when I opened Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and I saw the way it begins
the bell as
hearing the bell as
hearing the bell as standing here
the bell being heard standing here
I remembered someone had said it is one long sentence, if you can call it a sentence when there’s no period at the end, and for that matter no capital letter at the start and
I said to my husband that James Joyce has a lot to answer for, inspiring Irish writers to try this stuff, thinking of Eimear McBride’s book that I couldn’t get through no matter how great everyone said it is but
actually, although there are some fragmentary poetic bits like those opening lines, most of this novel doesn’t really feel experimental, being broken up into paragraphs that help you follow the wandering logic of the narrator, and those poetic moments come at places that feel right, not to mention that
the fact that it has a lot less punctuation than your typical novel effectively represents the stream of Marcus Conway’s consciousness, which I really enjoyed following so I ended up liking this book a lot.
OK, there’s a period and I’ll stop now. Let’s just say McCormack does the one long sentence thing better than I have.
Those opening lines echo the rhythm of the Angelus bell (3 groups of 3, then 9; they rang it at my dad’s seminary and one of his friends taught me how to do it) on All Soul’s Day, which calls Marcus back from the dead to his kitchen to reflect on his life. The back of the book tells you he’s dead, but otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have picked up on hints like the date and the fact that everything seems slightly off-kilter to him, until I got to the end of the book when he remembers his own ending.
Marcus is an engineer, a kind of secular faith that has replaced the priestly vocation he once hoped he had. He strives for order over chaos (and perhaps because he works for the county council, politics represent chaos and corruption), but he isn’t always aware of how rigid he is, or how chaotic his own feelings and impulses can be–like the casual affair that nearly wrecked his marriage in its early days.
This theme of order vs. chaos is explored through the novel in ways large and small. Marcus dies just at the time when signs of the 2008 financial crisis are looming for instance, and when his wife is finally recovering from a parasite she got from a contaminated water system, a devastating failure of engineering. Marcus remembers how his father loved to tinker, and once disassembled the tractor engine, the first time Marcus realized his world might be destabilized (though the engine is successfully reassembled). In old age, his widowed father descends into senility, living in squalor and refusing help, to the dismay of Marcus and his sister.
Sometimes, as with the water-borne illness, the triumph of chaos over order is enraging. Sometimes, it’s played for laughs, as in a joke Marcus’ son Darragh tells him, in which “four men, a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, and a politician are discussing which of their trades was the oldest.” The lawyer says Cain’s murder of Abel meant there must have been some kind of judicial process; the doctor that Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib pointed to surgery; the engineer claims the act of creation, bringing heaven and earth out of chaos, was “the first piece of engineering . . . which the politician in turn replied to by saying who do you think made the chaos.”
Solar Bones is the story of an ordinary, decent, imperfect man muddling through life, and I think I would have enjoyed it in a more conventional form, but what elevates it to the top tier of my personal shortlist, alongside Autumn and Home Fire (and I guess maybe #2 behind Autumn if I really had to rank them) is the lovely prose, McCormack’s ease at shifting from more conventional language and paragraphs to more fragmented and poetic phrasing when Marcus reflects more deeply on, well, the meaning of life, on the world which
man and boy, father and son, husband and engineer
I have known . . . to be a sacred and beautiful place, hallowed by human endeavour and energies, crossed with love and the continual weave of human circumstance
This sliding between registers links Marcus’ personal muddles to national and cosmic ones without ever bludgeoning the reader over the head with those thematic links, because we just seem to be following Marcus’ meandering thoughts rather than a firmly pointing authorial hand stating a “message.”