While working on his novel Solar Bones, which Soho Press is publishing in September, Irish writer Mike McCormack was teaching an intensive writing course. The plan was to lead the students from an initial exercise—describing how to make a cup of tea—to a 2,500-word research essay. But his novel-in-progress’s experimental style began to affect his pedagogy.
“I had to give up the post because writing Solar Bones took such a toll on my grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure,” McCormack says. “I was proud of the class work we did, but I had to get out. For the sake of the students.”
The idea of comp students cranking out increasingly abstract descriptions of steeping tea bags is intriguing, but McCormack was wise to devote his energies to Solar Bones, which was recently longlisted for the 2017 Man Book prize. It also won the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize, awarded to “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.”
McCormack’s first book was a 1996 story collection, Getting It in the Head, whose title previews the physical and psychological violence perpetrated by or upon the cast of his obsessive, grotesque, and loner characters. One of the title story’s narrators is a sociopathic child named Owl, who spends his time poring over Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.
A later book, Notes from a Coma (Soho Press, 2013), in which a tortured, eerily intelligent young man volunteers for a radical experiment in penal reform, is similarly intense. “Notes from a Coma picked up a reputation for being thorny, antagonistic—a difficult, awkward read,” McCormack says. “And here I come with another experimental book, so I was worried Solar Bones would go the same way.”
And McCormack says he initially did have trouble finding a home for the novel in the U.K. and Ireland, where it was first published: “British and Irish publishers all came back with the same thing. ‘Typical McCormack book. It’ll get respectable reviews and drop off the side of the world.’ This is a book that no one wanted to publish until a small press stood up.”
That publisher, Tramp Press, was two women with just “a shared Word doc between them.” But they threw themselves behind the project, and now, says a delighted McCormack, “it’s coming to the New World.”
As with much of his work, Solar Bones is set in County Mayo, the largely rural area in Western Ireland where he grew up. McCormack moved to Galway in his 20s, but his fiction still gravitates to County Mayo and its sensibilities.
“County Mayo has a unique millenarian tradition of religious visionaries, pilgrims, penitents, and protest,” McCormack says. “Three of our sons gave their lives in hunger strikes for the Republican cause, and you have to go to Northern Ireland to reach numbers like that.” This tradition, he less solemnly points out, also manifests itself in County Mayo’s football team’s struggles to win an Irish championship: “There’s an aura of martyrdom about us.”
Solar Bones takes place on All Souls’ Day, when, according to local folklore, the dead are permitted to return home. “They’re paroled from purgatory by the prayers of the faithful,” McCormack says. “Food is laid out for them at the table. In some parts of the county, that would be taken quite seriously, though not as seriously as when I was a child.”
The novel begins as Marcus Conway, a county engineer in his mid-50s, appears at his table on this special day, “pale and breathless after coming a long way.” Then, Irishman that he is, Marcus begins to talk, and hardly lets up. “Sometimes I think it’s purgatorial, going round and round,” McCormack says. “But I think the novel’s best understood as a song. I’ve had poets come up to me and say, ‘Go on, admit it. It’s a poem.’ Well, if it makes you happy, have it!”
The opening pages haltingly summon Marcus into being to the tune of a midday Angelus Church bell ringing out over the countryside. McCormack deploys the Heidegger term ingathering to describe the beginning, “a consciousness gathering itself to itself.” He says that one of his readers came up with a more concrete description: “He told me it’s like a car turning over on a cold day before eventually it starts. And that’s exactly what’s it’s like!”
Whether Continental hermeneutics or Car Talk furnishes the most apt description, this section was the most difficult to write, McCormack says. “I spent more time on the first three pages than any others in the book. Some people love it and think the book goes downhill after that. Other people are glad to get it out of the way so that the book picks up its proper rhythms.” Those “proper rhythms” consist of Marcus’s cascading, period-free monologue about village and family life, the venal maneuverings of local politicians, and reflections on the granular and the infinite, “the horizontal melody of the cosmos, the celestial harmonic.”
Drifting from memory to memory, Marcus follows his thoughts wherever they lead. There is nonetheless a directional, riverine energy to the Marcus’s narrative. “When I was a kid,” McCormack explains, “we learned that in their end stages, rivers twirl around but still make it toward their destination, and I think that was on my mind.”
This riverine style can be traced to a source: the daily writing exercise McCormack once practiced. “I used to come to my desk every morning, and I would just write for about half an hour. Only two directives had to be honored: it had to transition smoothly from where I left off the day before, and there could be no full stops. I was interested in sustaining a rhythm, the rise and fall of thoughts. And I have a 600-page manuscript that’s complete nonsense. But it’s continuous nonsense!”
Marcus’s daughter is an artist, and his jibing, slightly desultory son is halfway across the world. Although occasionally puzzled or frustrated by his children, he is a supportive figure. McCormack lost his own father when he was in his late 40s, so, he says, “I’ve always given fathers good press.” He adds: “Fathers in Irish literature tend to be sullen, depressive presences. Fathers in my own work tend to want the best for their sons.”
As a county engineer, Marcus works on small projects vital to the community—bridges, roads, schools. He becomes an engineer after a youthful flirtation with the priesthood and brings a near-religious sense of conviction to his vocation. “He turns from God and puts his faith in engineering and family and community,” McCormack says.
Solar Bones is a very human book about the sublimity of machines, a lyrical paean to engineering that stems from McCormack’s early days studying philosophy and the history of technology. “I suppose that all my life I’ve been a writer fascinated with engineers,” he says. “Writers write it, and painters paint it, but engineers make it. And I don’t think that those of us in the humanities forgive them for it. We think we made it, and resent them for building it. Civil engineering is no less than our music or poetry.”
For McCormack, things are currently humming along smoothly. He is pleased with the reviews for Solar Bones, the response from younger writers, and the steady income from a teaching gig: “Such a strange thing having a paycheck coming in month after month.”
But McCormack seems most tickled by his author photo, or rather the man who took it: John Minihan, “the only photographer Beckett would let near him.” Minihan’s most famous image captured Beckett in contemplative ease at a Parisian café. The photographer shot McCormack in a less picturesque setting. “He brought me into a carpark,” recounts McCormack. “He said, ‘Lean up against the wall over there.’ It was a real thrill.”
Matt Seidel is a staff writer at the Millions.