Thirty years ago Conor Cruise O’Brien coined the acronym GUBU, standing for grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. He was paraphrasing a comment by the then taoiseach of Ireland, Charles Haughey, describing a strange series of incidents in the summer of 1982 that included a double murder and the arrest of the killer in the house of the Irish attorney general. The episode inspired John Banville’s 1989 novel, The Book of Evidence.
Another GUBU episode from more recent Irish history lies at the heart of Mike McCormack’s bracingly original novel. In March 2007 the mains water supply in Galway (the author’s home town, ‘the wettest city in Ireland’) and the surrounding areas became contaminated with cryptosporidium, a parasite found in human and animal excrement. Many people became very ill. McCormack investigates this ‘bodily and civic catastrophe’, as represented by the sickness of the narrator’s wife, an extended metaphor for the state of the nation.
But there’s much more to Solar Bones than a jaundiced exploration of political and moral shortcomings in Irish public life, despite the apparently conventional domestic setting. The narrator is a middle-aged engineer called Marcus Conway, contentedly married to Maireid and living in County Mayo. They have two grown-up children: Agnes is a promising but troubled artist; Darragh is a footloose backpacker making his way across Australia. The novel opens with Marcus alone in his kitchen listening to the tolling of the Angelus bell – it is All Souls’ Day, when, it is said, the dead may return. It comes as no surprise to discover that he is himself a gentle revenant haunting the family home, tormented and consoled by a stream of seemingly random yet scrupulously organised memories.
In common with Mathias Enard’s Zone (published in English in 2014 by Fitzcarraldo), Solar Bones has no place for anything as routine as a full stop; the prose takes the form of lengthy paragraphs that alternate with short, indented lines, usually tipping at a ‘which’ or ‘who’ or ‘that’ or ‘and’. I can only compare the effect to a form of mental respiration – the reader experiences the longer sections as slow exhalations, the shorter as sharp intakes of breath. This is neither confusing nor soporific because McCormack brilliantly manages the pace and rhythm of each sentence, paragraph, page and sequence. The effect is to find oneself (to quote the narrator) ‘suspended in a time of stalled duration’, becalmed on the sea of memory. The prose grips gently but firmly as we are gradually immersed in Marcus’s posthumous recollections. The lack of full stops is not as distracting and intrusive as it was in Zone, and there are commas aplenty.
There is, throughout, a dying fall, but no sense of exhaustion or a thwarted desire to communicate. Marcus is not prone to the chronic loquacity of Beckett’s relicts; he is eloquently meditative, acutely observant and thoughtful. He is an ordinary man, averagely good, though more than usually sensitive to the world around him. It’s difficult to select and extract a representative passage because the effect is gradual and cumulative, but the following will give an idea of the approach, as the narrator reflects on the local health crisis:
the convergence of adverse circumstances – decrepit technology and torrential rains, overdevelopment and agricultural slurry – which smudged and spread responsibility for the crisis in such a way as to make the whole idea of accountability a murky realm in which there was little willingness on the part of the authorities to point the finger at farmers or engineers or those planners and developers who had allowed the city to grow beyond its ability to keep itself supplied with potable water so that with
no blame or responsibility gathering anywhere
the story hung through the city’s ambience as a kind of rolling
fog which, with each passing day, thickened to a whitewash over the whole crisis in which it became clear that no one would be blamed nor held responsible, the city now so enwrapped in a murk that
it began to inhabit a kind of dreamtime
And so on. This ‘dreamtime’ state pervades the novel as McCormack organises the flux of Marcus’s thoughts and memories of a life now over. This is all hauntingly sad, but also frequently very funny – Proust reconfigured by Flann O’Brien.
Solar Bones reaches a phantasmagoric climax in a tour de force account of a rowdy carnival protest outside Galway City Hall (in which a fifty-foot-tall figure of Lemuel Gulliver suggests a Swiftian satirical bite). Shortly after this, as Maireid recovers and Marcus drives to a pharmacy in Westport, he enjoys a kind of high-definition last day alive, a presentiment of the heaven that he will never enter. He has an epiphany – slightly overwrought, I thought – in a coffee shop before his end comes suddenly, alone in a lay-by surrounded by gravel and hardcore. His last moments are described in a sensationally good stretch of writing.
Solar Bones has certainly been worth the ten-year wait since McCormack’s last novel, Notes from a Coma. An incisive meditation on the follies of contemporary Ireland, it is also a profound metaphysical exploration of life itself: grotesque, bizarre and unprecedented, yes, but also wholly believable.