Two novels in one, but no full stop

by John Boland

Fiction: Solar Bones, Mike McCormack, Tramp Press, pbk, 224 pages, €15

For those of timid reading habits, there’s good news and there’s bad news about Mike McCormack’s arresting new novel.

The bad news is that throughout its 217 pages, there isn’t one full stop. The good news is that there are lots of commas and indented breaks so that the reader can frequently pause both for breath and for thought, just as in a more conventionally structured novel.

The further good news is that narrator, Marcus Conway, through whose consciousness the reader perceives everything, is such an engaging man that we soon become absorbed in the life of himself and his family.

The book is set in 2008, just as Ireland is imploding economically, and Marcus, who’s in his late forties, is a county engineer living in Louisburgh and working out of Westport on a variety of civic projects – some of them made difficult by venal politicians intent on currying favour with local voters.

But Marcus is a decent man in a good marriage with teacher Mairead and the loving father of two children who’ve left home – budding artist Agnes, who lives in Galway, and globe-trotting Darragh, whom he skypes nightly from Australia.

Yet there’s an underlying turmoil in Marcus, one that we first really encounter when he gets a panic attack at the opening night of Agnes’s art show in Galway, though there have been strong hints of unease from the outset as he considers both earthly and cosmic chaos and the fragility of the world that we’ve made for ourselves.

In fact, there are two novels going on here – one of them quite traditional in its portrait of a good man trying to do his honourable best for his family and for the local people whose welfare is dependent on his professional rectitude; and one of them pondering the futility of all such human interactions in a meaningless universe.

The problem is that these two strands don’t mesh. Indeed, the traditional storyline is so engrossing and Marcus’s confidings are so involving that the apocalyptic imaginings, especially at the very end, seem extraneously grafted on to the narrative – as if the author, having granted Marcus his unique human due, is then taking a perverse and gratuitous pleasure in removing from him any meaning to his life on earth.

This is a pity because McCormack, himself a Mayo native, is wonderfully good at describing the landscape of the county and the character of the people who inhabit it, with vivid portraits of recognisable figures, such as the commandingly tall politician who canvassed at the family door in the early 1980s – “his reputation ruined” in later years by planning tribunals and party-funding probes, “not that he gave a s**te one way or another, he was well retired by then, his money made”.

But it’s in his portrayal of domestic life and the dynamics of family relationships that McCormack’s at his finest, not least in the extended account of Mairead being laid low by the contaminated water that infects Galway, “a cultural mecca” that has been “struck down with a biblical pestilence”. This necessitates “a dance through filth and fever” in which Marcus is compelled to enact, in the most practical of ways, his love for his ailing spouse.

The novel has many such memorable, indeed indelible, sequences, though the reader may continue to wonder why there isn’t a full stop to be found anywhere, even when the book comes to its own abrupt cosmic stop.

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