Solar Bones is that extraordinary thing, an accessible experiment, virtuosic yet humane
It is remarkable for its voice, for how perfectly its form embodies its content, and for how it foregrounds subjects often absent in Irish literary fiction: politics, economy, science
Mike McCormack: The preoccupation throughout his fiction with the way that science and technology shape everyday life reaches its fullest expression here. Solar Bones offers “a post-modern aria”, “an engineer’s lament” for the history of the made and unmade world. The narrative celebrates the poetry of structures, of utilities, locating the numinous in the material of the built world
Solar Bones is that extraordinary thing, an accessible experiment, whose posthumous, first-person narration is virtuosic, yet profoundly humane, unfolding in one long sentence with an ease of voice that belies the technical difficulty of its execution. The reader is pulled effortlessly along by the rhythmic cadences of Marcus’s posthuman consciousness, first condensing, then evaporating in ghostly vapours of memory whose glancing tangents gradually reveal a larger reality. The mode is limpid, lyrical realism, but made unreal by the fact that the narrator is already dead, a ghost-man on auto-pilot, haunting the material places that have shaped him.
His thoughts expand and contract between the private and the political, as news items burst into his awareness – financial collapse, national debt, war in Afghanistan, the Corrib pipeline – and restructure his immediate reality. Marcus’s memorial arc telescopes back and forth from the flesh and blood intimacy of daily life, mired in family tensions and marital compromises, and out again to systemic conditions at national and global horizons. The indented lines act like structural seams and joints in the architecture of his memory, opening cracks that deepen as he recognises his impending dematerialisation, even as the Irish economy dissolves around him.
Solar Bones is a novel of collapse; the collapse of an individual consciousness after death, the collapse of the Tiger economy and its attendant lifeworld. To me, it is remarkable not only for its voice, but for how perfectly its form embodies its content, and for how it foregrounds subjects which are often absent or obscure in Irish literary fiction: politics, economy, science. One of its central preoccupations, articulated through Marcus, who is vibrantly human and fallible but also a kind of new archetype, The Metaphysical Engineer, is the worth of public goods: the services and structures supported by the state for the good of all.
The novel offers three visions of cities and their development: the fantastic, imagined megalopolis of a French savant, which exists only in his mind; the virtual citadel of a despot driven by expansionist ambitions in Civilization, the strategic world-building game at which Marcus abysmally fails; and Marcus’s accounting of his life’s work as a secular vocation, invested in public projects, “which if taken all together, would amount to a fully serviced metropolis, with adequate housing for a hundred-thousand souls […]plus facilities for health and education and recreation with complete infrastructure.” This is engineering as an act of creation, which is neither an intellectual abstraction, removed from the world, nor an act of individualist possession. Intended for a collective good, it is the opposite of a property bubble driven by a logic of profit and financialisation rather than use or design.
The preoccupation throughout McCormack’s fiction with the way that science and technology shape everyday life reaches its fullest expression here. Solar Bones offers “a post-modern aria”, “an engineer’s lament” for the history of the made and unmade world. The narrative celebrates the poetry of structures, of utilities, locating the numinous in the material of the built world. The broken wind turbine whose “luminous bones” give the novel its title haunts Marcus because it seems to epitomise a clear instance “of the world forfeiting one of its better ideas”, to intimate a social failure to achieve a different energy infrastructure that could forestall environmental crisis. So too do each of the novel’s industrial ruins and municipal disasters reflect human failures to order the world differently. The factory sheathed in asbestos, the cryptosporidium outbreak, the school built on a faulty foundation, the unsurfaced “blue roads,” are incarnations of public goods undermined by political and economic decisions, by the logics of competition and capital; revelations, as Marcus puts it, of a “world built by politicians and not by engineers”.
Infrastructure is holy for Marcus, the stuff around which human relations coalesce. One radiant passage starts with a glimpse of the hidden structures of domestic reality, “the ghost house beneath the paint and fittings…those systems which make the house a living thing with all its walls and the floors pulsing with oil and water and electricity,” before expanding outwards into a vision of the whole world: “this web of utilities a tiny part of that greater circum-terrestrial grid of services which draws the world into community, pinching it up into villages, towns and cities.” Marcus’s ghostly neurology offers privileged insight into this spectral “under-structure,” whose equilibrium can be so easily disrupted. Intangible abstractions like infrastructure, finance and energy are made flesh in his perception: he sees how political and economic systems, plans and technics, can incarnate ways of being, so that even a house seems a living thing.
A repeated motif is that of anagnorisis, the term used in Greek tragedy to describe the moment of recognition when a character makes a sudden discovery that reverses his understanding of the world. Marcus’s artist daughter, Agnes, is teasingly nicknamed Anagnorisis. Her exhibition, which uses her own blood to inscribe court testimonies of social violence in western Ireland, is described as “a fitting conjunction for a time when the city itself was in the national news for reasons to do with the sovereignty and integrity of the body within a democracy”. She is lauded for engaging with difficult social issues “that for too long had been ignored by a visual arts culture which seemed only too willing to withdraw into a private rhetoric at a time when it might be expected to engage with its wider social environment”, a description which might equally apply to the novel itself.
Set in Mayo, the novel’s political anagnorisis reveals how the peripheralisation of the west and the uneven development of its infrastructure during the Tiger housing boom is physically and emotionally experienced by individuals. If Marcus begins by describing the hunger strike of a woman protesting Shell’s construction of the pressurised gas pipeline in Rossport, “another drama that has the weighted irrefutable sense of the real about it, that dangerous confluence of the private and political converging on this frail woman’s body to make it the arena of the dispute,” he later echoes this image of protest against fossil fuel extraction with a parallel image of Mairead, sickened by the water crisis. Observing his tormented wife, Marcus has his own moment of revelation when he recognises that “history and politics were now a severe intestinal disorder,” no longer “blithe abstractions or pallid concepts”, like the graphs and statistics of the financial crisis which hardly seem to map the violence of its effects. The “real” of history is “spliced” into her body, but so too is the prospect of transformation of reality.
In a tour-de-force passage near the conclusion, a protest on All Hallows’ Eve against the viral outbreak is evoked in otherworldly images of a parade of zombies and ghosts and Fir Bolgs, culminating in Agnes’s dive from city hall into a tank of water, a staged spectacle intended to “startle people out of their torpor” and shock them into starting “a political and social renewal”. The wonderful surrealism of the passage captures the carnivalesque liminality of the moment, when the city is charged with the unfettered creativity of the protesters, dressed in costume not only for Halloween, that night when the physical world intersects another, ghostly reality, but also as a protest against the norms that delimit the everyday. The town itself is described as inhabiting “a dreamtime when its past and future unfolded simultaneously, a whole city dreaming itself,” as if to suggest that in that moment, having become conscious of itself as a totality constituted by the people, it could change itself, make a different future. For me, this is what is most powerful about the book – the way the pain engendered by Marcus’s gnostic recognition of the mechanisms contributing to social violence and even his own death by cardiac arrest (which begins as a physical “squeeze” of his chest in response to political pressures) – is always held in tension with his bright imagination of a world made and constructed for the better.
Dr Sharae Deckard is a lecturer in world literature at UCD. Throughout October, The Irish Times will publish essays by Mike McCormack, his publishers at Tramp Press, and fellow writers Sara Baume, Colin Barrett, Claire Kilroy and Mia Gallagher. 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