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The Art of Intellectual Curation: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones

By Jeanne-Marie Jackson.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack - Review

Mike McCormack, Solar Bones (Tramp Press, 2016)

Solar Bones, Mike McCormack’s anxious and yet solacing third novel, unfolds as a single sentence. It has received due recognition in McCormack’s native Ireland and the UK: a few months ago, it won the fourth Goldsmiths Prize for “[opening] up new possibilities for the novel form”, heralded as a best-in-class example of the current boom in Irish experimental prose. In its fluid intermingling of stream-of-conscious style and brash local politics, Solar Bones Irish reception all but wrote itself. It is heir, in the era of high finance, to what McCormack has called the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” of Joyce, O’Brien and Beckett, a paean to its rural setting of County Mayo as global cosmology.

For those of us who got word of the book from farther afield, the quiet success of Solar Bones also helps us look closely at the resurgent interest in independent literary publishing. The novel has been widely praised as the sort of achieved work that only a boutique outlet like Dublin’s Tramp Press, in this case, would nurture and promote. But what is it that gives a book like Solar Bones its vanguard bona fides, aside from an obvious measure of formal risk-taking? Can we, in fact, clearly distinguish a mainstream literary novel from its more “serious” small press counterparts, and should we try?

The answer is yes, on both counts. More importantly, books like Solar Bones show that we can make this distinction on a transnational scale, cultivating and sustaining a literary readership that swells instead of cowers in the face of traditional publishing’s much-bemoaned consolidation of “global” genre and taste. One common shorthand for the difference between high-gloss corporate literary fare and its more difficult, under-heralded counterparts, from Tim Parks’ “The Dull New Global Novel” to Tope Folarin’s recent “Against Accessibility”, is geographical orientation: one is commercial and global, while the other is unprofitably committed to local untranslatability. And yet debates about whether the novel’s globalisation is good or bad for the form rarely consider the thriving counter-sphere of independent presses – like Two Dollar Radio and Deep Vellum in the States, And Other Stories in England, and here, Ireland’s Tramp Press – that demand our attention at exactly the same time. The oversight also stops academic exchange in its tracks. Arguments about the global novel are waged atop one presumed big-budget archive, so that otherwise edgy books, for example Pheng Cheah’s What Is a World?, end up deflated by a prosaic turn to Nuruddin Farah and Amitav Ghosh.

The idea that a novel can be substantively transnational and accomplished in that more difficult, “indie” way thus matters a lot. Solar Bones is avowedly regional in its premise and heritage setting: Marcus Conway, a dead, middle-aged engineer in rural West Ireland, returns to his family home on All Souls’ Day, when many Celtic Catholics used to leave the door unlatched to receive their dead. As he narrates his life from his kitchen, however, spiralling elegantly between past event and present reflection, Marcus is less concerned with where he raised his family than with family as an artery supplying tangible experience to increasingly intangible financial structures. Solar Bones takes place in 2008, so this connection is explicit. At one point early on in the book (from which quoting is difficult, as it is, after all, one sentence), Marcus is “swept up in that sort of reverie which has only a tangential connection to what you were thinking of, in this case the collapse of our banking system and the economy, a collapse so sudden and comprehensive that one year later it still threatens to have a domino effect across several linked economies, fully capable of undermining banking systems across Germany and France, not to mention crippling our neighbor’s export trade to this country, the collapse of a small bank in an island economy becoming the fault line through which the whole universe drains …”.

At this point, I confess to having minimal investment in Irish writing as such. The rich locality of Solar Bones European reception made me wonder, in fact, if I’d really “get” the book, beyond an academic understanding of its modernist inheritance. The force of McCormack’s national locus, though, is not just stylistic or referential, but conceptually modular. Solar Bones puts a novel of scale in conversation with a novel about scale. The difference here is more than semantic: the first category interposes local, national and international frames of reference, using characters’ travels to oscillate between the family home and its place in a global technocracy. (Marcus cheats on his wife during a bridge-construction conference trip to Prague, and later Skypes frequently with his nomadic millennial son.) It is mainly a matter of plot and points of reference. The second category, the novel about scale as a problem, entails the capacity to comment on the difference between scale as global reality, and scale as something that is actually quite tricky to make sense of on the level of human experience. This is where McCormack really shines, as his familiar novel of international movement and mediation is encased in a much rarer novel of mind that contemplates what is and is not germane to a meaningful life.

This realisation gifts the reader with a levelling-up experience rarely found in more flatly thematic “scalar” writing. I was frustrated, in the novel’s early stages, by the baldness with which it discussed financial markets. Marcus’ style shimmers and McCormack’s analysis cuts, but many of the headiest and most topical passages, like the one excerpted above, struggle to do more than state the fact of an interlinked world. For example: “…from what’s written here about the global economic catastrophe, all this talk of virus and contagion, it is now clear to me that there are other types of chaos beyond the material satisfactions of things falling down since, it appears, out there in the ideal realm of finance and currency, economic constructs come apart in a different way…”. Passages like this are no doubt among the most quotable in the book, but they are also the least gratifying in their relation to the narrator’s life. The point, as I came around to seeing it, is that such “global ideas” passages are smart but purposefully vague. They are offset, later, by sections in which Marcus parses both his family structure and his work as an engineer with utmost precision. How he lives and how he thinks thus align against – rather than strive to reflect – the less demanding presence of what he thinks about. In other words, Solar Bones form enacts a toggling between levels of narration, not their clean match. It’s got all sorts of structural isomorphisms (of a household and a body, for example), but the novel’s “biggest” theme – global capital – can only be hazily described.

Mike McCormack

The precision of McCormack’s prose is largely a product of controlled disaggregation. This technique serves as a microcosm of the novel’s biggest implied claim: that life is a matter of coming to grips with dismemberment and reformulation. This is where the world as determined by a global marketplace fails to sync with the world Marcus brings into meaning through learned analytic habits. As he contemplates the origins of engineering at a torture museum in Prague, he turns to childhood memories of “dismantling things and putting them back together again” at his father’s farm. From this principle of a whole’s separation into parts, Solar Bones grows a triadic motif – “harrows, ploughs and scufflers”; “the harrow, the plough or the scuffler”; “the maiden, the rack and the wheel”; “clamps and blades and spikes”; “pounds, shillings and pence” – that evolves for the next few pages. In this way, Marcus articulates the organising principle of the novel when he recalls being “terrified at the sight” of a broken down engine, “gutted of its most essential parts and forlorn now, its components ordered across the floor in such a way as to make clear not only the sequence of its dismantlement but also the reverse order in which it would be restored to the full working harmonic of itself”. The recurrent series of three also echo the Angelus bell that rings out to set the book going, a symbolic holism achieved by the measured release of tones and parts.

This technique of intellectual escalation through stylistic separation tempts the reader to literally start counting, building anxiety about life’s intricacy even as Marcus does structurally master big parts of it. It is a challenging departure, to say the least, from a more mass-market Irish literary novel like Colum McCann’s 2014 TransAtlantic, in which gracefully leaping between Ireland and elsewhere seems like an end in itself. The comparison, even briefly, is an illustrative one. TransAtlantic gives us key themes and players and asks that we connect the dots: how are democratising modes of movement (namely aviation, when the book starts out with the famous Alcock and Brown flight from Newfoundland to Ireland) related to the people and ideas being moved? McCann works across a social spectrum that ranges from real-life democratic luminaries like Frederick Douglas and George Mitchell, to fictional women redeemed from historical anonymity as servants and wives. It is by no means a failed work (and I can attest that it teaches beautifully in a college classroom), but it lacks the ability to cast doubt on its own principles of composition. Solar Bones works at a higher level, spiralling through various scenes of decay – of farms, fathers and civic life – to try and curate an intellect that’s up to the task of re-animation amidst malaise. It does not assume that the “dots” of history are just there to be connected, and it certainly does not assume that a novel, of all forms, can today get away without making a clear case for its own existence. 

Perhaps, then, an ideal small press novel is one that takes seriously the question of what a novel, rather than a film or an image, can do best. The answer can no longer be as straightforward as something like “historical revelation,” at least not in the sense that we can imagine history as the process by which institutions and ideas coincide. History, in some sense, has moved on from Marcus’ literally crumbling small town in West Ireland, as it has moved beyond the novel as its dominant mode of expression. And, frankly, history has also moved on from the white, heteronormative nuclear family that nonetheless sits dead centre of McCormack’s book. It would be easy therefore to read its focus as evidence of an implicitly conservative avant-garde, one we might as well ignore, but this misses the mark. Mining “the family” for social significance is not what Solar Bones is after; in fact, family takes on a central role in Marcus’ life because it is insignificant to the forces that structurally define it. Family is also a disconcertingly cerebral arena for McCormack to run through all sorts of formal experiments. The novel depicts marriage as one of the last possible venues for developing a working analytic, a space in which apparent wholes can still be shaped from their parts rather than observed as foregone conclusions. Marcus’ wife Mairead, with her penchant for French existentialism, provides a cipher for the humanities as they counterbalance his preference for numbers. She also brings an alternative conception to Marcus’, in a conversation about voting, of how the individual relates to the state. This has crucial implications for how man and wife relate even during an era, the novel often reminds us, in which the state has all but ceded its claim to matter. Talking about democratic structures is worth something, McCormack seems to say, even if they no longer work; there’s little challenge for Marcus (or us) in waxing jaded about big banks that seem to loom only as ether.

Solar Bones thus asks why careful composition should count for anything, when the world we inhabit rushes three sheets to the wind toward disaster. Marcus is a self-described “engineer, whose life and works / concerned itself with scale and accuracy, mapping and surveying so that the grid of reason and progress could be laid across the earth, gathering its wildness into towns and villages by way of bridges and roads and water schemes and power lines – all the horizontal utilities that drew the world into settlements and community …”. But when his life has ended – once he has raised his kids, and nursed his wife, and stuck to his scientific guns against corrupt politicians who want to cut dangerous corners – he has “settled instead into a giddy series of doubts, an unstable lattice of questions …”. This “unstable lattice”, in its doubtful precision, is the ideal formulation of what a difficult book like Solar Bones can offer right now: it is a collection of precisely drawn pieces, strewn across multiple scales without cementing the basis on which they come to mean (historical, philosophical, cosmic or stylistic).

Mike McCormack and Tramp Press, then, have given us a quintessential “serious” work up to the challenge of our present confusions. This is a book that doubts extremely well. Where do our identities as citizens end, and our souls begin? How do abstract forces we can barely distinguish come to dictate our most intimate acts? Why, finally, do we feel the need to refine and renew our knowledge of those around us when deep down, we sense “that all things around [us] are unstable … and that the slightest pressure will cause everything to tip away from [us] as if it were all cardboard scenery …”? In structuring such questions as fine-grained patterns that complement more predictable global themes, Solar Bones is the emblematic small press novel of worldly lament.


Jeanne-Marie Jackson.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson is Assistant Professor of world Anglophone literature at Johns Hopkins, and received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale. Her first book is South African Literature’s Russian Soul: Narrative Forms of Global Isolation (Bloomsbury 2015), and her essays and literary criticism have appeared in n+1, 3:AM, Public Books, Bookslut, Africa in Words, The Literary Review, etc.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 17th, 2017.