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Mike McCormack: “British fiction is dominated by an intellectual conservatism”

The 2016 Goldsmiths Prize winner on engineers, Solar Bones, and why Irish writers have to translate themselves.

When I read Solar Bones, for review in these pages in July, I knew Mike McCormack had managed something special. Opening with the chime of the Angelus Bell, here was a novel which tapped into the most enduring interests of Irish literary fiction – hauntings; fathers and inheritence; Catholicism; the limitations and possiblities of writing in English – yet became more than the sum of its familiar parts.

It is one long monologue, but a Molly Bloom-style torrent it is not. A finely cantilevered piece of writing which reminds one as much of Thomas Hardy’s architectural leanings as of the Joyce-O’Brien-Beckett line of inheritence, Solar Bones stuns.

It has been a long time since I’ve been nervous about interviewing an author, but McCormack’s literary skill had me on edge. (There was, of course, no need to worry: as with many people who are very good at what they do, talking literature with McCormack is a pleasure). A fierce advocate of small publishers and Irish writing, he spoke about working with Tramp Press, the value of the Goldsmiths Prize, and why he has been taking inspiration from the essays of Martin Heidegger.

What’s the value of the Goldsmiths Prize?

In a time of cultural conservatism, and when prize judges so often go for something so off-the-rack, it’s important to have a space for more angular and experimental writing to be recognised, and it’s edifying to be part of that.

What does “innovative” or “experimental” writing allow you to do that more conventional form might not?

It casts the world at a different light, and at a different angle. Hopefully you walk away from the book and you experience a part of the world that you haven’t encountered before. Hopefully it illuminates something new about the world and also, about what books are capable of.

Why did you set Solar Bones in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland?

It’s because I know it. More accurately, it’s not just Mayo, but it’s a very small part of Mayo, and it’s a part that I know really well. I always think my work is speculative and conjectural, and therefore it has to have some starting point, and that starting point is that small area around the town of Louisburgh I know very well. Once I have that area under my feet, once I’m sure and certain of that area, I have no problem writing about ghosts, or about spaceships, aliens, robots – anything becomes possible. It’s familiar in the sense of knowledge, and of certainty.

Why is that area producing so much innovative fiction? For example, the Goldsmiths Prize has been won twice by writers from the west of Ireland. 

In Ireland, our pinnacle, our Mount Rushmore, is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost: James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett. And it feels like we’re digesting their legacy. I don’t know if it’s something about being able to see them clearly now, but people are no longer afraid to name-check the three masters. My generation were a bit wary of picking up the challenge those old fellows had laid down for us. Now I see it not as a challenge, but a license. Beckett and Joyce and Flann are giving me the quest: go forth and experiment. A younger generation of writers has twigged that a lot faster. This is a really exciting time: for the first time in my lifetime, there’s been a rejuvenation of the experimental pulse in Irish fiction.

Which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

Tim Park’s Destiny. Because no other novel that I know of has brought me so close to the pressures of lived life. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read in recent years that filled me with envy.

Your book and others on the shortlist have been published by small, independent imprints.

Small publishers have been brave. Even if you see last year’s winner, Kevin Barry, that was published by a small, independent press in Scotland.

Also, this year’s texts have come almost entirely through Irish editors. When I went to Tramp Press with the book, they took me out to lunch, and they sat across the table from me and they talked about the book. They were so lucid, clear, courageous and enthusiastic about the book. I knew immediately it had found its proper home. I’ve sat with editors in big English publishing houses, and American publishing houses. What I didn’t know, when I was doing that, is the degree to which Irish writers find themselves explaining themselves to British and American editors.

Irish writers are selling their books into what is one of the most conservative literary cultures in the world, into Britain. British novels, British fiction, is dominated by an intellectual conservatism. When you are with Tramp Press, you find yourself understood to a degree which is quite extraordinary. You find yourself in a far more comfortable place. In retrospect, I’m struck by how willing we are to translate and explain ourselves. It’s almost second nature to us as a culture caught between Britain and America. We’re continually fucking explaining and translating and that.

There’s a whole generation of successful Irish writers who have never had this experience because they’ve never had a book published by an Irish publisher. Above anything, that was the value of the experience. They are hands down the best people I’ve worked with in the trade.

What books influenced the style of Solar Bones?

I really don’t know. If you read, for instance, Destiny, you’ll find it’s the complete opposite, stylistically. It’s very twitchy. My one is more singular and continuous.

The things that came to my mind when I was writing were essays by Martin Heidegger. The style of those essays was influential in that Heidegger created a logical sense out of repetition a repetition a swirling rhythms. They’re the biggest influence on Solar Bones. I’m not a good Heidegger scholar, but I was very immersed in those essays for a long time.

Stylistically, the book I always refer to is The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez – it’s the best example of how to write long sentences.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’ve always admired men who make things. I’ve always admired carpenters and engineers. I’m actually a failed engineer. 

The book bridges two temporal markers: the divine marker, the angelus ball, and the temporal marker, the news. That was the recurring image of the book – the engineering of a bridge. Solar Bones is a hymn to engineers.

“Solar Bones” is published by Tramp Press.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, announced on 9 November, will appear in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder