On All Souls Day – the day that the dead are said to return – Marcus Conway finds himself in his kitchen in Mayo, ruminating on the events that brought him there. So begins Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, one of the most captivating and original novels of recent years.
What follows is an examination of the minutiae of Marcus’s life – his relationship with his wife, his son and daughter – that often extends outwards to encompass Marcus’s place in the larger universe. He recalls as a child watching his father dismantle a tractor engine and thinks, “… this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiralling beyond the immediate environs of hearth, home and parish, towards the wider world beyond”. Looking at the once well-oiled machine now lying in pieces on the hayshed floor makes him “soul sick with an anxiety” as he comes to a “cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together, believing I saw here how heaven and earth could come unhinged …”
The first thing you will notice when reading Solar Bones is that the book is essentially one long run-on sentence. While, initially, this might seem like a stylistic gimmick or Modernist one-upmanship (Okay, Joyce, you wrote a chapter with a single sentence? Well, I’m gonna write a whole book!), it is far from it. Indeed, it’s essential to the book and is what drives the story forward, sometimes at a breakneck speed. I thought I was being clever by pointing out that this was similar to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in that the prose in Solar Bones is a stream-of-consciousness. The author, however, begs to differ.
“Once I realised that Marcus was dead then his ghostly presence dictated the prose style,” McCormack told me. “It seemed obvious to me then that the prose would proceed as a continuous outpour because that is the way a ghost would think…continuous, never stopping for fear that, as a ghost, he might dissipate or falter. This is not, as some critics have commented, a stream of consciousness – it is far too continuously scrolling for that; I always understood the style to be more in the nature of a stream of post-consciousness.”
And, of course, this makes sense. Marcus is dead so there is no consciousness. The fact that Marcus is dead, however, raises an interesting question. Some reviews have avoided mentioning this as though it was a spoiler. I wondered if it was always McCormack’s intention that this would be revealed in the blurb given that it isn’t revealed in the book until the last few pages.
“Yes,” he says. “I made a deliberate decision to flag that at the beginning so that it would not come as a cheap reveal at the end of the book. I like the way that it privileges the reader throughout with a knowledge that Marcus does not have … it gives the reader a hold on the situation that Marcus does not have.”
Despite the striking originality of the prose, McCormack says that the style wasn’t the initial spark that fired the book. “Character always comes first. In this case it was the image of a man bumbling around in his own kitchen in the middle of the day which intrigued me. And once I saw him in my mind’s eye I began to ask him questions – who is he? Why is he so confused in his own kitchen? How come he’s not at work?”
And the stream of post-consciousness that follows befits the narrator. Marcus is a man adrift in the world, unsure of his place and time, a ghost lost in his own thoughts. Indeed, he often stops to berate himself for allowing his thoughts to wander down strange avenues into esoteric (and beautifully written) interludes. But the reader happily follows Marcus down these pathways because of the strength of the prose. It’s not often that a book of literary fiction could be described as a “page-turner” but Solar Bones is. It is at times high art, with brilliantly written philosophical set pieces, and other times comic and ribald – son Darragh’s conspiracy-fuelled rants, or the brutal realities of life on an Irish building site.
Another thing that is striking about the novel is its examination and celebration of the minutiae of everyday life, whether it is within Marcus’s family life, his work, or his fascination with engineering. This, McCormack says, is something that comes from “a continual state of astonishment at the fact that this moment-as-it-is exists at all when the odds against it being so are hopelessly stacked. So, at the bottom of my regard for the everyday is this continual astonishment.” A regard he says he shares with “Beckett no less than McGahern, Kafka no less than Beckett, Dickens no less than Kafka and so on back to the first man or woman who put pen to paper. My eye for and celebration of the everyday comes from a long immersion in the tradition of the novel.”
The recession in Ireland also plays a role in this novel, although McCormack is quick to point out that it’s not a novel about the recession. “Marcus is the beginning, middle and end of Solar Bones. The recession is only the background against which his personal drama unfolds.”
But the recession is a factor, nonetheless. It struck me reading the book that McCormack – along with other Irish authors such as Claire Kilroy and Donal Ryan who have also dealt with the recession in fiction – have all done so in ways that might be described as less than realist.
“Yes, I think that is fair,” McCormack says. “Certainly myself and Claire Kilroy have a fantastical streak to our work and, of course, Donal has two novels which are structurally very interesting. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger was a dramatic and surreal event which was both physically tangible and a collapse of abstract values. Therefore it seems likely those fictions which would deal with it would have to step outside the bounds of the realist novel.”
But writing an entire novel in what is basically one run-on sentence can’t be easy. How does the author navigate the switch between various scenes? I wondered if McCormack found this difficult. As it turns out, he knows as little as I do.
“Believe it or not,” he says, “I have no memory of writing Solar Bones – I spent five years on it but really cannot remember anything of the effort which brought it into being. One reason for that is that I sent it to my agent at 2.30am and nine hours later I became a father; the birth of my son seems to have destroyed any memory I have of writing the book. So, to answer the question, I do not have any memory of the book being either hard or easy to write. It must have taken some effort however, I spent five years on it. With regards moving from scene to scene – I just think I followed Marcus in his speech flow and the run of his mind.”
Writing an experimental novel like Solar Bones is one thing, selling it is another. For McCormack, this was made even more difficult by the fact that while writing the book, he no longer had a publisher.
“The years after I was dropped from Jonathan Cape were difficult. It’s hard enough to start a literary career but harder still to restart one in middle age. But having no publisher is one of the more ashen definitions of artistic freedom – you owe no one anything, no one is looking over your shoulder so to hell with it, just put the head down and write. As for being afraid about finding a publisher for an experimental novel – yes, sometimes I did wonder who would go for it but I tried not to think on that too much. My wife told me ‘Your job is to write, it’s someone else’s job to publish you.’ That was something I tried to remember.”
One group who are fans of experimental and innovative novels is the Man Booker Prize judges. And, indeed, many critics and fans of Solar Bones have said that it should be on the Man Booker long list. Tramp Press – the publisher of Solar Bones – agrees. However, Sarah Davis-Goff (who – with Lisa Coen – runs Tramp Press) recently revealed that books by independent Irish publishers are not eligible. She told RTE’s “Morning Ireland”: “Unfortunately, we can’t submit for the Booker because one of the rules is that the books have to be published in the UK which … actually just means that the larger publishers who can afford to have outposts in the UK, like Hachette, like Penguin, like Random House, they can all submit for the Booker whereas smaller independent publishers like ourselves unfortunately fall through the cracks.”
McCormack doesn’t seem too aggrieved by the omission. “I’m flattered that some people have said Solar Bones was worthy of Booker longlisting; that’s nice.” Although he does realise the importance of an award like the Booker Prize, especially for a book like Solar Bones, adding, “It would be nice to think the discussion around Solar Bones and the Booker would prompt those in charge of the prize to amend the rules in future so that Irish publishers would have access to what is still, for all its faults, a hugely important literary prize.”
(c) Derek Flynn
About Solar Bones
Once a year, on All Souls Day, it is said that the dead may return; Solar Bones tells the story of one such visit. Set in the west of Ireland as the recession is about to strike, this novel is a portrait of one man’s experience when his world threatens to fall apart. Wry and poignant, Solar Bones is an intimate portrayal of one family, capturing how careless decisions ripple out into waves, and how our morals are challenged in small ways every day.
Solar Bones is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie’s SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in Surge, an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’.