambment. But while this fact is remarkable – considering even Molly Bloom’s soliloquy has a full stop hidden here and there – it is not even the most striking thing about the novel. There is nothing especially difficult in McCormack’s prose: on the contrary Solar Bones is a very smooth read, especially by any modernist standards (Watt this is not). The real virtuosity is that you hardly notice this impressive stylistic feat. The transitions are so subtly executed, like the (seemingly) unbroken shot in Hitchcock’s Rope, and the dialogue and descriptions are so full of life, that formal experimentation seems almost secondary.

What really sticks with you, more than wonder at any formal technique, is the resonant, unifying, human voice of the narrator. This is the strongest aspect of the book, as it should be with any great work of literature. The Mayo accent is brilliantly conveyed in reported dialogue, the rhythms of exchanges with others shifting seamlessly into the narrator’s own interior monologue as memories of a full life, in all its passion and prosaicness, flit across his consciousness. Solar Bones has been stuck in my mind for weeks – I am curious to poke around the rest of the Tramp Press list and McCormack’s back catalogue, starting perhaps with the Ballard-esque Notes From a Coma (2005; reprinted by Soho Press, 2013).


Mike McCormack is an award-winning novelist and short story writer from Mayo. His previous work includes Getting it in the Head (1995), Crowe’s Requiem (1998), Notes from a Coma (2005), which was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award, and Forensic Songs (2012). In 1996 he was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and in 2007 he was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. in 2016 he was shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize for Solar Bones. He lives in Galway.

Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and lives on the island of Madeira. His research on manifestos and other subjects often appears in academic journals; his creative writing can be found in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Berfrois, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. He is a previous contributor to minor literature[s]. Twitter: @julianisland and @crapfutures.

Image: 20100720_177, Byron Howes, Creative Commons

Solar Bones is published by Tramp Press. Author bio courtesy of the same.