Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack

when I opened Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and I saw the way it begins

the bell

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.”


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7 Responses to Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack

  1. Teresa says:

    I was extremely impressed at how well-engineered this novel is. You forget after a while that it is one sentence. The only thing about the form that bothered me was that I couldn’t always gauge when I was getting to a good stopping place.

    I think our shortlists are very similar. Reservoir 13 is still at the top of mine, so I hope you get to that one! And Autumn, Home Fire, and Solar Bones are shoo-ins, as is Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m pretty far into Elmet now and liking it a lot, so it may end up bumping Exit West, which would break my heart a little. But having too many books that deserve shortlisting is better than last year when there were only two that I considered even vaguely worthy.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well-engineered! Yes! I did find that when I picked it back up I often had to backtrack several paragraphs to remind myself of what he was thinking about, because it was often hard to tell when he was switching topics (or he’d go off on a long digression and then back, which was fatal if you put it down mid-digression). But eventually there were such obviously recurring concerns that even if the story that surfaced them changed, I could orient myself easily.

      I have been stymied in my Reservoir 13 progress by 1st week of school exhaustion, but I really like the little I’ve read so far. I think I can end up with 6 I really love, no problem. (Saunders vs. Barry is our main point of difference). It’s been such rewarding reading. There’s really only one I’d be mad about seeing on the shortlist at the expense of so many better books.

      • rosario001 says:

        I’m also reading Reservoir 13. It’s become my ‘winding down before bedtime’ book, and I’m enjoying it.

        So far I’ve got 2 I think would be fitting winners (Home Fire and Exit West), 3 more I think should be on the shortlist (Solar Bones, Reservoir 13 and Underground Railroad), and I’m still thinking about Autumn. I’m going to start the Saunders as audio, and might finish before the shortlist is announced.

  2. Sunita says:

    I love this! Now I’m really looking forward to reading it, and I will get to it this weekend. I need to be able to set aside a block of time or I won’t appreciate it fully, I think.

    I’m behind because of school too. I got 3/4 of the way through the Saunders and it’s still not working. I wish I could see what Teresa and others (whose tastes I often share) love in it, but I can’t. I’d rather finish the Roy and get to this one and the Shamsie. I did finish listening to the audio play of the Anouilh Antigone and I’m really looking forward to seeing the similarities and differences.

    I’m so impressed with you two for all that you’ve read of the longlist.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was surprised by just how much I liked this one. It took me a few pages to adjust to the style, but once I did, I was hooked and I liked Marcus a lot.

      I have enjoyed reading almost the whole longlist, but stop me if I say I’m doing this again next year!

  3. rosario001 says:

    Oh, well done! 🙂

    I’m halfway through this one, and enjoying it. I was expecting hard work, so I’m surprised at how easy it is to read. I’m still not 100% convinced it needed to be written that way to achieve the same effect, but I think I’m slowly being won over.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Now you made me think about this more. There are definitely novels that do stream of consciousness convincingly while still using periods, so I agree it isn’t necessary for that, though it does work well.

      But then I thought about how sentences are a basic way to structure writing (or speech) and their lack here hints at the dissolution or chaos Marcus is trying to fend off. Late in the novel (as he approaches the memory of his death) he gets increasingly mad at himself for wandering off into musings on the universe, and it’s harder for him to stick to the memories he’s trying to recount and make sense of. And his death itself is presented as a dissolution. So I do think that the one long sentence relates very effectively to the themes of the novel. It’s another way he hasn’t quite impose the order he wants on his world.

      Wow, the more I think about this book the more I like and admire it.

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