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Review: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones

In a town on Ireland’s west coast on All Souls’ Day, Marcus Conway hears

“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

god knows

this grey day standing here and

listening to this bell in the middle of the day, the middle of

the day bell, the Angelus bell in the middle of the day, ringing out

through the grey light to

here

standing in the kitchen

hearing this bell

snag my heart and

draw the whole world into

being here”

A flood of associations begin, drawing from Marcus’s past, as he stands in the house he has lived in for twenty-five years with his wife, Mairead, a teacher, the house where they raised their two children, both living on their own—Agnes, an artist, and Darragh, a bit of a wanderer, working in Australia.

The time is after the economic collapse that hit Ireland brutally. Marcus wonders why human beings can’t anticipate such disasters but he might ask the same about his own town, Louisburgh, where suddenly many people have become violently ill, including his wife: vomiting, diarrhea, an inability to keep food—even water—down. After days, and 300 people sick, the source is identified as “coliform Cryptosporidium, a viral parasite which originates in human faecal matter,” prompting Marcus to ponder how this could ever have happened.

It wasn’t food poisoning as Mairead initially thought from a meal after Agnes’s first public exhibit, a cause for celebration until Marcus read the catalog description of her work: “The O Negative Diaries, An Installation by Agnes Conway, Medium—Artist’s Own Blood.” How is a proud parent expected to react to that? He can’t help asking himself, “had I pushed her towards this—whatever this was—on the walls of the gallery,” a logical question for a parent to ask, especially if he believes that he has always treated his children humanely, lived “a life which till now I had honestly thought had been decent….”

The associations continue as Marcus thinks about his own early life, when he spent two years in a seminary expecting to be a priest. Then they turn to his father’s last days, to the old man’s quick mental breakdown after his wife’s death. And on to Marcus’s own work as an engineer (the field he eventually pursued) for the city council, and the pressure he often felt from elected representatives who wanted buildings approved that were shoddy in their materials and construction—something that didn’t bother the politicians who were only concerned with being reelected. Sort of like eliminating the solar bones that uphold the world, “that rarified 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,” hearing the church bells.

After days, Mairead is little better; the local hospital is filled; the city authorities announce that no one is at fault—it’s “an environmental problem, not a health problem,” and not the “municipal incompetence” the city’s residents claim. A little like the economic collapse; no one’s responsible for the crisis but “the city itself, or more accurately onto the rapid expansion of the city over the past decade with its large housing developments along the coast road which had radically increased the draw on the city’s supply lake, lowering its levels so that its purity was further compromised by the increased amount of slurry fertilizer that had washed into the lake during those spring weeks of steady rainfall, the flow going through the pipe overwhelming the filtration system admitting the Cryptosporidium into the water pipes….”

Bla, bla, bla.

In spite of highlighting all this avoidance of responsibility, of repeated disasters that occur because of no planning, Mike McCormack’s harrowing novel, Solar Bones, is brave and audacious, humane and concerned. And innovative: stream-of-consciousness for lack of a better description, not a period anywhere, though indentations for paragraphs, one long 217 page sentence. And Marcus Conway, bless him, sings a love song to his wife and his children, steady at Mairead’s bedside, day after day, skyping with is son in Australia, pondering his relationship with daughter.  A gem of a novel.

Mike McCormack: Solar Bones
Soho, 224 pp., $25

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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