On Solar Bones: An Irish novel consisting of a single sentence is, in its own way, inevitable
Mike McCormack's new novel is entirely in keeping with the heritage of audacity within the line that distinguishes the best of Irish writing
Colin Barrett: William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is the work of art I was reminded of most as I read Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, for it too is a posthumous recording, an auto-elegy, an archive of a life being undone even as it is exposited
Back in the days leading up to September 11th, 2001, when history was roused from the neoliberal dream of its apparent end, to begin again – as it customarily does – in shattered glass and toppled masonry, the Brooklyn-based avant garde composer William Basinski was putting the finishing touches to a recording project – a four-volume album now known as The Disintegration Loops – borne from an innocuous salvaging mission that had gone irreversibly wrong.
In the course of updating his archives, Basinski had attempted to digitise a series of sequenced loops he had recorded on magnetic tape way back in the eighties. Playing them into his digital recorder, Basinski quickly realised that the original tape’s condition had so deteriorated that as the strips passed by the tape head, the ferrite – a fine patina of magnetised metal coating the tapes – was flaking from its plastic backing. The tapes were literally crumbling as they played, and the material recorded upon them was decaying too, the very texture of the sounds crumpling and corroding, sudden gaps and pops appearing like perforations.
Instead of stopping the process, Basinski kept recording. He then treated the transfers with spatialising reverb and reassembled the material into several hours’ worth of instrumental compositions of astonishingly stately, spectral power, as eerie as they are serene, the original music transmuted by the procedure of its destruction into its own inadvertent auto-elegy.
The Disintegration Loops is the work of art I was reminded of most as I read Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, for it too is a posthumous recording, an auto-elegy, an archive of a life being undone even as it is exposited: the telling is the undoing, as the original loops’ playing was their undoing. Marcus Conway, our narrator, is a Mayo-born, middle-aged former student priest turned engineer and family man, and he has died, is dying, will die. (This is not a spoiler and is flagged on the book’s backcover blurb, a deliberate ploy on the part of the publishers and an author confident their book will survive declining to obfuscate so integral a conceit.)
As the book begins Marcus is in the temporally muzzy state of mind of a being no longer strictly bound by time, a revenant summoned or tuned back onto the earthly plane by the tolling of the Angelus bell on All Souls Day, finding himself in what was once his kitchen, stranded and purposeless, hearing the bell “ring out through the grey light of this/morning, noon or night/god knows”.
As well as being narrated by a dead man, Solar Bones employs another structural conceit: the entire text is a continuous 200-plus-page sentence. An Irish novel consisting of a single sentence is, in its own way, to be expected; was, it is now obvious, inevitable. As a formal feat it is entirely in keeping with the heritage of audacity within the line that distinguishes the best of Irish writing.
Haunting the last hundred years or so of Irish prose – haunting it so pervasively it is as if the pair only died yesterday – are the unbanishable revenants of Joyce and Beckett, virtuoso re-envisagers of the sentence, who between them offer a template for practically every structural and technical variation of the line available in the modernist repertoire. There are the tortured extrusions of Beckett’s proseworks, the stoney monosyllables scattered amid the stunned, ashen spaces of the terminal plays. There are Ulysses’ streams-of-consciousness and the baubling polygaloot serpentimes of Finnegans Wake. Irish writers have always been the deepestly embedded double agents in the anglophone tradition, utilising their consummate fluency to irreparably subvert and overthrow the established capacities and defined limits of what is ever more notionally thought of as the “English sentence”.
But it would, I think, be a mistake to valorise Solar Bones simply for its formal ingenuity: the single sentence, while of course a magnificently assured piece of showing off, isn’t only a magnificently assured piece of showing off. As McCormack himself has explained it in an interview on writing.ie: “Once I realised that Marcus was dead then his ghostly presence dictated the prose style, 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.”
The single sentence is, in other words, the perfect form for the story’s content, a textual correlative to the cliched but powerful idea that as you die, your entire life must flash before your eyes, in all its unperiodicised multeity. Solar Bones is the encompassing flash of a life.
And Marcus’s life, as we learn over the course of the novel, is one that within the canon of Irish letters is almost heretically normal: Conway lived/lives a life of quiet contentment, restraint and dignity. He has made mistakes, has been guilty at times of being heedlessly male toward the women in his life, but he loves his family, his wife and children. Solar Bones, in terms of its treatment of the grand tropes of Irish writing about the family, is an anti-The Gathering, an anti-Angela’s Ashes, an anti-A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in that it foregrounds the life of an essentially decent man, the domestic dynamic of an imperfect but happy family. There are no alcoholics, abusers, grotesque priests or acts of gothically-inflected rural berserkery in the pages of Solar Bones, just a steady, at times metaphysically tinged, celebration of the everyday rhythms of life as it is lived in the early-21st century west of Ireland, Conway’s worldview steeped in a quiet awe, to quote a lyric from the band Neutral Milk Hotel, at “how strange it is to be anything at all”.
To make Solar Bones sound a little more like other novels, and assure those daunted or put off by the technical risk it takes, the writing, punctuated by indents and white space instead of full stops, is completely accessible and compulsively readable. Conway, an engineer by profession, is pragmatic with words, and his thoughts and descriptions remain largely lucid throughout – language is a utility to Marcus, not a skin, and so his expressions are not subject to the linguistic torsions of, say, one of Eimear McBride’s protagonists. Throughout, McCormack demonstrates immense skill in intuiting when to move from one subject from another, and the “plot”, such as it is, is episodic but arranged to follow an unerring associative flow. It is also refreshing to read a novel in which the protagonist is not an aspiring writer/artist, is content with their day-job, and doesn’t have any particular affinity, reverence, or time for reading. (Though Marcus treats engineering as a vocation, and of course thinks and notices like a very fine writer.)
Solar Bones is a single sentence, but it is the sentence of Conway’s life, the sentence we – or at least text-bound characters in books – must speak every day in our heads, the story of our life we tell ourselves as we move through what we tell ourselves is the story of our life. It is a sentence we incrementally improvise and instantly revise, moment to moment and day to day, and it is replete with repetitions and unaccountabilities and cliches and suspensions, and it is only very occasionally that it even takes on the guise of language, but it is the sentence that can only be finally spoken, can only properly beginagain, in death.
All stories begin at the end, begin after the end, the oldest and simplest stories, the ones we first ever hear, framed by those vague and impregnable temporal co-ordinates of “A long time ago”, and “Once upon a time” (a strange phrase whose strangeness we become inured to in childhood, and then no longer see), in other words, so the implication goes – after the protagonists are dead, their deeds completed. It is under this tacit condition that the story can finally be spoken. There is the idea across many of the world’s religions that when you die you will eventually be called upon to give an account of yourself, in order for the gods to decide if you merit passage into the paradise over which they preside. And what is an account but the story of your life, the sentence you can only speak once your sentence is up? What can the dead do but talk?
Colin Barrett is the author of Young Skins, winner of the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; the 2014 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature; and the 2014 Guardian first book award.
Throughout October, The Irish Times will publish essays by Mike McCormack, his publishers at Tramp Press, fellow writers Sara Baume, Colin Barrett, Mia Gallagher and John Kelly, broadcaster Rick O’Shea 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.