It's easy to scoff at literary fiction which experiments with form given our existing canon of literature which is already packed full of wildly eccentric novels. Everyone from Virginia Woolf to Samuel Beckett to Gertrude Stein to William S Burroughs to Eimear McBride has twisted not only conventional grammar but the shape of the story on the page to say something new about the experience of life and art. So a novel that is one long continuous sentence which lasts more than two hundred pages may seem like it's being wilfully unconventional, but really the style of Mick McCormack's “Solar Bones” perfectly suits the flow of thought for its meditative and entertaining narrator Marcus Conway.
Marcus is an ordinary Irish man who worked as an engineer in County Mayo with his wife and raised two children. Moving through his house he hears the chiming of a bell and this sound resonates throughout the whole novel as it captures a moment and highlights the way our lives are paced out in marked time alongside the flow of life around us. The novel has a poetic brilliance which shines through the very readable prose as Marcus sifts through the experiences of his life. He recounts the trials of his family life, the recent financial crisis in Ireland, local politics and a virulent strain of flu which made his wife very ill.
The effect of reading this extended sentence which is uninterrupted by any full stops made me feel like if I stopped reading I'd miss out on some crucial bit of information which was about to come next. So I was mesmerized and intrigued, but also frustrated because I naturally long for a conclusion or break point. Marcus himself gets frustrated when he wishes at points to halt the stream of his musing: “stop mother of Jesus stop this is how the mind unravels in nonsense and rubbish if given its head”. Really that's partly the point; there are no neat conclusions in our experience - just a continuous flow of thought running through our heads melding the past with imagination, an internal conversation with oneself and those we’ve known in the past. It makes you aware of the way you are a constant subjective witness to both your life and the world around you. You are both the absolute authority of this experience and someone utterly bewildered by it all.
McCormack is extraordinary at capturing the personal reaction we feel witnessing societal shifts which we feel powerless to stop. It felt particularly poignant to me with the recent referendum and the vote for the UK to leave the EU. At one point Marcus and other citizens of his town witness a large ship passing and he thinks “something in me recognizing this as a clear instance of the world forfeiting one of its better ideas, as if something for which there was once justified hope had proved to be a failure and the world had given up on some precious dream of itself, one of its better destinies”. The consequences of these changes and lost ideals reverberate through our personal and collective history. It makes us question the solidity of a society we need to believe in to go about daily life, but which we know in reality is just a collective agreement and, ultimately, an illusion.
He records this feeling when Marcus considers how in 2008 the profitable boom in the Irish economy turned to a nationwide recession. He reflects how “the whole thing ridiculously improbable, so unlikely in scale and consequence it's as if something that never was has finally collapsed or revealed itself to be constructed of air before eventually falling to ruin in that specific way which proved it never existed”. The ways in which we can personally react to these shifts in society are represented in the lives of Marcus' children. His daughter Agnes is an artist whose confrontational work thrusts her into becoming a local icon for a discontented generation. His son Darragh emigrated to Australia. The focus of his interests shifts from subject to subject so he's not able to focus in any substantial way. He becomes consumed with playing the video game Civilization which is a game I've also spent countless hours playing. The player in it leads the development of a civilization while also interacting and trying to dominate the rival nations which are simultaneously growing around you. It works poignantly in this novel as a way of showing how we seek to control the changing society around us, but in reality we are in many ways powerless.
It's impressive the way this novel reflects how daily life can be so caught up in particular moments as global news is filtered through our brains. Marcus comments on how “dawn to dark six or seven news bulletins needing my attention all spaced out at regular intervals, the day structured like the monastic rule of some vigilant order synched to the world's rhythms and all its upheavals” so that his mind is constantly bombarded with outside information that slightly shifts or confirms his own points of view. It makes him feel both at the centre of a nexus of global change and like a helpless pawn being moved by larger forces.
This is a novel which many might feel hesitant about approaching because of its unusual style, but I bet if you start reading you’ll be hypnotised by its engaging and fascinating voice. Marcus’ gripes and wry perspective are very relatable plus the flow of language is a thing of fine-crafted beauty. Mike McCormack captures the movements of everyday life whether we feel engaged with the world or deeply resigned about it: “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”. It's an electrifying experience being swept so fully into one man's uninterrupted meditation on life.