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SOLAR BONES SHORTLISTED FOR GOLDSMITHS PRIZE!
Mike McCormack has published two collections of short stories, Getting It In the Head and Forensic Songs and two novels – Crowe’s Requiem and Notes from a Coma. He grew up on a farm in Louisburgh, County Mayo, and studied English and philosophy at UCG. In 1996, he was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. In 1998, Getting It In the Head was voted a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. A story from the collection, ‘The Terms’, was adapted into an award-winning short film directed by Johnny O’Reilly.
In 2006, Notes from a Coma was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award. In 2010, John Waters in The Irish Times described it as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade just ended”. It took McCormack seven years to write the book. In May 2016, Dublin publisher Tramp Press published his novel, Solar Bones.
He lives in Galway with his wife, Maeve.
Q&A with Conor Howard, Anna Livia Books, will follow reading.
SOLAR BONES REVIEWS:
An Extraordinary Hymn to Small-Town Ireland
One family man’s Day of the Dead in County Mayo after the boom and bust – Ian Samson, The Guardian, June 4, 2016
Excellence is always rare and often unexpected: we don’t necessarily expect masterpieces even from the great. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is exceptional indeed: an extraordinary novel by a writer not yet famous but surely destined to be acclaimed by anyone who believes that the novel is not dead and that novelists are not merely lit-fest fodder for the metropolitan middle classes.
McCormack is not entirely unknown. In 1996, he won the Rooney prize for Irish literature with his first collection of short stories, Getting It in the Head.The prize is a sure predictor of future greatness, responsible for bringing to wider public attention the work of Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy, Claire Keegan and the two mighty Kevins, Barry and Power. McCormack’s second collection, Forensic Songs, was published in 2012, and he is also the author of two novels, Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes from a Coma (2005). But it would be safe to say that outside his native Ireland his work is less well known than that of many of his contemporaries. Solar Bones is published by Tramp, one of Ireland’s small independent publishing houses, which, like its UK counterparts, is enjoying an unprecedented period of growth and success. The book deserves attention and applause.
It stutters into life, like a desperate incantation or a prose poem, minus full-stops but chock-full of portent: “the bell / the bell as / hearing the bell as / hearing the bell as standing here / the bell being heard standing here / hearing it ring out through the grey light of this / morning, noon or night”. It is 2 November 2008, we are given to understand, All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. The bell is the Angelus bell and we are in rural Ireland – in Louisburgh, near Westport, County Mayo, “a county with a unique history of people starving and mortifying themselves for higher causes and principles […] blistered with shrines and grottoes and prayer-houses and hermitages […] a bordered realm of penance and atonement”.
The speaker hearing the bell is one Marcus Conway, husband, father and a civil engineer in some small way responsible for the wild rush of buildings, roads and bridges that disrupted life in Ireland during the boom that in the book has just gone bust. Marcus is a man gripped by “a crying sense of loneliness for my family”. We don’t quite know why until the very end of the novel, which comes both as a surprise and a confirmation of all that’s gone before.
Among its many structural and technical virtues, everything in the book is recalled, but none of it is monotonous. Marcus remembers the life of his father and his mother, for example, a world of currachs and Massey Fergusons. He recalls a fateful trip to Prague for a conference. He recalls Skyping his son in Australia, scenes of intimacy with his wife, and a trip to his artist daughter’s first solo exhibition, which consists of the text of court reports from local newspapers written in her own blood, “the full gamut from theft and domestic violence to child abuse, public order offences, illegal grazing on protected lands, petty theft, false number plates, public affray, burglary, assault and drunk-driving offences”. Above all, he remembers at work being constantly under pressure from politicians and developers, “every cunt wanting something”, the usual “shite swilling through my head, as if there weren’t enough there already”. He recalls when his wife got sick from cryptosporidiosis, “a virus derived from human waste which lodged in the digestive tract, so that […] it was now the case that the citizens were consuming their own shit, the source of their own illness”.
The book is a hymn to modern small-town life, then, with its “rites, rhythms and rituals / upholding the world like solar bones”, as well as an indictment of human greed and stupidity, and how places and cultures respond to the circumstances beyond their control and yet of their own making.
Asked in a rare interview some years ago if there is such a thing as “Irish” writing, McCormack suggested that indeed there is and that it consists of “a three-part harmony of experiment, comedy and metaphysics”. The magnificent song that is Solar Bones possesses such peculiar depth, such consonances and dissonances that it is a reminder that a writer of talent can seemingly take any place, any set of characters, any situation and create from them a total vision of the reality. This is a book about Mayo, Ireland, Europe, the world, the solar system, the universe.
His latest novel shows the Mayo writer has lost none of his visionary intensity writes Rob Doyle, Irish Times. May 7 2016Mike McCormack made a name for himself as a punky renegade. His first book, the story collection Getting It in the Head, appeared in the mid-1990s; McCormack’s febrile, brutalist, sci-fi-enhanced aesthetic must have looked aberrant in an Irish literary culture that was even more trenchantly conservative then than it is now. His talents were recognised nonetheless – he was awarded the Rooney Prize for Literature – and an older, wiser McCormack now presents us with his fifth book, and first novel since 2007’s Notes from a Coma.
Solar Bones commences brilliantly: from his home outside the village of Louisburgh in Mayo (also the author’s home town), the middle-aged narrator Marcus casts his vision across a county, a land, a planet, and finally a cosmos in splendorous disarray, all of it running down and spinning out of joint.
Collapse is the leitmotif of this novel: economies, infrastructures, the human body, the very machinery of the stars and galaxies – all of it is unstable, the careless work of a long-absent engineer. The rural West is just one grim shard of a universe in dereliction.
A glance into the newspaper sends Marcus, himself an engineer, down a vortex of associative memory that heavily evokes WG Sebald’s doom- laden ruminations. The recollection of a broken-down tractor rekindles a childhood apprehension of the chaos and fragility of the natural world, “the whole construct humming closer to collapse than I had ever suspected”.
Marcus recalls a visit to the Museum of Torture in Prague (the site of a marital infidelity whose consequences will indeed prove torturous), and is disturbed by the genealogy linking his own profession to the applied science of human agony. The torture machines on display represent “the highest technical expressions of their age, the end to which skilled minds had deployed their noble gifts”.
With such a grim view of human endeavour, Marcus might well have declined to partake in the procreative cycle and opted to fade into non- being. On the contrary, he is a family man.
After the novel’s bold opening, a more familiar structure looms into shape. Gone – for a while – are the apocalyptic visions. The bulk of the novel turns out to be a tour through the domestic life of Marcus, his wife, Mairead, their artist daughter, Agnes, and wisecracking, backpacker son Darragh.
In his portrait of rural life in a troubled 21st century, McCormack dispenses with the creaking artificialities of plot, propelling his narrative instead by associative, digressive means. Marcus goes about his workaday life, vexed by municipal corruption, and recalls events from his life and marriage. A visit to his daughter’s debut exhibition, which features a work composed of her blood, triggers a panic attack.
Meanwhile, civic incompetence results in the spread of cryptosporidium – a viral parasite originating in human faecal matter which causes vomiting and severe diarrhoea. Mairead is afflicted; the joyful carnality of the early years of the couple’s marriage is contrasted with the stench and filth Mairead’s body now generates, to her shame and Marcus’s helplessness.
Despite the Pascalian backdrop of interstellar desolation, this is no rural misery-lit dirge for an imploding family. Marcus’s relationships with his wife and intelligent, young-adult children are loving and reciprocally stimulating.
He banters with his son over Skype about Battlestar Galactica and Radiohead’s Kid A (Marcus is more of a King Crimson man), and treats his kin as his intellectual equals. If the earth is a flimsy, leaking vessel in a fathomless black ocean, perhaps family can provide a temporary reprieve from wreckage.
The spread of the virus and consequent civic unrest casts a speculative-fictional gloss over the roam through Marcus’s memories. As in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, it is the numinous, otherworldly qualities of modern life, rather than some fantastical future, that we are concerned with here.
Not all of the book is equally engaging. Occasionally McCormack over-eggs the entropic pudding, as if anxious to show that he hasn’t abandoned the wilder concerns of his youth in favour of Establishment-friendly, McGahernesque domesticities. Mainly, however, his visionary intensity is not only convincing but spellbinding: the sci-fi imagination has receded, giving way to the awareness that illimitable awe and terror reside right here in the mundane, phenomenal world.
The work of an author in the full maturity of his talent, Solar Bones climaxes in a passage of savage, Gnostic religiosity: the writing catches fire as we draw near to the void, pass over into death itself, and therein confront the truth that even in a fallen universe, when all distractions tumble away, the only adequate response to our being is astonishment.