Solar Bones, Mike McCormack

solar-bones.jpg

Here is my research: Mike McCormack (1965 – ) is an Irish novelist. Solar Bones (2016) is his third novel and with it he won the 2018 Dublin Literary Prize of €100,000 (and some other awards which were probably more important but less valuable). I bought Solar Bones on the recommendation of Kim from Reading Matters (here), but I have only now made time to sit down and read it straight through, which I think its format demands. So here goes

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
this grey day standing here and listening to this bell in the middle of the day,
ringing out through the grey light to
here
standing in the kitchen
hearing this bell
snag my heart and

the whole first page of 260 pages of one sentence, not even one sentence really, you can see it has no beginning, is divided into paragraphs with sometimes tenuous connections, has no real end, till

keep going, one foot in front of the other
the head down and keep going
keep going
keep going to fuck

I begin, reading to myself, half aloud, falling into the words, the rhythm, slowly coming to grips with the story as McCormack lapses into more continuous prose. It’s a ‘difficult’ work. It’s mid-afternoon, a bad time for me, reading or driving, I nod off a few times but find that as day becomes evening I am well into it , struggle to find somewhere to pull up, this is the virtue of the single ‘sentence’, there is no natural break, resume in the morning, this morning, go back a page, fall easily into the flow and knock off the last 30 pages before porridge and coffee.

Solar Bones is the story of a middle aged man, county engineer in a small town on the west coast of Ireland, happily married, to a school teacher, with grown up daughter, an artist, and son, backpacking, fruit picking in Queensland. The period appears by references to the Great Financial Crisis and the war in Iraq to be 2009, and the setting is probably an hour up the coast from Cork Galway (which is not named, so I’m guessing, see Kim’s Comment). Marcus, the engineer, is older than the author, “coming of age” (21?) for the 1977 general election.

He sits at the kitchen table as the bells ring out for All Souls Day and begins to recollect the circumstances of his marriage, his one infidelity while at a conference in Prague, reluctantly forgiven by his pregnant wife, the births of his children, lovemaking, the ordinary details of family life, his good relationship with his own parents, now dead. Circling back to the events of this year, Agnes, his daughter’s, first art exhibition, his visceral reaction on discovering the canvases are painted in Agnes’ blood. Mairead, his wife, becoming dangerously ill with a virus, cryptosporidium, in the town water supply, the night of the opening.*

I enjoyed lots of aspects of this novel, and yes I endorse Kimbofo’s recommendation, the easy way that Marcus’ ordinary life and understanding as an engineer is integrated into the story, that this is a middle class marriage, and parenthood, presented with no real drama and yet still enthralling. And of course McCormack’s clear love of country.

What infuriated me is that Marcus is both middle class and middle of the road. (You’ve probably noticed that I take extreme positions on everything). Marcus makes a point of voting in every election, starting with 1977 – which resulted in a landslide to the right of centre Fianna Fáil, and a corrupt local member – but votes first for one side and then the other. Mairead preserves their marriage because she takes the moral position that separation is not an option. Marcus routinely gives in to the local politicians who force him to make less than ideal engineering decisions

the vast majority of decisions are above board and go through without a hitch, but now and again, there are considerations which have nothing to do with engineering and that’s when you feel your arm being twisted so that

I wonder – I wonder lot’s of things – but I wonder if the author is writing about a type, if Marcus stands in for someone else and not himself. Much of the writing is introspective, reminiscent of our own Gerald Murnane, and it comes as no surprise when Marcus reveals that like Murnane he went from school to seminary. I wonder why McCormack who is a marvellous writer, has written so little, is 50 when this his third is published,  each novel has taken him 10 years, so there’s one answer (and there’s been some short story collections).

World fiction is largely passing me by, but I’m glad I made time for this one. Much is made in commentary of the single sentence – and it’s not a sentence but rather a continuous string of words – which draws you inexorably along, the steps from para to para sometimes clunky, sometimes natural and sometimes poetic. But yes, it works.

 

Mike McCormack, Solar Bones, Canongate, London, 2017 (first pub. Tramp Press, Dublin 2016). I have the cover above but without the disfiguring Man Booker sticker.


*I originally wrote ” (the only story I could find – here – “Cork city’s drinking water is at risk”, is dated after the book was written, make of that what you will).” but have since found – “In 2007, there was an outbreak of waterborne cryptosporidiosis in Galway, which caused illness in over 240 people, and led to the imposition of a boil water notice in Galway for a period of 5 months during the peak tourist season.” and “Cryptosporidium contamination risk led to “boil notices” remaining in place in parts of County Roscommon for approximately six-years from 2009 to 2015.” (here)

21 thoughts on “Solar Bones, Mike McCormack

  1. I don’t think I could deal with this, although I’m about to start Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other which is quite experimentally set out. It amused me to see an Irish book described as ‘world literature’ as it would feel like a local book for me, however much it’s not actually my country. That’s why I love the different perspectives of all the blogs I read!

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    • Yes I love that perspective too. It’s Australia or the World for me. – I think I’ve got Ireland, Wales, UK, France, USA and Canada covered. mmm couple of, ok three, continents missing there. I’d better look out for more bloggers.

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      • there are very few authors from Wales that make an impact on the UK stage let alone the world one so I suspect you’ve read a few of the big names? If you want t suggestions let me know!

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      • Your reviews will do me thank you. But I’ll try and pick up a Welsh audiobook (and then I’ll try and remember what you said about it). You need a Rebus. He seems to be very popular with Perth libraries.

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    • I made a couple of false starts at it because I didn’t want to put it down, pick it up the way I do some books. But it was definitely worth the effort just for the writing, though the content was good too. I’ve got Google Maps up as I type and I see what you mean. Beyond Dublin I have no Irish geography at all. I was trying to come up with the provincial capital where Agnes works and Cork – which I see now is about 200 km away – was my best guess. What do you think? Galway? Limerick?

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      • I actually remember that news story., but I’m pretty sure the book is set in Co Mayo, not Co Galway. Isn’t Crough Patrick mentioned… I have a vague feeling it is… my geography of Ireland is relatively good… Irish roads are something else though… an Irish mile is the equivalent of about three “normal” miles cos the roads are so twisty and convoluted. We holidayed in Co Cork once and it took about 5 hours to get there from Dublin even though it was only about 250km away.

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      • Thanks for putting that effort into replying. Definitely set in County Mayo. But as you worked out, I was looking for a provincial capital an hour away. Windy roads are mentioned, and also I now recall, a fascinating engineering aside about smooth road surfaces in small towns which look nicer but cause cars to slide.

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  2. This sounds so interesting having spent a couple of weeks driving around Ireland with a friend 3 yrs ago. But I am so anal with grammar I struggle with single sentence books. Don’t know if I can handle it. (Chuckle). But other people’s blog posts do help me with this. (Laugh again).

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    • I found it easiest just to deal with as one long poem, which is why I started by reading it out loud to myself. There is of course meaning in the poetic sections but it mostly consists of coherent text and is quite easy to read – the difficulty is in finding a place to pause. I think you’d enjoy it. McCormack conveys a great sense of the landscape.

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  3. I suspect reading this becomes easier and more pleasurable Once you tune into the rhythm. I have a feeling that if I read it I would be so drawn along with the prose that I’d be missing a lot of the significant information.

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    • There’s not that much information in one middle aged man’s life! And there’s almost no drama. I found it surprisingly easy to read, the only difficulty being how to pause, as you are always mid-sentence.

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  4. It’s been a few years since I’ve read a book that took me a while to get into due to the challenges the writer presented with style, but when I do get through one, I feel so accomplished. Books like Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon, The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, and even the commercially successful House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

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