Solar Bones by Mike McCormack – book review

by James Robins / 04 October, 2017
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Mike McCormack: prose that rearranges your mental furniture.

A novel in one perfect sentence puts its Irish writer up there with Joyce, Beckett and McBride.

Poets slow the world down and freeze it, Martin Amis once said. They examine a crystallised moment in language where every word must count and pay its own way. Poetry, in other words, gives you “a view of an individual heart”.

So it is in Mike McCormack’s novel Solar Bones. The book, longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, opens with the stuttered chime of the Angelus Bell on All Souls Day, when the living dutifully pause for the dead. Everything seems to have halted with this tolling “as if all its pulses and rhythms have been swept from it so that time itself is legless here with all things, myself included, suspended in a kind of stalled duration, an infinitely extended moment spinning like an unmeshed gear …”

Our narrator is a modest middle-aged engineer named Marcus Conway, living in County Mayo in Ireland’s rugged west. He tumbles into a reverie sitting at his kitchen table, borne back to fragmented memories of his life: watching his father tinker with a tractor; attending his daughter’s first art exhibition; conflicts with civil authorities and local politicians; caring for his wife struck down by a virus carried in the city’s water supply.

Through these remembered slivers we travel, propelled breathlessly forward by the novel’s ambitious conceit: the whole thing is composed of a single sentence, with sparse punctuation and only line breaks to denote paragraphs. (There is another structural conceit too, revealed on the back-cover blurb of the book’s early foreign editions but best kept secret here.)

Far from a gimmick, this device gives the book a pulsing quality, like an incantation summoning ghosts from obscured depths, “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 …”

McCormack’s prose is perfect in pitch and gorgeously musical. Its constant flow has the radical effect of rearranging all your mental furniture as you read, overturning notions of how English should be written. This realignment bleeds into real life, altering the pattern of thoughts. It is a rare thing to be so physically moved by mere words. Such a sensation should be cherished.

Perhaps even more impressive is the originality and clarity of McCormack’s thoughts. He has the enviable skill of looking at the mundane rigours of ordinary life from fresh angles. Sometimes, the result is agonisingly tender, such as when Marcus sees his adult daughter and imagines that “had Mairead and myself never come together as husband and wife, Agnes would still have contrived to exist and be exactly who she was …”

For all this, McCormack must take his place alongside other Irish geniuses such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Eimear McBride as an immovable pillar of English literature. Solar Bones is a masterful and transcendent work, its individual heart frozen in time.

SOLAR BONES, by Mike McCormack (Canongate, $22.99)

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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