Written as one sentence, broken or blocked as 217 pages, Solar Bones early on foreshadows its gradual revelation. So does the blurb on the back of the jacket cover, according to British and Irish audiences. (That giveaway is also on the advance American galley, so I assume either the author endorses this promotion or acquiesces about that publicity.) Whether readers learn early on or try to resist knowing the endgame, Mike McCormack’s audience overseas may increase. For this made the latest Man Booker Prize shortlist, the novel having already won awards in his native Ireland.
The narrator’s headlong rush and gasp recalls Samuel Beckett’s put-upon protagonists. Middle-aged Marcus Garvey waits for his wife to come home from work in the author’s native coastal town of Louisburgh in County Mayo. There, All Souls’ Day commemorates those faithfully departed. The Angelus bell tolls noon. Marcus’ return to his kitchen “vigil” appears well-timed. He stands “pale and breathless after coming a long way to stand in this kitchen confused no doubt about that.”
The story shares his thoughts spilling out. He begins, amid “some twitchy energy in the ether”, to bemoan the fate of “a county with a unique history of people starving and mortifying themselves for higher causes and principles.” These, however foolhardy or lofty, have subsided in post-boom Ireland into a bleak routine of conniving politicians pleasing fickle voters, and corrupt contractors riding the pork barrel. Within this malaise, Marcus muses about his children and muddles along with his wife.
This novel tracks a “memorial arc which curves from childhood to the present moment”. McCormack weaves in a stream-of-consciousness “skein of connections” which trace “this circular dream-time of chaos”. As in dream-time, chronology surrenders to the threatened tug of “oblivion”. This force pulls all creation into “the raging tides and swells of non-being”, and along with waterways and peaks, “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, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible.” That day as a holy day resonates.
For Marcus, lapsed Catholic as he is, conjures up his thoughts of “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 and the light is awash with ghouls and ghosts and the meaning between this world and the next is so blurred we might easily find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the dead, the world fuller than at any other time of the year, as if some sort of spiritual sediment had been stirred up and things set adrift which properly lie at rest, the light swarming with those unquiet souls whose tormented drift through these sunlit hours we might sense out of the corner of our eye or on the margins of our consciousness.” This evoked sediment and drift suits the storyline.
A viral outbreak poisons the regional water supply: “the citizens were consuming their own shit, the source of their own illness and there was something fatally concentric and self-generating about this, as if the virus had circled back to its proper home where it settled in for its evolutionary span, rising through degrees of refinement every time it went round the U-bend, gradually gaining on some perfection — hardiness and resistance and so on — with god-knows-what results, probably reaching such a degree of refinement that it would become totally resistant to every antidote and we would be host to this new life form, and at this point I wondered.” His brooding drags him down professionally and personally, provoking his latest, sharpest burst of resentment. His wife, Mairead, had succumbed to the illness, not fatal but debilitating. Long passages in the center section of Solar Bones relate in sordid detail the revolt of her body against contagion. Technology fails, for it cannot fend off disease.
Gradually, the inciting incident driving Marcus to his present predicament arrives. McCormack delays much his audience expects to know, letting hints and asides portend complications which, when more exposed, do not surprise much. Instead, they sink into the reader’s word-logged mind. Solar Bones rewards immersion. McCormack plunges readers into the folly of present-day Ireland.
Three Mayo I.R.A. men, one in 1940 and two in 1974, had starved themselves to death “for flag and country” in English prisons. Their martyrdom, “so late in the twentieth century” in Marcus’ rueful estimation, contrasts with what the narrator castigates as a nation now resigned to the shoddy and shallow. The gap deepens between idealism and compromise. He senses “everything off a degree or two, this slight imprecision all around me”. This time out of joint takes shape in the very profession of which Marcus has for a quarter-century taken pride. A civil engineer, he draws bridges and maps precisely the angles where pipes will run, water will flow, and stone-walled roads narrow or slacken.
He mulls over the latest local provocation. Refusing to sign off on a dangerous pour of concrete under the new local school under construction, Marcus confronts the twinned contempt of his neighbors. For the party hack representing the sparely peopled southwest corner of a vast, desperate Irish county backs the school scheme to keep restive residents content. The bosses of the vying firms which divide up the laying of the school foundation cut a deal with the politicians in the name of jobs and votes.
Against this opposition of business and state, Marcus cannot compete. When the weather changes enough and the school’s walls shift enough, that building will tear itself apart in three directions. The triple concrete differs in its wood frames, divvied out to keep rival contractors at bay in a precarious economy. Marcus approved one single pour, ensuring safe consistency, but his bid is firmly rejected.
No wonder that in this rancid atmosphere, the water threatens and the earth shifts. Marcus perceives “a grating dread which seems so determined to conceal its proper cause.” Around him, security and morality decay. Furthermore, he cannot shake off that there persists “still something twitchy and indistinct about this day.”
After an event which the reader learns explains much of Marcus’ unease, McCormack hurries his long-suffering Everyman into an envisioned realm with “faces and words and all sorts of fragments falling through me in staggered, interleaved depths with nothing behind them except some dark oblivion which threatens to suck me down into it, some black gravity which pulls at me, dragging at the tips of my fingers so that to dwell on it any longer might cause me to slip from myself completely for the want of something solid to focus on.” The apt situation into which McCormack plunges his choice for a raw voice emerges as a fitting symbol of an engineer’s bitter rejection and, more suggested than elaborated, the predicament of everyday Irish people cut loose from security.
Marcus near the close of the novel finds himself “suspended in a kind of stalled duration, an infinitely extended moment spinning like an unmeshed gear, a stillness which no knife will blunt, no mirror will tarnish, no paint will peel, no hunger will grasp my belly nor will I ever have to shave as time itself could decay here, lapse in such a way as to leave this place like some stagnant inverse realm.” McCormack chooses a bold, if appropriate, moment to conclude his tale. It may be its inevitable end.
Similar to certain Beckett prose pieces, the speaker of this torment spews out in mundane, poetic, then scabrous or spiritual rants his longings. The thrust of his existential production pushes the pace to a vivid climax, amid terrible awe. Its print layout may daunt a browser, but anyone who can handle at least parts of James Joyce will be borne along by McCormack’s waves of description. A generation and more ago. Don De Lillo’s White Noise presaged the invisible danger labeled an “airborne toxic event”. Solar Bones tips such dread beneath Marcus and his neighbors, where doom looms to haunt.