A Stylistically Daring Novel Considers Fundamental Questions


“hearth, home and parish, towards

“the wider world beyond

“way beyond.”

Or a memory of existential awareness (upon receiving his daughter’s birth certificate) might suddenly turn mundane: “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 … this document which did not tag or enumerate her but freed her into her own political space, our citizen daughter who

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“are we ever going to leave this car park or are you going to sit all day gawping at that certificate

“Mairead called from the back seat.”

McCormack is a pleasure to read on everything from King Crimson — “music for engineers, all those dissonant chords laid down at right angles” — to picking out eyeglasses — “each made me look foolish in one way or another, too comic or too odd or too obviously chasing something I no longer possessed” — but it’s the connections that the book keeps coming back to, the way one story relates to another, the whole greater than its parts.

Sticklers for verisimilitude might rightly point out that nobody really “thinks” in such articulate well-cadenced paragraphs (Molly Bloom’s mind is a rat’s nest by comparison), but the coherence McCormack has opted for is more than stylistic. In some ways, it’s what the whole book is about. More than once Marcus counts himself “one of those men who had always structured his days around radio news bulletins,” and his struggle against a fractured worldview fed by media saturation is the novel’s most compelling and recurring theme. The stories he dwells on longest involve a water contamination catastrophe that makes Mairead very ill (“history and politics were now a severe intestinal disorder, spliced into the figure of my wife who sweated along the pale length of her body”) and a case of political graft sabotaging a public construction project he’d overseen as an engineer. Meanwhile, his own “childhood ability to get ahead of myself and reason to apocalyptic ends” he sees reinvented in his son, Darragh, as a “kind of apocalyptic riffing,” the media-age glibness of the young. It’s in this context that a memory of something as innocuous as a video chat with Darragh (who was bumming around Australia, calling intermittently in the middle of the night) leads Marcus to imagine the world’s end: “standing hollow-eyed in the middle of some desolation with the wind whistling through your skull, just before the world collapses

“mountains, rivers and lakes

“acres, roods and perches

“into oblivion, drawn down into that fissure in creation where everything is consumed in the raging tides and swells of non-being, the physical world gone down in flames

“mountains, rivers and lakes

“and pulling with it also all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily

“rites, rhythms and rituals.”

McCormack’s sense of Armageddon is at once familiarly contemporary and blessedly contentious. Marcus’s gloominess is tempered by his own self-skepticism and struggle, but the true counterpoint is an agnostic sort of spirituality that accumulates over the course of the novel, a sense of the connectedness of humanity, the world in all its parts, “that harmonic order,” as Marcus imagines, “which underlay everyone and everything.” It is this same sense of order he identifies earlier, “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.”

For all its apparent stylistic complexity, “Solar Bones” is a beautifully simple book. Death has not solved Marcus’s worldly problems, only offered a shift of scope, and this is what McCormack’s novel offers as well. Where modernism took a world that appeared to be whole and showed it to be broken, “Solar Bones” takes a world that can’t stop talking about how broken it is, and suggests it might possibly be whole.

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