Mike McCormack’s novel Solar Bones can be regarded as of a piece with the resurgence of Irish neo-modernism, enacted variously by writers such as Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh and Claire Louise-Bennett. The motivations underpinning neo-modernism in other sectors, be it the academy, poetry, performance art and architecture, are highly varied and will not be treated in full here. I would contend that these writers in particular have advanced modernist aesthetics in the name of a feminist agenda, deterritorialising the masculinist stylistic tropes formerly associated with writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett et al. and putting it to radical political ends. McCormack’s modernism, I argue, aligns him more closely with his Anglophone peer Will Self, who tends to distillate their writing through quite academic notions of ‘what ‘proper’ modernism shouldlook like’. Self, in his war against the modern reader and their smartphone, seems to have adopted modernism as a rearguard action against post-modernity’s fallout, seeing it as the only means of producing ‘a new classicism’. This formalist objective has the effect that some of the texts in his modernist trilogy can take on the shape of a normative or flatpack modernism. Solar Bones, far from being as schematic as Umbrella,neverthelessengages very deliberately with the notion of the individual in society and how that broader ‘mass’ might best be understood from a narrative perspective, belying its distillation through quite scholarly theories of ‘what modernism is’.
It should be noted that, contrary to many, many reviews reporting the opposite, Solar Bones is not composed of one long sentence.Solar Bonescontains paragraphs, margins, and the rhythm is always subject to an intensely calculated amount of control, which renders the text an eminently readable one. What these paragraphs do facilitate, is a break with chronological time, and any given blank space might bring the reader anywhere from ‘the present’, an hour in the life of the novel’s protagonist Marcus Conway, to his childhood, his late adolescence, or an average working day before the event of his retirement. This disconnectedness exists less to fragment than to illuminate, to represent Galway as existing within a global totality, with references to news events such as the transmission of H5N1 across species barriers, car bombings in Baghdad, pessimistic economic forecasts, or the west of Ireland’s unconstructed water infrastructure inert on a drawing board in Ottawa. His games with time and space allow McCormack to realise in novelistic form, the impersonal political and economic forces which govern the life of every citizen in the state, as in this paragraph in which his daughter’s birth certificate is signed:
it fixed her within a political structure which undertook to spend a percentage of its GDP on her health and her education and her defence among other things and over twenty years later I can still feel something of that mysterious pride which swept through me as I sat there behind the steering wheel, the uncanny feeling that my child was elevated into something above being my daughter or my own flesh and blood — there was a metaphysical reality to her now — she had stepped into that political index which held a space for her in the state’s mindfulness, a place that was hers alone and could not be occupied by anyone else
The quotation above is indicative of a scope and ambition of Solar Bones, rarely glimpsed elsewhere in Irish fiction, which allows McCormack to delve into issues such as emigration, without dependence on prior convention, and present a convincing portrait of late-stage capitalism, a mode of production in which his son Darragh, has far less in the way of career prospects than he did, and the steady paternalist order which he represents, is slowly fading away. All of this serves to make McCormack a novelist as good as bringing politics into conversation with literature which refracts reality as anyone writing in Ireland today (Anne Enright aside).
One might almost frame the style as the realisation of the dialectic in literary form, minutely tuned to the mechanics of action, reaction, stimulus and response. This is not to say that it is immune to being overcooked at times, ‘giddy fit of enraged irrationality’ being just one example. McCormack’s cadences can be so expertly balanced that he winds up in a compulsive even-handedness. Solar Bones thereby becomes a machine for the reproduction of its own style, which enacts in turn a significant number of exclusions, constructions and silences. The political ramifications of this are most visible when Marcus describes his son’s concept of a role-playing game based on the H-Block hunger strikes in the eighties:
all his night spent poring over accounts of the hunger strike till he had amassed a broad and detailed comprehension of the background material and the complex political context in which the strike occurred with all its ebbs and flows, all its moves and countermoves
All these ebbs, flows, moves and countermoves produce a gentle and rocking inflection which imply that the conflict was in some sense equal, rather than determined by coercion exerted by the British state and the desperate strategies which arise in response to occupation. Another example, when Marcus speaks about his voting preferences:
I have, through the years, voted left, right and centre, each time doing so with some shade of that solemn meeting at the gable of the house renewing itself and prompting me, time and again that sense of consequence which attends putting a stroke on a ballot paper coming to me in the prvacy of the voting booth as it did
Here we see the return of the gentle, rolling and rollicking, and elegant dip and bend, precise whirling and turning and ripping and riving and jumping and jiving of the sentence almost weaving in and out before our eyes, as though the choices being weighed up in the voting booth were somehow neutral; when society is viewed as being interconnected, and subject to thermodynamic laws of reaction/counter-reaction, everything is flattened, and class struggle is nowhere to be seen.
It is through Marcus’ vocation as an engineer and his increasing disenchantment with Irish politics, its failed attempts to make manifest an authentic spirit of social democracy that the book’s political disposition is most legible. Twice in the text, Marcus’ expertise is frustrated by gombeen men, aspiring parliamentarians and councillors pushing a parish-pump agenda, trying to get their photographs taken on the front of local newspapers to secure re-election rather than building a sustainable infrastructure. At one point the gombeen politician begins to sound like Marcus’ parochial cosmology, which I don’t think was the intended effect:
I’ve spent the last three years trying to build an electoral base in the south-west corner of this county, the largest and most far-flung constituency in the whole country — leaflets, clinics, church gate collections — the whole lot, anything to harvest a quota of first preferences in an area with no major urban centre, just a few scattered villages, an area which is, by and large covered with some of the wildest bogs and the highest mountains in the whole province, an area populated in the main by black-faced sheep, none of whom, to the best of my knowledge has the vote, because if they did I would be sitting on a nice fat surplus…till then I have to take to the highways and the byways of this country for funerals and festivals
highways/byways, funerals/festivals, ebbs/flows, moves/countermoves…
This even-handedness is most detectable in the novel’s representation of the 1977 general election, the year in which the Fine Gael/Labour coalition was wiped out by Fianna Fáil under Jack Lynch. However, no party, nor key political figure is named. Instead we get euphemisms such as ‘law and order party’, ‘blue and green’. This may sound unfair on McCormack, and may well be due to Ireland’s libel laws, but I feel very strongly that it is a tremendous loss to Irish literature that Liam Cosgrave does not appear in a televised address during the biggest failure of his political career, or indeed during the campaign when he pledged to run down English elements of our commentariat like ‘mongrel foxes’, which is to say nothing of how much hay he could have made with Labour TD James Tully’s catastrophic attempts to re-draw the national constituency boundaries in advance of the election. In occasions such as this the form of the novel seems to be at odds with its attempt to make a serious political intervention; while the novel does the local and the global well, the national between these layers seems to be missed.
I find this novel’s choice to elide all the systems at work on the national level, while representing and naming two incompetent and cynical gombeen men and thereby implicitly diagnose irish politics’ problem as a populist spirit aiming at fulfilling the grubby wishes of unwashed rural voter unfortunate, and too much an outgrowth of views expressed in many sectors of our media, both national and private. Marcus isn’t a saint, but i’d argue the novel positions him as a benevolent philosopher king, capable of making long-term decisions that our political system of proportional representation cannot. This is attested to by his narrative ability to zoom out and ‘go cosmic’, both throughout the body of the novel (the mundane nature of everyday reality and memory considered through the screen of modernist sentencing expanding and expanding until its takes on the shape of a window into the universal) and at its end, when he begins to sense the beginning of a communion with God, ‘a fellow engineer’.
This is underlined by the fact that his wife remains, like Molly Bloom, very much rooted in the physical, the only time she touches the face of the divine is, quite revealingly in my view, in the context of ‘fucking the world into redemption’. Her being infected with the cryptosporidium parasite (her various physical ailments, discharges receives no small amount of narrative attention) places her in the realm of the fleshly, which is to say nothing of the young attractive waitress Marcus eyes up for a bit too long in a café towards the end. (Please, please, please, can I never read another novel where a middle-aged man lustily eyes up a young woman). Women have bodies, they are flesh, associated with food, sex, sickness and warmth, men are cold, have thoughts, think about politics, eventualities, the future, what roads are made of, they’re Angry, but in a way that’s somehow Important. Men’s thoughts are the stuff of novels, while women undress themselves, parade naked in the streets performing inscrutable (and perhaps frivolous) performance art and create installations.
I am, in case this is not clear, talking about Marcus’ daughter, Agnes. Agnes is a visual artist, whose major work takes the form of a sequence of excerpts from local newspapers:
when I got him to the ground, Your Honour, I administered
we have stood by him even though he has caused us untold grief
a series of consecutive slaps, Your Honour
which appear to Marcus as follows:
the red script which covered the entire gallery from ceiling to floor along its length, handwriting in various types and sizes, a continuous swathe of text…all dealing with court cases which covered the full gamut from theft and domestic violence to child abuse, public order offences, illegal grazing on protected lands, petty theft, false number plates, public affray, burglary, assault and drink-driving offences…rising and falling in swells and eddies through various sizes and spacings, congested in the tight rhythms of certain examples only to swell out in crashing typographical waves in others, a maelstrom of voices and colour
Now, for me, this description amounts to nothing less than the text’s repressed stylistic unconscious, and its attempts to put a shape onto the restlessness of postmodern experience breaking through the polished, male, modernist veneer. The maelstrom of voices, the subterranean accounts of voiceless victims of state exclusion battling with The Great Narrative of the Declining Man; it’s no wonder Marcus nearly gets sick and has to leave the gallery. Marcus is an old-fashioned realist, who dislikes his son use of the term ‘onto-political’ and rubbishes revolutionary proposals for political change because he views it as impossible to get hard-nosed rural voters on board with workers’ soviets. He prefers instead the causality of modernist time, the supra-structure, after which the novel is named:
upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible from the moment I get up in the morning and stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea in my hand, watching the first cars of the day passing on the road, every one of them known to me
It would be great to see McCormack’s next work take on issues related to the troika and the recession, one in which would require him to name names, and might pressure a narrator such as Marcus to investigate the root causes behind the normative governing structures of the country he’s representing being put under greater and greater levels of pressure.