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4 July 2016

Bedad he revives: why Solar Bones is a resurrection for Irish modernism

Like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, Mike McCormack finds glory in the banal with a new novel set on All Soul's Day.

By Stephanie Boland

It has becoming something of a truism recently to note the resurgence of the experimental Irish novel. Not without justification: if Ireland’s twentieth-century literary output is often feted as one which inaugurated a new strain of literary modernism, of which James Joyce’s Ulysses is the most cited example, closely followed by Samuel Beckett and, increasingly, Flann O’Brien, then recent novels like Eimear McBride’s acclaimed A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, markedly influenced by her reading of Joyce, have been widely seen as marking a return to (radical) form.

Though it’s tiresome to invoke the same ghosts, the style of Solar Bones, the third novel from Mike McCormack, invites familiar comparisons. Written in a single, sparsely-punctuated stream of consciousness flow broken only by line breaks – and those unexpectedly placed – McCormack’s writing is the latest in a growing canon of literature which draws self-consciously on an Irish modernist heritage to tackle contemporary concerns.

The novel’s conceit is simple. On All Soul’s Day, when folk wisdom has it that the wall between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its flimsiest, Mayo man Marcus Conway materialises in the kitchen of his erstwhile family home to the chime of the Angelus bell, ringing out over its villages and townlands, over the fields and hills and bogs in between, six chimes of three across a minute and a half, a summons struck on the lip of the void”. While he waits for his family to come home he runs over the events of their lives, from meeting his wife Mairead, to the births of daughter Agnes and émigré son Darragh, as well as his work as an engineer in the civil service.

If this premise sounds straightforward, however, it is used for complex ends. Two municipal emergencies shape the book: one concerning the delayed repair of a bridge whose collapse has cut off a group of farmers, the other a public health crisis caused by a tainted water supply which has hospitalised hundreds and left Mairead vomiting and bedridden, “trembling . . .within a humid haze”.

As these twin motifs recur in Marcus’ thoughts the weight of each builds, giving a much-needed emotional depth to the book’s lengthy – and sometimes, when issued by Darragh over Skype, dense – discussions of how the individual relates to the state. Mairead has always found voting “a necessary nuisance”, but now Marcus thinks of “engineering and politics converging in the slight figure of my wife lying in bed”. That Solar Bones’ publication in Ireland follows a prolonged General Election process marked by debates over the taxation of water makes its portrayal of bureaucracy’s impact all the more compelling. When Darragh tells his father that people are particularly angry because water is “the very stuff of life itself”, it feels like a wink.

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This careful interplay of political theory and personal feeling is just one of Solar Bones’ balancing acts. In a 2012 London Review of Books essay, Colm Toíbín – whose vivid portrayals of family life could be another influence on the novel – characterised Ulysses as an exceptionally synthesising novel and O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds an exceptionally disassembling one. Solar Bones is both: a work whose intricate structure is in careful tension with the free-form garrulousness of its narrator.

Scholars are fond of pointing out how the structure of Thomas Hardy’s novels is a product of their author’s architectural training. Solar Bones’ design is a consequence of Marcus’ profession. His thoughts are anchored with an engineer’s precision to the shared patterns of daily life, from the Angelus bell to the pips of various news broadcasts, drawing the reader – listening along with him – into the cycle of his day.

“Experimental interior monologue” may not be words often uttered in the same breath as “page-turner”. Yet what looks like haphazard enjambment quickly turns into the sort of rhythmic writing which is difficult to put down. This is prose that reads as if it is being thought, and although it is absurd to admit to being moved by punctuation, the ellipses which appear for the first time in the novel’s final pages as Marcus’ thoughts begin to break down, after over two hundred pages spent among the quotidian details of his life, reduced me to tears.

The voice of the dead constituting the entirety of the text also has precedent in Irish literature, from Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s graveyard chorus in Cré na Cille to Beckett’s “trilogy”. Yet neither so skilfully interrogates how individual lives are lived among the citizens of a state. This latest addition to a growing canon of experimental Irish writing reminds us that, when you get down to the bones of it, the rhythms of the banal are what brings us together.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack is published by Tramp Press (244pp, €15/£12)

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies