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Father of the Artist

Barry Sheils

Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, Tramp Press, 224 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-0992817091

People are talking about Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones as a modernist novel. I’m not so sure – though there’s surely something of the modernist about his protagonist, Marcus Conway.

A civil engineer by profession, Marcus is adept at literary embodiment, channelling the sensibilities of Kafka and Kundera when a visit to the Museum of Torture in Prague turns to erotic adventure; and half-citing William Blake, via Stephen Dedalus, when describing the cataclysm of collapsing masonry. We first meet him living off the fat of a familiar Irish literary trope: standing at his kitchen table, reading his daily newspaper and listening to the Angelus bell, which he worries might be a radio transmission rather than the “real” thing. A newspaper, the radio: these are early twentieth century technologies, and Marcus is an early twentieth century man, still committed in 2007 to the authenticity of the concrete and the formal beauty of the internal combustion engine.

A further modernist reverence arrives in the form of McCormack’s writing, a stream of eccentrically lineated prose, running from beginning to end without a single full stop. This extended feat has encouraged many of the novel’s early reviewers to hazard a bold, unhistorical identification with the stream of consciousness technique. They’re not entirely wrong, but it is worth pointing out that reading Solar Bones is hardly akin to reading Finnegans Wake or Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses. Comparatively speaking, this is an easy novel to read, lyrical and elegiac in tone, hardly mannered in its style, and though unspooled in its entirety from the memory of one man, never truly disorienting.

In fact what is most striking about the form is how multiple “sentences” maintain their distinctions even as they seem to tether into one another, with line breaks obscuring the exact point of their beginnings and ends. For example:

it would be years afterwards before I could acknowledge the engineering elegance of it all [the disassembled tractor engine] and see it as my father did – something graceful and beautifully conceived, not the instrument of chaos it presented itself as to my childish imagination and

                 this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first

                instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of

                 hearth, home and parish, towards

               the wider world beyond

                way beyond

Such poetic fragmentation usefully interrupts the narrative necessity of backstory, and also manages to embody the subject matter at hand, at the heart of engineering: the question of how things, including sentences, fit together. However, the effect of this conceit inevitably becomes its own convention as the novel progresses. In the following passage of dialogue between Marcus and his son, the lineation seems to consolidate rather than query the independence of each speaking voice. Consequently, there is little unusual for the reader’s eye, or internal ear, to deal with, except for the absence of capital letters, inverted commas and full stops.

I was glad to hear Darragh’s voice that evening Skyping me to ask

        what’s the story with the water contamination, things seem to have racheted up a bit over the last few days

         it hasn’t got any better, that’s true and

         transporting water to the suburbs in bulk carriers, people queuing up with plastic containers like it was a third-world country

         it doesn’t look good so

         I gave him a swift account of what I knew

The added significance of such a return to what resembles “readable” literary fiction is that the conversation is taking place over Skype – clearly a more contemporary and epistemologically challenging technology than the aforementioned tractor engine. The internet, it seems, is situated beyond Marcus’s capacity for thought, its virtual register a distraction from the concrete surroundings he thinks he understands; at the level of prose this has the ironic effect of producing more conventional writing.

Might it be the case then that an early twentieth-century writing technique, predicated on an explosion of new technologies including print journalism and radio broadcasting, has now come to inhibit the formal possibilities inherent to twenty-first century technologies? Has nostalgia for the modernist “new” begun to obscure the contemporary? Such a prospect at least troubles the ambition of Solar Bones. To what extent can a writer be a modernist today without casting himself adrift upon the ecstasy of a clever citation?

More than cleverly, however, McCormack has written a novel capable of addressing the potential exhaustion of its own aesthetic mode. He returns throughout to motifs of entropy and precariousness, and, more pointedly, interrogates the privilege which underlies Marcus’s self-image as a modern father. The novel’s key dramatic scene takes place at Marcus’s daughter Agnes’s art exhibition. This is where the generations most decisively diverge as Marcus viscerally rejects Agnes’s use of her own blood in her paintings. But it is also where Mairead, Marcus’s wife, drinks the tap water that makes her ill. Her contraction of the cryptosporidiosis virus derived from human waste, delivered by the local water supply, designates the exhaustion of Marcus’s double faith: in civil structure and in concrete things. Here the threat is fluid and invisible, and civil authority is responsible for its transmission. The virus serves as an extended metaphor for the corruption of the public space and the common sense thesis of the engineer’s mechanical reality.

McCormack saves some of his most impressive descriptive writing for the shameful transports of Mairead’s vomiting and defecating and painful wasting away in bed. As Marcus learns to care for his wife we are allowed to feel that this is real abjection, in stark contrast to the overblown rhetoric of Agnes’s blood-splattered canvases: a contrast further explored when Marcus allows himself to depict Agnes’s response to the virus outbreak as “hysterical” and “tiresome”. Agnes’s riposte to her father’s critique comes later, when, as a now celebrated local artist, she leads a piece of performance protest, climaxing with the effacement of a civic building by a gigantic white shroud, “so that the front presented nothing but the blank face of a mausoleum”.

This debate between father and daughter on the question of civil authority – with the son pitching in from a distance – is reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday. McEwan in that novel gave a lot of time to the terms of a familial debate over public responsibility: how might a well-intentioned and educated liberal man defend military intervention in Iraq, and, by implication, the reasoned order of European Enlightenment values? Notoriously, McEwan took a swerve into glib reconciliation in which the scientific modernity of brain science was married to Victorian poetry – Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” – as a counter, indeed vanquisher of the problems of social exclusion, destitution and a neo-colonial war. McCormack makes no such rightward lurch. The endpoint of Solar Bones is instead a philosophical impasse, a science of vast cosmological uncertainty, and a sense that if the civil architecture is to survive or be recovered from beneath Agnes’s shroud then it will have to happen without its erstwhile guardian: the well-intentioned, middle-aged paterfamilias.

There are moments in this novel I quibbled with: Marcus turning up at his in-laws’ door to beg an audience with Mairead after his sexual transgression struck me as soap-operaish and flat, for instance; and too much symbolic weight was placed on the fact of the son growing a beard. But overall it is a successful and moving work, not least because it contains a public reckoning at its centre – a plea for civil accountability not typical in Irish writing, which arguably remains overly impressed by its grim array of scapegrace dandies, scouring matriarchs, and domesticated Oedipuses. This novel, in contrast, declares its hand outright as both public-minded and contemporary, making explicit the flow of “our” money, the corruption of “our” politics and the vertiginous dislocations of scale which connect “our” famous Irish locales to the wider world, and, beyond that, to the universe – the solar bones of which might never have existed at all.

1/9/2016

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Matthew Parkinson-Bennett’s review of Kevin Barry’s John Lennon novel Beatlebone. Here is an extract:

Barry’s Lennon is recognisably the man of his songs and TV interviews; the wit, sting and rhythm are captured by a writer with a terrific ear. The narrative is not clogged with biographical details: there are no nights in the Cavern, screaming teenage girls or squabbles between Yoko and Paul. With Lennon, the oedipal interpretation is there for the taking: he adored his mother and was traumatised by her early death; he remained angry with his father, a failure who resembled John in many ways and who abandoned the family. Barry follows this line, but his exploration of Lennon’s inner workings is far from simplistic, an achievement of empathetic imagination.

 

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