Solar Bones
by Mike McCormack (2016)
Soho Press (2017)
224 pp

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, the middle of
          the day bell, the Angelus bell in the middle of the day, ringing out
          through the grey light to
          standing in the kitchen
          hearing this bell
          snag my heart and draw the whole world into”

I imagine quite a few potential readers of Solar Bones, having heard all the plaudits, picking the book up at the local bookshop, reading those introductory lines and finally not bothering, their assumption that the book is too “experimental,” prompting them to replace it on the shelf and opt for something less tricky.

When in fact that introduction doesn’t especially represent what follows. Although Solar Bones is unquestionably one uninterrupted 220-page sentence, it settles down to and establishes a relatively seamless and hypnotic rhythm, all punctuation provided by overlapping lines. The need for punctuation in any case largely negated by the glacial immersion demanded.

Capsule verdict: Solar Bones would be a just Booker Prize winner. There’s no better technical offering nor a more substantial read elsewhere on the longlist, the only serious competitor being Lincoln in the Bardo. Also: a win would give Mike McCormack a few quid and presumably a bit of breathing space to hone the next effort. His latest is a deeply felt, discursive celebration of Life, as sentimental as that might sound, and is unquestionably art of the highest order. It regularly resembles both John Burnside and W.G. Sebald, two writers similarly haunted by many of McCormack’s preoccupations.

A man sits at his kitchen table trying to corral together his life, and does so by ruminating on the past, present and future. The snag being: he’s dead, and isn’t quite sure of the fact at first. Over the course of the novel he will understand, and in the process he will piece together some kind of legacy, a sad one he wants to amend but can’t.

It’s a meandering, diffuse novel, a series of traumatized, ambivalent dispatches. There is clarity at the end but no peace. Recurrent motifs dovetail in and out of focus like intermittent, wavering radio signals, myriad disturbances jostling for prominence. Topography, how we negotiate physical and psychological placement and displacement (rarely running in tandem), identity, interpersonal relationships, communication, free will, travel, the political state of nations: all are entwined and all are mutable to powers, as McCormack would have it, just beyond our ken, and our struggles with such matters are ultimately impossible to fully reckon with. The state in which narrator Marcus finds himself during and beyond these quietly maddened pages seems to involve his dispensing with some of the stuff of life, rather than making his peace, sifting through his by now finished place in the physical world, discerning and dividing the illusory and the tangible. He seems fated to extend his purgatorial state indefinitely.

It’s often a topical novel: the financial collapse is an exemplification of our weaknesses, our inability to prepare. We’re fundamentally foolish, destined to bedevil ourselves with ego, with short-termism and short-sightedness. There’s a harrowed insistence that the different strata of evolution – technological, biological, political, social, cultural — are wildly out of sync, that the different sub-levels of existence are subject to widening gulfs. Our limbo-stricken protagonist seems particularly susceptible to fluctuations in and apparitions of elemental powers, feeling marginal shifts in the nuances of voltage and water-thrum, all the usually shrouded subtleties of a world’s running, as though his languished state has rendered him privy to undercurrents and stirrings to which the corporeal are mercifully obscured. Nonetheless, this is a vantage point from which he can provide no solutions. He is picking over wounds that can now neither further bleed nor heal.

for clarity’s sake this article is illustrated by a sidebar which gives some indication of   just how outsized the nation’s financial folly was in the years leading up to the   collapse, debt piling up till it ran to tens of billions, incredible figures for a small   island economy, awe-inspiring magnitudes which shifted forever the horizons of what   we thought ourselves liable for and which now, stacked on top of each other like this   — all those zeroes, glossy and hard, so given to viral increase – appear like the indices   and magnitudes of a new cosmology, the forces and velocities of some barren, inverse   world — a negative realm that, over time, will suck the life out of us, that collapse   which happened without offering any forewarning of itself, none that any of our   prophets picked up on anyway as they were all apparently struck dumb and blind,   robbed of all foresight when surely this was the kind of catastrophe prophets should   have an eye for or some foreknowledge of but didn’t since it is now evident in   hindsight that our seers’ gifts were of a lesser order, their warnings lowered to a   tremulous bleating, the voices of men hedging their bets and without the proper pitch   of hysterical accusation as they settled instead for fault-finding and analysis,   that cautionary note which in the end proved wholly inadequate to the coming disaster

The narrator’s drifting, elliptical focus alights on those matters that plague him still beyond the grave. Aptly enough, the contingency and agency of the body is plentifully mulled upon. There is a returning curiosity at blanks in memory, in moments lived and immediately lost, journeys traveled that leave no trace beyond departure and arrival points.

There is more than a suggestion here that much of our existence is imaginary, that most of our lives may never properly occur. It’s hard to know how much of this is wish-fulfillment as opposed to philosophical inquiry; he cannot fathom any of a returning journey from his parents-in-law to rescue his marriage after his own act of self-sabotage. How much of us is self-creation, or even non-existent? Marcus asks. So much of us is barely there. He marvels over the Skype image of his son onscreen from the other side of the world, never fully believing it’s more than pixels he’s talking to; at the transformation of his wife, Mairead, as she endures a shocking illness, an illness that abruptly brings together the personal with the political. All is subject to change but human nature and the process of disintegration. If McCormack has a theme we can concisely encapsulate, it’s how things placed in juxtaposition accrue meaning, in particular people, and how they become part of a world that often seems arbitrary or illusory, and always strange. It’s a world in which administration and the attentions of the state both lend solidity to and draw uniqueness out of the individual, but where that individual means both less and more than is imagined.

I saw drawn up before my eyes in a little office down the hall from the maternity ward of the county hospital, a single-page document which told me that now my child was completely realised and that

the seal had been set on her identity as an Irish citizen, who, although less than four days old, was nevertheless the point of all the massive overarching state apparatus   within which she could live out her life as a free and self-determining individual, the protective structure of a democracy which she in turn would uphold as a voter, a   consumer, a patient, a student, a banking customer, a taxpayer and so on while   gathering to herself all those ID cards and certificates that would enable her draw down all the benefits of being born a free child of a republic, accessing education and medicine and bank accounts and library books, all of these rights devolving from

her birth certificate, the source document, which was drawn up for her in a small office at the end of the hall, the cramped space shelved to the roof with files and records and lit by a single fluorescent strip which cast down a hard light on the head of the smiling lady with large arms who took down my details and Mairead’s details and then entered them carefully in a newly opened file before she went to a cupboard and took out a blank certificate which we both signed before she entered some final details on it and then, reading it through one last time to ensure it was complete to her  satisfaction, took a stamp and pressed the state seal onto it before handing it to me with a smile, where I, affected with a deep sense of occasion, found myself reaching out to shake her hand because this surely was how the moment should be marked and

ten minutes later, sitting in the car with Mairead in the back and Agnes in her arms,   I continued to stare at this document

            the document scarcely less miraculous than the child in the way

it fixed her within a political structure which undertook to spend a percentage of its GDP on her health and her education and her defence among other things and over twenty years later I can still feel something of that mysterious pride which swept   through me as I sat there behind the steering wheel, the uncanny feeling that my child was elevated into something above being my daughter or my own flesh and blood – there was a metaphysical reality to her now – she had stepped into that political index which held a space for her in the state’s mindfulness, a place that was hers alone and could not be occupied by anyone else nor infringed on in any way which might blur her identity or smudge her destiny

As an engineer, naturally — towards matters of world-building — Marcus can’t quite get to grip with the stuff of life, by which he is too beguiled and perturbed to truly settle into. Only outside it can he find perspective. He is enraged by his daughter Agnes’s art exhibition, news items she has written out in her own blood on gallery walls, a shock that prompts him to storm out. He’d be much happier with that blood bound by her veins. Yet even as he undergoes such a rapid change in mood, he can’t begin to get to grips with what he is thinking as it occurs and transforms him. His anger baffles him. Clearly there are certain types of engineering he does not want to consider too closely. He is much happier considering impersonal fluidity and flow, the external world in systolic motion, that which is not as malleable or subject to ruin as the human heart.

But there is a sense of futility even in this, the utilitarian stock that makes up a working town and country, as decisions are made that have nothing to do with effectiveness and efficiency and the greater good. And even when things miraculously work, when a house is plumbed perfectly and wired seamlessly, people are blasé, disinterested, or they imagine that such intricacies are too much of a reminder of the inner workings which at any moment might rupture or draw to a halt. They live on the surface, and seem to have an easier time of it than Marcus. There is an ever-present assumption within a functioning community, perhaps an inevitable component necessary for it to properly function, that chaos has been mastered. Marcus is far too close to the nuts and bolts of everything, is too conscious of what lies behind walls and under floorboards, but also how hierarchical systems work, how logic and sense are often secondary.

Different kinds of structures — those joining civilian to the state, man to wife,  parent to child, water to life, bridges to community and functioning cohesion — are dwelt upon. We come away from the novel with, if nothing else, a reminder of all those mutual contingencies that make up a working world, run by mercurial and narcissistic people but following some kind of pattern outside any individual reckoning that articulates in a solid, if still ineffable, manner.

Solar Bones convincingly draws together all the necessarily loose strands of life, closes the gaps between acts and occasions and people, pieces together a singular world emptied of all but yearning and loss, and reinstates a life too abruptly curtailed. It obsessively stitches together convergences that don’t quite meet, intersections that jar, binds together geometrical and metaphysical overlapping points that aren’t quite cohesive. It’s an appalled attempt at tidying up a grand mess — an echo of the fictional art.

Marcus had throughout his life been moored by numerous means, of which one was regular news bulletins. During the day local reports attached him to his communal self, before later international reports fix his place as a citizen of the world. There’s something both wrenching and affirming about this predicament of divvied-up consciousness, that artificial need to belong in such a routine and compartmentalized way. It’s a way of belonging and being present strong enough that he can’t relinquish it even in death. He’s fittingly undone as he clings to that tether, another news bulletin, one he will never fully hear as its consequences are played out for those still subject to its outcome. Even in death he claims seemingly immutable co-ordinates, an eternal place on the map, as much a part of the landscape as any enduring physical structure, finally outside the auspices of time and chronology.

I died in that lay-by

died surrounded by tons of sand and gravel and hard-core with my mouth open in a   black howl to take leave of myself as, without missing a beat my body had already   picked up the rhythms of decay which had begun to work immediately in my soft   flesh, that momentary heat spike which gave way to the falling temperature of rot with   my blood passing from oxygenated red to black as the universal cellular explosions   which bring on that spillage of filth within my organs which will eventually purge   from every orifice of my body even as I found my way home home again to sit at this  table and drift through these rooms

Most great novels don’t bother to stalk resolution or symmetry, and this one accepts its own limitations, knowing that however broad its scope and replete its focus, it can’t capture that towards which it spends its entirety in rueful pursuit. It’s a remarkable feat of, yes, engineering, but its achieved literary aspirations, as a heartfelt explication of living and dying grief, are easily met. It’s a triumph of voice and effect over plot, and a wonderful experience for this reader, but you’ll probably either love it or hate it. And there can only be an unhappy ending for a protagonist who relates that

               what really tormented me was that all this filth and disorder offended my engineer’s  sense of structure, everything out of place and alignment

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