John Kelly: ‘Solar Bones is alive in the way very few books can ever hope to be’
Rarely have I read through a novel in a state of such heightened anxiety. I’m afraid of my life. And of my death. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t read this book at all. It’s that good
John Kelly: It would be unfortunate if the fact that the book is one long sentence were ever to be the main talking point. Certainly it’s ambitious and perhaps even off-putting as a method but, as the voice of a ghost, the long sentence works. In fact it’s brilliantly done. It’s what gives this utterly accessible book its energy
Being on the wrong side of 50 doesn’t make me especially perceptive about Mike McCormack’s extraordinary novel, but I suspect it makes me dangerously receptive to its profound and page-turning energies. I finished Solar Bones months ago and it’s with me still. It’s in my system – almost as if it was mainlined rather than read. And what’s more I fear that it will always be with me – in particular those final scenes where Marcus Conway’s shoe is slammed into the footwell of his parked car, ramming the accelerator to the floor as he exits this life in agony and shock “…pain lacing through my chest as if some essential structural component, some load-bearing lintel, had come asunder…”
For an occurrence as par for life’s course as a man dying of a heart attack, this is quite terrifying stuff and, revisiting it now for the purposes of this article, I’m half looking away – afraid the re-read will permanently commit McCormack’s words to memory. I’m afraid of their apparent accuracy. I’m afraid of what it all means. I’m afraid of my life. And of my death. In fact sometimes I wish I hadn’t read this book at all. It’s that good.
And, yes, of course, this has everything to do with my age. When I was 18 I mightn’t have even noticed the following lines from page nine where Marcus describes his clan as “…men with bellies and short tempers, half of whom went to their graves with pains in their chests before they were sixty…” But when I read these words as a man in his fifth decade, they hit me hard and then lay there like an unexploded bomb, like Chekhov’s gun, for the next two hundred pages. Rarely have I read through a novel in a state of such heightened anxiety. Solar Bones is alive in the way very few books can ever hope to be. Bolaño’s 2666 is one. And I can’t think of many more.
As to the death of Marcus, I’m not giving anything away. We know it from the dust-jacket. In fact, better again, we know that he’s already dead. We also know that it’s All Souls Day and he’s back – the very ghost of a man who once worked as an engineer for the council, now returned to his own kitchen fully aware of the deep, astonishing truths about life, death and the universe.
In many ways he always was. He got his first hint of it at the age of nine as he watched his father dismantling a Massey Ferguson 35. As the young Marcus looked at the parts spread across the floor he reached a “…cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together, believing I saw here how heaven and earth could come unhinged...” and that the whole construction was “…humming closer to collapse that I had ever suspected…”
And while the ghost of Marcus brings little news from the afterlife, we do get the full picture as regards the life he once lived in 21st-century rural Ireland. It was, what you might call, an “ordinary” life – a largely domestic existence lived with his wife Mairead, his daughter Agnes and son Darragh. Apart from one infidelity born in the Torture Museum in Prague (where else?) he has been a good husband and father. He has the sense to know that, for him, family is all there is. And as someone conscious of chaos and collapse, whether it’s a dismantled tractor, the corrupt nature of local politics or matters altogether more cosmic, Marcus treats his wife and kids with love and respect. What else can a man do? What else is there to do – in the face of things?
Of course, during the short and quiet arc of any “ordinary” life events happen that disturb even the mildest, settled-for rhythms of existence – disasters great and small that destabilise both the present and the future. And as Marcus is hit by some of life’s inevitabilities, he is knocked backwards, sideways and, sometimes, all-ends-up. His own aging father loses his mind and his dignity. His daughter’s use of her own blood as part of an art exhibit causes distress and a panic attack and, most centrally of all to the tale, his wife Mairead, having made the simple choice of water over wine, becomes so violently ill that his devoted care for her is largely a matter of washing and wiping and pretending to ignore the actual stench as her most precious body is persecuted. And here McCormack’s metaphysics meets the local news in the word cryptosporidium.
Another M-word would be modernism but rest assured that Solar Bones keeps its modernist credentials in its back pocket. It would be unfortunate if the fact that the book is one long sentence were ever to be the main talking point. Certainly it’s ambitious and perhaps even off-putting as a method but, as the voice of a ghost, the long sentence works. In fact it’s brilliantly done. It’s what gives this utterly accessible book its energy. Sometimes it’s as steady and spot-on as McGahern and other times we, as readers, are whirling in the same vortex in which Marcus finds himself.
I don’t know the full history of the book’s publication, other than the details McCormack himself has revealed in interviews, but it certainly has the feel of a novel that mainstream publishers – while surely acknowledging the writer’s talent and perhaps even the genius of the book – would never chance publishing, leaving it to the likes of Tramp Press to step up, full of conviction and enthusiasm, and do the necessary. And in this case it really is necessary. Not just for Solar Bones but for the writer. Mike McCormack hasn’t suddenly come up the Corrib in a bubble – he has been an exceptional writer for a very long time. And Solar Bones is his finest book.
John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster. Throughout October, The Irish Times will publish essays by Mike McCormack, his publishers at Tramp Press, fellow writers Sara Baume, Colin Barrett and Mia Gallagher, and academic Sharae Deckard. The series will culminate with a live interview with Martin Doyle, assistant literary editor of The Irish Times, in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thuraday, October 20th, at 7.30pm, which will be published as a podcast on October 31st. Solar Bones is published by Tramp Press, and is available online and in all good bookshops for €15.