Tuesday 31 May 2016

Solar Bones - Mike McCormack

'Friday, March 22 the day on which my wife was widowed and my two children lost their father, the day my name was unhinged from the man who owned it'

It is said that the dead may return to earth once a year on All Souls’ Day, November 2. Solar Bones, Mike McCormack’s first full-length novel since 2005, is the story of one such visit. Told in a one sentence stream of consciousness, the novel blends the personal and political, linking one family’s fortunes to the wider state of the nation.

While stream of consciousness is generally associated with realism, the reader quickly becomes aware of a heightened state of awareness - 'Some twitchy energy in the ether which has affected me from the moment those bells began to toll, something flitting through me, a giddiness drawing me'. There is a religious element to this feeling ('these grey days after Samhain when the souls of the dead are bailed from purgatory for a while by the prayers of the faithful so that they can return to their homes'), but also a more earthy sort of mysticism, closely tied to the sense of place; McCormack’s narrator, Marcus Conway, can talk of 'the village in which I can trace my seed and breed back to a time when it was nothing more than a ramshackle river crossing of a few smoky hamlets clustered around a forge'.

The uneasy relationship between rationalism and faith is developed in Conway’s character. An engineer, Conway is immersed in the practical details which underpin the world around him. Despite this, his rationalism is, at times, undermined by folk memory of ghosts, the inescapable history of his town. We learn that he originally intended to study for the priesthood, and that his time at seminary prepared him for meeting his wife Mairead, 'a girl steeped in French existentialism... who, if you don't play your cards right, will tell you to piss off in three different romance languages.'

The idea of rationalism undermined by tradition is extended then to apply to the whole country of Ireland. Conway sees his efforts to maintain the country’s superstructure, schools, roads and bridges, undermined by graft, people wanting favours (a streetlight in the middle of a field so a farmer can feed his animals at night), residents associations asking for their roads to be surfaced with unsuitable materials so that they will look good in photographs. His expertise is routinely treated as an annoyance by politicians looking for quick fixes and vote-winning successes.

Whilst these issues may be passed off as personal annoyances, deeper cracks in the social fabric are being revealed. The country is still feeling the after-effects of the banking crisis, 'the night the whole banking system almost collapsed and the entire country came within a hair's breadth of waking the following morning to empty bank accounts'. The papers are filled with stories of civil disobedience, most prominently the story of a hunger striker protesting against an energy company running a pressurised gas pipeline through North Mayo, which recasts international companies as the new colonising force in Ireland. Finally, Conway’s wife becomes one of hundreds of people infected by Cryptosporidosis, a water-borne virus from sewage contaminating the supply. Citizens are being put in physical danger by their government’s disregard.

In spite of this dystopian atmosphere, though, McCormack is aware of the importance of routine as a unifying factor, the 'daily rites, rhythms and rituals upholding the world like solar bones' - one of which is the death notices on Midwest Radio. Conway listens to these notices in community with 'all those other people in the parish who were doing exactly the same thing, sitting in their kitchens and listening to that rolling litany of names tapering out into infinity'. Unofficial ties like this will prove harder to break than any legislation a government might pass – a point also explored in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission.

Solar Bones is a fascinating book, exploring the intersections between faith and reason, between routine and disorder. McCormack’s prose is excellent throughout, and he handles the personal and political themes of the novel equally well. I admit to being in philosophical sympathy with the idea of the ghost who haunts him old home out of a sense of habit. There is a sense of resigned anger running through Solar Bones, but also hints of something darker to come, a younger generation rebelling forcefully against the state their parents have bequeathed to them. This is a timely, thoughtful and entertaining novel, a reflective counterpoint to recent Irish state of the nation books like Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle.

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