Rob Doyle, ‘Portrait of a universe in dereliction’, review of Solar Bones by Mike McCormack in The Irish Times (7 May 2016)

[Source: Available at The Irish Times (7 May 2016); accessed 14.09.2016.]

Mike McCormack made a name for himself as a punky renegade. His first book, the story collection Getting It in the Head, appeared in the mid-1990s; McCormack’s febrile, brutalist, sci-fi-enhanced aesthetic must have looked aberrant in an Irish literary culture that was even more trenchantly conservative then than it is now. His talents were recognised nonetheless - he was awarded the Rooney Prize for Literature - and an older, wiser McCormack now presents us with his fifth book, and first novel since 2007’s Notes from a Coma.

Solar Bones commences brilliantly: from his home outside the village of Louisburgh in Mayo (also the author’s home town), the middle-aged narrator Marcus casts his vision across a county, a land, a planet, and finally a cosmos in splendorous disarray, all of it running down and spinning out of joint.
Collapse is the leitmotif of this novel: economies, infrastructures, the human body, the very machinery of the stars and galaxies - all of it is unstable, the careless work of a long-absent engineer. The rural West is just one grim shard of a universe in dereliction.

A glance into the newspaper sends Marcus, himself an engineer, down a vortex of associative memory that heavily evokes WG Sebald’s doom-laden ruminations. The recollection of a broken-down tractor rekindles a childhood apprehension of the chaos and fragility of the natural world, “the whole construct humming closer to collapse than I had ever suspected”.

Marcus recalls a visit to the Museum of Torture in Prague (the site of a marital infidelity whose consequences will indeed prove torturous), and is disturbed by the genealogy linking his own profession to the applied science of human agony. The torture machines on display represent “the highest technical expressions of their age, the end to which skilled minds had deployed their noble gifts”.

With such a grim view of human endeavour, Marcus might well have declined to partake in the procreative cycle and opted to fade into non- being. On the contrary, he is a family man.

After the novel’s bold opening, a more familiar structure looms into shape. Gone - for a while - are the apocalyptic visions. The bulk of the novel turns out to be a tour through the domestic life of Marcus, his wife, Mairead, their artist daughter, Agnes, and wisecracking, backpacker son Darragh.

In his portrait of rural life in a troubled 21st century, McCormack dispenses with the creaking artificialities of plot, propelling his narrative instead by associative, digressive means. Marcus goes about his workaday life, vexed by municipal corruption, and recalls events from his life and marriage. A visit to his daughter’s debut exhibition, which features a work composed of her blood, triggers a panic attack.

Meanwhile, civic incompetence results in the spread of cryptosporidium - a viral parasite originating in human faecal matter which causes vomiting and severe diarrhoea. Mairead is afflicted; the joyful carnality of the early years of the couple’s marriage is contrasted with the stench and filth Mairead’s body now generates, to her shame and Marcus’s helplessness.

Despite the Pascalian backdrop of interstellar desolation, this is no rural misery-lit dirge for an imploding family. Marcus’s relationships with his wife and intelligent, young-adult children are loving and reciprocally stimulating.

He banters with his son over Skype about Battlestar Galactica and Radiohead’s Kid A (Marcus is more of a King Crimson man), and treats his kin as his intellectual equals. If the earth is a flimsy, leaking vessel in a fathomless black ocean, perhaps family can provide a temporary reprieve from wreckage.

The spread of the virus and consequent civic unrest casts a speculative-fictional gloss over the roam through Marcus’s memories. As in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, it is the numinous, otherworldly qualities of modern life, rather than some fantastical future, that we are concerned with here.

Not all of the book is equally engaging. Occasionally McCormack over-eggs the entropic pudding, as if anxious to show that he hasn’t abandoned the wilder concerns of his youth in favour of Establishment-friendly, McGahernesque domesticities. Mainly, however, his visionary intensity is not only convincing but spellbinding: the sci-fi imagination has receded, giving way to the awareness that illimitable awe and terror reside right here in the mundane, phenomenal world.

The work of an author in the full maturity of his talent, Solar Bones climaxes in a passage of savage, Gnostic religiosity: the writing catches fire as we draw near to the void, pass over into death itself, and therein confront the truth that even in a fallen universe, when all distractions tumble away, the only adequate response to our being is astonishment.

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