Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
There are a few things I am glad I didn’t know before I picked up this book, the foremost being that it is one sentence long (and 217 pages). Had I known that in advance I would have dismissed it as a gimmick, forcing the reader to try too hard unnecessarily, and probably some other judgments I can’t bring to mind right at the moment. It’s also, I suppose, possible to call in a “prose poem” and I would have wondered about that, too.
But I didn’t know either of those things, so I set upon this book as I do all books, hoping I love it and giving it sixty pages to fulfill that dream.
By page three I knew it was going to be a magnificent story, magnificently told.
It’s a mobius strip of a book. When it seems to turn back to the beginning, to sew things up, you find yourself at a new place, with a new beginning, unable, ever, to return. It’s hopeful and funny and nostalgic and sad and deeply human. As I do with books that affect me this way, upon reading the last page I then return to the first page to see how the author set up all that is to come and I read it in a whole new way.
What I soon discovered is that the structure of the single sentence and the poetic nature of the language is integral in conveying the unflagging human compassion of the book. The fact of the single sentence is part of what is said and what is meant. The writing carried me along and it carried me deep. I appreciated the open heartedness and painful vulnerability in this book and feel lucky to have read it.
Here are some examples of McCormack’s writing:
It is All Soul’s Day and the spirit of Marcus Conway is thinking back on September 29 and the near complete economic collapse in Ireland.
…surely this was the kind of catastrophe prophets should have an eye for or some foreknowledge of but didn’t since it is now evident in hindsight that our seers’ gifts were of a lesser order, their warnings lowered to a tremulous bleating, the voices of men hedging their bets and without the proper pitch of hysterical accusation as they settled instead for fault-finding and analysis, that cautionary note which in the end proved wholly inadequate to the coming disaster because pointing out flaws was never going to be enough and figures and projections, no matter how dire, were never likely to map out the real contours of the calamity or prove to be an adequate spell against it when, without that shrill tone of indictment, theirs was never a song to hold our attention and no point whatsoever meeting catastrophe with reason when what was needed was
our prophets deranged
and coming toward us wild-eyed and smeared with shit, ringing a bell, seer and sinner at once while speaking some language from the edge of reason whose message would translate into plain words as
well and truly fucked because
with the signs stacking up like this there will only be one outcome…
Wow. Wild-eyed and smeared with shit. His telling reminds me of the situation in our country now and how similarly I feel. The writing make me gasp in recognition. And the poetry of it, the language, the cadence, the breathlessness matched against the abrupt conclusion: we’re fucked. Incredible writing.
Marcus spends much of the book remembering his relationship with Mairead, his wife, and the many circumstances with her, with them together, that led him to this one particular moment, his one particular life. At one point, they are out walking and Marcus, who was trained as an engineer, tells her about a nomadic tribe in Mongolia who had a holy-woman at the center of the tribe who fulfilled the function of keeping the world in balance and harmony by living her life backwards, which Mairead questions:
… how do you mean backwards
I mean she walks backwards and talks backwards and rides her horse backwards, she gets up in the middle of the night to eat her dinner and she goes to bed when everyone around her is beginning their day and
why would she do that
that is fascinating—it’s their belief that if everyone is walking and talking and doing things in the same direction then there is real danger that the whole world will tip over, so one person is needed to work the opposite way to keep the world balanced and
that makes sense, it’s basic engineering, any load bearing structure will topple over if it doesn’t have balancing counterweight, cranes will topple over if they are not properly weighted
I don’t think they understood it as engineering
probably not, but that’s what it is, some mechanisms have to be counter-geared to keep them tensioned
all I could think of was that only a woman would get a job like that
maybe only a woman could do a job like that, one weighty and contrary soul to keep the world in balance
At one point Mairead gets very sick with a severe stomach illness caused by tainted water that has affected everyone in town and has confined her to bed for weeks with a terrible fever and diarrhea. Marcus takes intimate and loving care of her in ways he has never had to do previously, describing it this way:
…we were now carried towards each other on the tidal rhythm of her fever, rising and falling on those swells specific to the illness itself, every moment pushing our marriage beyond its usual, mannered intimacies and into a new knowing of each other which was beyond embarrassment and this was something which no news article or analysis could hope to capture, this flesh and filth intimacy as the very thing which leaked away in the telling of this news story as it came through the news bulletins and headlines to wash through
this same house
in which I’ve lived the best part of three decades and put together all those habits and rituals which have made up my marriage and family life and where now, for some reason, this day has given me pause to dwell on these things…
He describes “this flesh and filth intimacy” as a loving sacrament while at the same time not whitewashing what it is. It’s intimate and real and beautiful. His poetic language illuminates rather than obscures.
Another description of the flesh and filth intimacy:
… bracing herself with both hands planted down beside her before propelling herself out the door and down the hall in a desperate lunge to the shower in which I had placed one of the plastic chairs from the garden so that she could sit with her head bowed, soaping her crotch and underarms beneath the warm cascade for ten minutes or so, the water pounding down on her as she sat there like a ruined princess before she would stand up, swaying in the steaming heat with her towel gathering around her so that I could carry her back to the bedroom to dry her and put her into fresh pyjamas, then angling her back under the sheets where she would lie breathless, every pulse trip-hammering through her body till it leveled out to where she could drift off to sleep once more, all this happening without any word passing between us, a job done in silence and not clouded with speech because I knew these lucid moments were so precious to her that she would not want to waste them in talk…
A ruined princess. Clouded with speech. He conveys so much with so few perfect words.
And finally, he has been out on an errand, his wife seems to be on the mend, and he has the breath of this good luck filling his lungs. He’s gone to a coffee shop to get a sandwich before going home and his sense of gratitude overwhelms him:
… I was so completely overtaken with a foolish excess of gratitude for this half hour in this coffee shop, a quiet spell among decent people, good food and the careful work of those who ran it so that for one moment in which time and space seemed to plummet through me in terraced depths which had me reaching out to grip the edge of the table, I had a rushing sense of the cosmic odds stacked against this here-and-now, how unlikely and how contingent it was on so many other things taking their proper place in the wider circumstance of the universe and exerting their right degree of pressure on the contextual circumstances so that for one moment, sitting there with a cup of coffee in my hand and the chair bracing my back I had a clear view down through the vortex of my whole being, down through all the linked circumstances that had combined to place me there at this specific moment in time and this wave of gratitude and terror swept through me with such violent force that I feared I would mortify myself by breaking down in tears, an ecstasy of joy and terror for the world and everything in it…
Yes. It’s how I feel. Gratitude and terror and tears. The way he structured the story, the language he used, his commitment to truth and beauty, served, with gentle, insistent reverence, to put me in my place, focus my attention, and require me to see, feel, and regard my life. This book took my breath away.
This is the perfect book to read to start 2022. You can order Solar Bones at your local bookstore or online at:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >