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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 head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia