Solar Bones, written by Irish writer Mike McCormack, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction this year. Having won the 2016 BGE Irish Book of the Year, and Goldsmiths Prize, it came as a bit of a surprise that the book failed to make the Booker shortlist. An exciting and experimental piece of contemporary Irish modernism written in a single meandering sentence, McCormack’s latest novel won many admirers for its beautiful description of a man’s life. Much like previous Man Booker winner, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), and Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead (2004), the intrigue of Solar Bones is not to be found in its rather sparse plot. Instead, it is the powerful emotion of the novel, and the tender, reflective style of writing, that draws readers in, leading some critics to hail it as a modern masterpiece.[1]

The innovative style of the novel, written in a single sentence and enjambed like poetry, is quite daunting at first. The prose jerks along, with no clear direction, reminiscent of some of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien’s most difficult works, and gives the novel a flavour of Irish modernism. Here the first page’s excessive use of repetition overwhelms the reader as it describes:

“the bell

the bell as

hearing the bell as

hearing the bell as standing here

the bell being heard standing here”[2]

You would be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally picked up the sequel to Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce’s notoriously difficult and experimental novel published in 1939, which McCormack certainly draws on in his introduction. His poetic flair is evident, and somewhat unusual in a modern novel, but is taxing for readers. It therefore comes a pleasant surprise that McCormack soon relaxes and settles into a surprisingly readable piece of flowing prose that perfectly captures the narrator’s thought process.

The narrator in question is Marcus Conway, an engineer from County Mayo, who is obsessed with order and structures. Drawing on the scientific concept of entropy, he repeatedly reflects on “a world which was a lot less stable and unified than [his] childish imagination had held it”, [3] as well as the individual’s role within the state. This is made manifest after the birth of his daughter, Agnes, as he considers her “metaphysical reality” upon receipt of her birth certificate, which “held a space for her in the state’s mindfulness”.[4] One wonders whether the volatility of the political climate in recent years, with the Brexit result and Donald Trump’s presidential election, inspired such comments about the importance of the individual’s political activity. They are a key part of a book that is permeated with metaphors of hierarchy, construction, and destruction, which reflect Marcus’ musings on the world. These preoccupations are also shown on a formal level, as McCormack makes use of enjambment between paragraphs to illustrate the ways in which Marcus’ life has been welded together, as seen in his meandering thoughts:

“collapse is never far from an engineer’s mind

and

as ever

and ever again

any image of collapse or things coming apart”[5]

The repetition of “and” and “ever”, as the lines follow on from each other, physically enacts poetic construction on the page, all whilst describing its destruction. These transitions are occasionally seamless, but oftentimes jarring, marking a distinct change in tone or direction as the novel lurches forward, reflecting the twists and turns of an ordinary man’s life.

McCormack’s innovations in literary form and style are commendable, and it is fitting that he should win the Goldsmiths Prize, which values such innovative and daring fiction. However, the Booker prize tends to reward works that will appeal to wider audiences and guarantee commercial success, and this may explain Solar Bones’ exclusion from the shortlist. Its more inaccessible elements, such as its poetical ornament, philosophical subject matter, and use of complex metaphor are difficult to sell. It does not help that McCormack is occasionally an excessive writer, overwhelming his readers with lists of engineering metaphors and disrupting his narrative with a heavy hand. In many instances the story becomes difficult to follow, caught up in its form.

Nevertheless, McCormack’s novel can be rewarding if you stick to it. The story doesn’t really go anywhere, but McCormack’s prose is wonderfully immersive. Its various references to real-world events such as the 1977 general election in Ireland and, more recently the 2008 global economic crash, ground the narrative in a familiar context . Typical elements of modern family life, such as the agony of grown children fleeing the nest and only occasionally skyping their parents from Australia, will also resonate with many. Indeed, the heart of this book lies in its focus on family memories. Marcus recalls first meeting his wife, the moment she found out she was pregnant, the birth of each of his children, how they grew up and what they are doing now, as well as the death of his own parents. These aspects of the plot are raw and real, and provide welcome points of connection for the reader in a novel burdened by difficult prose.

This book is literally impossible to put down due to its lack of punctuation, almost forcing readers to consume it in one session, which is both a positive and a negative, depending on your interest in the novel. A marmite-like piece of work, it will grip those who love it, but will frustrate others and cause them to quickly give up on the whole thing.

McCormack is clearly a talented writer, and many critics have lavished praise upon the final moving pages of Solar Bones. I must confess that I found these a little sudden and cliched, almost trying too hard to evoke emotion. McCormack’s excessive use of ornamental language often gets in the way of the beautifully simplistic story he is trying to tell, and makes it difficult to connect to, so that the ending does not hit readers as hard as it could have done. Nevertheless, Solar Bones is a powerful and original work that all book-lovers should read for its extraordinary structure and stunning prose.

 

[1] Ian Sansom, “Solar Bones by Mike McCormack review – an extraordinary hymn to small-town Ireland”, The Guardian 4th June 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/04/solar-bones-by-mike-mccormack-review

[2] Mike McCormack, Solar Bones, (Canongate: 2017): 1

[3] Ibid. 23

[4] Ibid. 41

[5] Ibid. 16-17