A Little Village on the Edge of the World

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
    Canongate, 272 pp, £8.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 78689 127 3

Mike McCormack, the winner of last year’s Goldsmiths Prize with Solar Bones, could seem to be redressing a balance by making his book a single undivided utterance. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the novel by Eimear McBride that won the inaugural prize in 2013, was prodigal in its use of full stops: there were often three or four in a line of print. By banishing the mark altogether McCormack brings its frequency in the two books – taken together – close to a statistical norm.

Of the two experiments it’s McCormack’s that sounds the more intimidating to a potential reader, but in fact the book is all flow. It’s not that the novel is formally a single sentence, but that there is never a point of rest in its lucid unfolding. Individually the pages are laid out so as to reassure, with indented lines marking off familiarly shaped blocks of text. These are placebo paragraphs, whose endings promise the eye an opportunity to take the equivalent of a breath, though a voice reading the book aloud would be cued to carry on across the gap. McCormack seems to relish inserting breaks just where the momentum is most insistent, several times ending a pseudo-paragraph with ‘so that’, in a way that revokes the apparent permission to pause, the holding back not separable from the pushing forward. The conventions of the book seem to forbid any interruption to the experience of reading, but the devoured-it-at-one-sitting formula so faithfully invoked by reviewers is pious fantasy. Putting Solar Bones down takes on the status of an accepted bit of bad behaviour, in principle disapproved of but indispensable in practice, like a cigarette break in the workplace.

At the beginning of the book Marcus Conway, a middle-aged civil engineer, is standing in his kitchen in Louisburgh, County Mayo, listening to the midday Angelus. He stays there for the rest of the book, physically rooted in a way his thoughts constantly stress (‘here in this same kitchen’, ‘here on this kitchen floor’, ‘on this kitchen floor/not four feet from this table’), but ranging freely over the past. He’s – yes – examining his life, his slightly odd-couple but more than halfway successful marriage to Mairead, much more sophisticated in outlook than him, at least when they met, and their two children, Agnes and Darragh, whose characters have been in some marginal way formed by the tensions of the household but who are now viable independent adults. The endless unspooling of reflection can be interpreted either as a daring suspension of forward movement in narrative or as a canny tidying up of interior monologue, refining away the incoherence of mental life. Either way, the experience is involving and seductive, and the few occasions when Marcus’s thoughts make an abrupt swerve have considerable impact. The first page seems to promise high modernism of a retro sort, with its overlapping incantatory phrases echoing the clanging of the call to worship (‘the bell/the bell as/hearing the bell as/hearing the bell as standing here/the bell being heard standing here’), but the tone of the book as it settles becomes much more prosaic and reader-friendly.

Marcus’s is a life in which the old ways for a man to find his bearings are confirmed rather than threatened. In one charged passage he remembers the time his father took on modern technology using the local lore of the sea, setting himself to locate ‘The Maids’, a rock shelf where crabs and lobsters multiply, as accurately as a newfangled onboard electronic plotter: ‘what really hung in the balance was the possibility that a good man, through no fault of his own, but by way of received wisdom and immemorial faith, may have lived an important part of/his life warped in error and foolishness’. Luckily the sonar readings and the traditional method – heading straight out from the bottom of Kerrigan’s land, bringing the spire of the Protestant church in the north out with you, until Matthew Ryan’s hay shed in the south comes into view round the end of the headland – precisely coincide.

Past and present corroborate each other, and domestic concerns share a common centre with the grandest imaginable vistas of time. There’s a brilliant passage about the bread knife Marcus and Mairead were given as a wedding present, which she holds up only a couple of years into their marriage so that he can see how

it had become rounded and worn with the bevelled edges of the ash handle faintly bleached from continual washing and the blade itself showing signs of all the times it had been sharpened against the steel, those fine lines angled back from the edge as she held it up by the blade, the moment gleaming in the sort of light that offered a clear view of the knife’s descent from its first consideration in the murk of prehistory as a blunt river cobble or a shard of flint, through all its brittle bronze and ferric variants, step by step down the causal line of descent till it arrived safely in her hand, honed and fully evolved through balanced alloys, all its clumsiness pared away but carrying the marks of frequent use which prompted her to say

I love that we’re living the kind of life where things are wearing down around us

This passage has its own alloyed composition, made up as it is of six parts magnificent rhetorical feeling to four parts copper-bottomed blarney.

The sly alignment of the cosmic with the small-scale is a recurring feature of the book. In phrases like ‘the badlands of Ballycroy and Mulranny/the terra damnata of Shanamanragh’ the mock heroic note blends with a tenderness towards the parochial. ‘Our little village on the edge of the world’ can’t be experienced as anything but central by those who live there. When Agnes was born, Marcus was almost as entranced by her birth certificate as by the event itself:

the document scarcely less miraculous than the child in the way

it fixed her within a political structure which undertook to spend a percentage of its GDP on her health and her education and her defence among other things and over twenty years later I can still feel something of that mysterious pride which swept through me as I sat there behind the steering wheel, the uncanny feeling that my child was elevated into something above being my daughter or my own flesh and blood – there was a metaphysical reality to her now – she had stepped into that political index which held a space for her in the state’s mindfulness, a place that was hers alone and could not be occupied by anyone else

This sense of civic wonder has an antecedent in the ‘Ithaca’ episode of Ulysses, where the register is hydraulic, as the narrative voice acknowledges the glories of infrastructure when Bloom turns on the tap:

Did it flow?

Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles …

One of the achievements of Marcus’s professional life is to broker good prices from contractors in the area by invoking the threat of globalisation, getting good value for the taxpayer without cutting local tradesmen out altogether by putting pressure on the quoted price of granite from a quarry in Ardrahan, sixty miles away, faxing them a cheaper quote for the same stone quarried in South China then shipped to Turkey for polishing but ending up in West Mayo at two-thirds the cost. It’s a strength of the book’s character-drawing that Marcus should show in his professional behaviour a steeliness and even a willingness to manipulate that is foreign to his domestic persona. There’s a difficulty, for instance, when a residents’ association demand a fine chip road surface entirely unsuitable for a residential area – the braking distance involved being twice what it would be for a coarse chip surface, and aquaplaning almost inevitable whenever it rains.

The explanation for the residents’ stubbornness, one of the road engineers tells Marcus, is that the smooth road surface looks so much nicer: ‘when it’s lined and striped and with cats’ eyes running down the sides and middle it will be worth ten extra points’ in the tidy towns competition. This is small-scale thinking at the expense of larger issues, shrewdly dealt with on Marcus’s advice by alerting the members of the association to their legal vulnerability in the event of collision or accident, being the parties who insisted on a dangerously slick surface on a road with an 80 kph speed limit.

Marcus was a seminarian and a gardener before he became an engineer; Mairead is a teacher. Agnes is an artist just beginning to make her name, and Darragh, who seemed to be drifting, is travelling in Australia, having made the money to pay for the trip by testing medical components for flaws (scanning stents and catheters with ultraviolet light), a piece of enterprise that was more than what his father expected of him. So the family is a little compendium of skills and accomplishments, of fine art and applied science. The only false note in this is Marcus’s reaction to a show of Agnes’s that uses her own blood as a medium. He’s alarmed by the undertone of self-harm, but wouldn’t an engineer father have a question about the how as well as the why? How, as a matter of technique, has Agnes fixed the blood in her indictment of the relentless petty cruelty of life so that it stays bright red on the walls?

The celebration of Agnes’s opening in Galway is the scene of an unobtrusively far-reaching event, both for the book and for the author’s relationship, richly harmonious so far, with his formal choices. At the restaurant Mairead, the designated driver, makes the modest sacrifice of turning down alcohol and orders water. When she falls sick it’s some time before the connection is made between the tap water she drank that night and an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in Galway that is overwhelming local medical services. Mairead’s illness occupies a long stretch of the book and calls out both heightened emotion and heightened language:

engineering and politics converging in the slight figure of my wife lying in bed, her body and soul now giving her an extension into the political arena in a way which, if she had been aware of, would have startled her, as Mairead was one of those people who saw voting and such chores of responsible citizenship as a necessary nuisance, walking into the polling booth with little or no interest in the outcome, one crowd as bad as the other

The maintainers of infrastructure and the makers of administrative decisions have combined to expose citizens of a prosperous Western state to a waterborne illness.

But up to this point absolutely everything in the world of the book was converging, and the coming together didn’t need to be quite so explicitly signalled. It’s as if McCormack is trying to build a climax: exactly the pulling-out of material from the continuum, fashioning it into a free-standing scene, that the construction of the book, the viscosity of its writing, resists and even forbids. A big scene requires the dropping of a curtain, the ending of a chapter – or exactly the thing from which the book recoils, a full stop. The contamination of Galway’s water supply by cryptosporidium is datable to March 2007, considerably before the present tense of the book, and if Mairead’s illness was life-changing (as that word is used in news reports of accidents and atrocities) it would have come to Marcus’s mind long before page 115. He’s still brooding about it a hundred pages later, though, ‘a viral event which would not only spread to a citywide scale but would also prove attentive enough to fasten into the narrow crevice of this woman’s ordinary life where its filth and virulence would prove so difficult to remove’. His preoccupation, however extended, can only burn out like an illness itself. There isn’t the breathing space required for emotional payoffs to be cashed in, so they must be rolled over like little lottery jackpots, indefinitely, though with a diffused enriching effect on the book as a whole.

Mairead’s ordeal shows Marcus that history and politics are personal, not abstractions but physically present in her flesh and blood, though the revelation that the ‘electric fingers’ of the world’s upheavals have the power to touch his life doesn’t call the dependability of underlying connections into question. The doctor who makes a house call on Mairead seems familiar, and soon resolves the question of her identity: ‘you’re one of Padraig’s girls/yes, the oldest/I knew the face, but I didn’t know which of the Cosgraves you were/there’s a few of us all right’. While Agnes, on the phone to him, half-humorously imagines the outbreak leading to riots and the breakdown of civil order, he looks out of the window and grounds himself in the realities of the season: ‘it was good to think of summer only a few weeks away with the sun higher in the sky and the first blackthorn around the house coming into flower while later on the woodbine, which Mairead had tended in the wild hedge, would scent up the whole back garden close to the house’.

This is a consistent pattern in Solar Bones, the setting up in close proximity of images delineating absolute rupture and ones of comforting continuity, though there can be no compromise between such stark alternatives. The title phrase shines out of a passage of lyrical endorsement of the ordinary:

rites, rhythms and rituals

upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible from the moment I get up in the morning and stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea in my hand, watching the first cars of the day passing on the road, every one of them known to me

name, number plate and destinations

one after another

But immediately preceding it is an apocalyptic passage describing the feeling you might have just before the world goes up in flames.

As a young man in 1977, voting for the first time, Marcus took part in a revolutionary moment in Irish domestic politics, the election of the 21st Daíl, even if to readers outside Eire it’s likely to seem as remote as the divisive memory of Parnell in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘all the telegraph poles along the roadside hung with election posters that had gone up overnight, the face of a new candidate staring down at me from within a green and gold border, high up on every pole, this face echoing away in the mist as far as the crossroads’. Father and son sit down with a constituency map and try to predict the result. Marcus’s forecast dovetails with the conventional wisdom found in the press and other media, with the coalition government losing a few seats at most and the country returned to ‘the sullen rule of the law and order party’. His father’s analysis is entirely different, predicting a majority for the opposition of 22 seats, a huge margin that would reconfigure the whole future.

This is almost exactly what happens, with the paradoxical result, as it affects the book, that the world is turned upside down, nothing the same ever again, and yet a citizen with no inside knowledge can trace the shape of a changing political landscape as surely as he can locate an underwater shelf of rock without technical assistance. It’s a political earthquake, but it’s registered by Marcus in terms of snugness of fit, since his father predicted it almost exactly. No wonder the moment, so impossibly balanced as he experiences it between rupture and continuity, enters his consciousness in the form of a time-loop like something out of the Terminator films: ‘I … was not to know that the way this candidate’s face paled off into the dawn was this moment’s way of telling me that at some time in the future I would look back and mark this morning as the moment in my life when I came to political consciousness.’

An artistic form has no ideas, but it can impose an attitude just the same – in this case the feeling that everything is interconnected, with events on different scales echoing one another. Even the country and western songs Marcus listens to on the radio communicate a sense of loneliness that is somehow a shared asset:

a world of manageable heartbreak, a world where bad feelings come with melody and are capable of being rendered down into verse, bridge and chorus, which can be sung away to your heart’s content with just that mixture of regret which allows you to feel that, for all your loneliness, you are still part of the wider human drama and that this is a genuine kinship, more valuable and heartfelt than hearing the news or reading the paper, listening to

Hank or Waylon or George and

knowing that we are all part of the world’s heartbreak, its loss and disappointment mapped out in the songs of

Hank and Waylon and George

The effect of a refrain given by the indentation here perhaps appropriately foregrounds a certain sentimentality.

Every formal choice brings some options nearer, while making others more remote. In its quiet extremity, the option of undivided utterance chosen by McCormack favours the production of any amount of detail in suspension, lovely dispersed globules of decentred attention, but doesn’t permit the subordination of one part of the book to another. What is distinctive is the texture imposed on the prose, neither solid nor liquid but elastic in character, the suspended elements not amenable to being filtered out – the proper term might be colloidal.

There’s no room here for construction of the orthodox sort, for putting one block on top of another. It’s more like the concrete pour so lovingly described late in the book. Marcus performs a first slump test, which is satisfactory, then stands back

to watch the men level out the screed, one of them stepping through it with the vibrator under his arm, pokering it into the concrete which immediately lost all resistance and liquefied to settle into its natural level between the shuttered sides so that the two men coming behind him could smooth it over with a screeding board, drawing it over the wet surface to leave it glossed and smooth behind them and even though

I’ve seen it done umpteen times before, there is still something to wonder at in the pouring of a concrete foundation

This particular project, the building of a new national school in Derragarramh, provides another opportunity for McCormack to set up the sort of plotline that can’t get any traction in this context. Concrete as a word sounds so definite and reliable, but as a substance it’s temperamental and even capricious. Conditions are ideal, clear and cold (‘a great day for cooling soup or pouring a foundation’, one of the workmen says, ‘whichever job was in front of you’), but Marcus refuses to sign off on the day’s work – and for sound reasons. The foundations are made up of three interlocking though separate rafts, so that for safety the three pours must be identical in composition. They aren’t, and his slump tests prove it. He states his objections to the local councillor Moylette, pointing out that any building raised on those slabs will tear itself apart in three different directions when there’s a sudden temperature change. He’s more extreme in his projections when he talks to Mairead, predicting that after a few seasons the shearing of the concrete will make the cross ties and floor joists rupture the underfloor heating, and when the building is closed down and the insurance company sends in the assessor he will only have to take one look before he wonders ‘who the fuck signed off on this/whoever it was, he should be shot with a ball of his own shit’.

What’s he to do? Moylette is hellbent on going ahead. Marcus won’t sign off on faulty work, but someone will be found who is less scrupulous. It’s another case of the conflict between engineering and politics, the individual against the collective, and suddenly we’re in Enemy of the People territory, Jaws territory. Marcus is preoccupied by the sullying of what he sees as a vocation, complete with a day of professional judgment in the next world, ‘a reckoning in some vaulted and girdered hereafter where engineers’ souls are weighted and evaluated after a lifetime’s wear and tear in the friction of this world’. Mairead doesn’t see what leverage Moylette has; there isn’t even a direct chain of authority linking them, and Marcus is grateful for ‘the clarity of her confusion’. But any further development, in a novel that resists such things, is forestalled (though the incidents are presented out of sequence) by Mairead’s falling ill, and the crisis-of-conscience strand is allowed to fizzle.

I don’t mean that McCormack shows anything but great accomplishment, and a major part of the pleasure of reading Solar Bones is the sense of the writer wrestling with what he has taken on, first making the endlessness work, and then finding a way out of it. Even a truncated plotline like the one about the defective concrete pour can be full of suggestive detail. In the classic versions of this scenario, even a grotesque example of it like Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (a story that caused a sensation when it was published by Esquire in 1937), it’s capitalist greed that causes the disaster, with a building collapsing during construction and inflicting terrible deaths on the workforce (‘The heavy concrete was settling immutably, and its rich cement-laden grout ran into his pierced face’). But the building work for the new national school at Derragarramh is of high spec. Everyone is pleased to see that the Crayn brothers are laying the blocks. One carpenter remarks that you could lay your roof down on the Crayns’ walls ‘like you were putting on your cap’.

The problem is only partly that Moylette needs the school to be built for political reasons. Having lost a public battle to save three small schools in his constituency, so that voters have to drive their children four or five miles to school every morning, he can’t let the new project slide. As for those who supplied the inconsistent concrete, their actions are some way short of Machiavellian. If only four or five cement works remain in the county, all of them competing for a limited number of public contracts, and two have spare capacity, then it’s in their interest to collude, tendering for the same price, and two councillors will see the sense, prompted or unprompted, of sharing the job so that both companies will get by rather than one prosper and the other risk going under. This was a conspiracy of the least sinister kind, a stitch-up using communal thread, a case of running repairs to the social-industrial fabric resulting in an unravelling, though one of the strengths of Solar Bones is that it makes these categories so hard to separate out.