Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is, in many ways, an apocalyptic novel. No wormhole opens in the sky threatening otherworldly invaders, nor are its streets crowded with shambling corpses, but behind the layered normality, as paragraph after paragraph piles up, thought over thought, there is an end of the world insinuation, like rot, weakening the structures of the everyday.
Solar Bones begins with Marcus Conway at his kitchen table:
“the kids all away now and of course Mairead is at work and won’t be back till after four so the house is mine till then, something that should gladden me as normally I would only be too happy to potter round on my own here, doing nothing, listening to the radio or reading the paper, but now the idea makes me uneasy, with four hours stretching ahead of me till she returns”
Over the next 200 pages Marcus reflects on his life and marriage, his relationship with his father and his two children, Darragh and Agnes, in one unspooling piece of prose, broken into sections but not sentences, each paragraph joined to the next in a relentless flow. Memories merge with recent events, as we piece together the days before beginning with the opening of Agnes’ exhibition where Marcus is shocked to discover she has been painting with her own blood:
“whatever dreams a man may have for his daughter it is safe to say that none of them involve standing in the middle of a municipal gallery with its walls covered in a couple of litres of her own blood”
Shortly after Mairead falls ill:
“I stood by the side of her bed, frequently at a loss as to what exactly I should do, her face glossed with sweat, skin glowing in the weak light of the bedroom and something deathly about the way this illness closed her eyes”
The illness is traced back to a glass of water she drank when they went out for a meal in the city after the exhibition: the water supply has become contaminated and Mairead is just one of thousands to feel the effect:
“the story started drifting towards us in mid-March, coming out of the middle distance with its unlikely news of viral infection and contamination, a whole city puking its guts up, the stuff of a B-movie apocalypse seventy miles up the road”
As Marcus nurses her back to health, a wider debate over how much control we have over our lives opens up. As a civil engineer, Marcus builds a world of function and utility, but in his job we see that it is politics which often has the final word. When he refuses to sign off on the foundations of a school, believing them to be unsafe, the contractor simply goes above his head to the local councillor. He points out a lamppost to Mairead which has been placed in the corner of a field so that the farmer can feed his cattle:
it’s not as ridiculous as trying to remove it now, when our engineer tried to do that he was told fairly sharpish that he could forget about making a budget submission the following year if he moved it”
He tells Darragh a joke about a lawyer, a doctor, a politician and an engineer arguing about which profession came first. The engineer proposes that it must be his as God was the first engineer when he created the earth and the heavens out of chaos. “Who do you think made the chaos,” says the politician.
The water contamination, too, is an engineering problem – “the politicians will make sure the engineers take the blame for this” – demonstrating that engineering alone is not the answer. Marcus knows this form a visit to the Museum of Torture in Prague:
“it became clear from their craft and complexity that these machines, with their screws and gearing mechanisms were… the highest technical expressions of their age, the end to which skilled minds had deployed their gifts”
Marcus’ doubts can be seen in his original intention to join the priesthood before turning to engineering, two different ways of understanding the world. The novel quietly questions us on how we understand the world and how much control we have over it. In the face of our limitations, it offers a very ordinary love.
The novel’s conclusion is revealed in its blurb (or maybe I’m just a bit slow) which luckily I hadn’t read, and would suggest any potential reader avoid. Often beautiful, at times elegiac, it is an immersive experience from which readers will not emerge untouched.