Wednesday 21 February 2018

Engineering thoughts about life and death

Fiction: Solar Bones, Mike McCormack, Tramp Press, €15

A day in the life: Mike McCormack's new novel asks important questions about life and death, how to live and how to die.
A day in the life: Mike McCormack's new novel asks important questions about life and death, how to live and how to die.

Desmond Traynor

Meet Marcus Conway, county engineer for Mayo, resident of Louisburgh, fiftyish, husband to school teacher Mairead, father to aspiring artist Agnes and backpacker Darragh, brother to Eithne, ex-seminarian, one time adulterer, and all-round connoisseur of chaos, both domestic and universal.

Mike McCormack's new novel is a day, or rather, a morning and early afternoon, in the life of this gentleman. It is no ordinary half-day either, although it seems so for most of the narrative, culminating in its closing pages in a finale it would be spoilerish to reveal (did you see it coming?), but which attempts to lend weight to what has gone before, in so doing asking important ethical and metaphysical questions about life and death, how to live and how to die.

Although clues are dropped throughout, the novel largely dispenses with plot contrivances, and completely with full stops, choosing instead to range broadly over Marcus' reminiscences of his life, in a Bloom-like, free associative, stream of consciousness manner. Indeed, like Joyce's Leopold, Marcus is in many ways an ordinary hero, a mythic everyman, although his classical correlative would not be Odysseus, but rather Achilles. He even has a literal gammy heel, a side effect of his cholesterol medication. However, unlike jovial Bloom, the metaphorical equivalence of this vulnerability is Marcus's defining characteristic of anxiety. In his mental ramblings, he is inclined to fret about everything, whether it is his immediate family, or the state of the county, the country, or the whole shooting match.

For while the universal may be contained in the particular, for Marcus this translates into an engineer's acute awareness of the nothingness upon which everything is built, and the provisional nature and inherent instability of all structures.

This sense of dread is vividly illustrated in a genuinely unnerving recollection Marcus has of coming home from school one day, to find the engine of the Massey Ferguson 35 tractor which his farmer father had bought 'completely broken down…gutted of its most essential parts and forlorn now, its components ordered across the floor in such a way as to make clear not only the sequence of its dismantlement but also the reverse order in which it would be restored to the full working harmonic of itself.'

Marcus is quite an articulate, even at times verbose, prose stylist, for an engineer. Proust had his madeleines, McCormack has his tractor engine. This idea of incipient collapse extends to the global economic catastrophe, since 'out there in the ideal realm of finance and currency, economic constructs come apart… succumbing to intensely rarefied viruses which attack worth and values and the confidence which underpin them.'

On the home front, it is made manifest in the body politic, and the physical body, when Mairead is infected with the coliform Cryptosporidium parasite, after a trip to the opening of Agnes's first exhibit in Galway, a reference to the 2007 outbreak of food poisoning caused by infected water.

If this all sounds a little abstract and heady, it is in the familial moments that Marcus's humanity survives, best exemplified in how attentively he nurses Mairead through her illness. Technology, of itself, is an agent of neither control nor chaos: that depends on how it is used. Thus, the amusing father and son exchange about the generational gap in popular music taste which takes place when Darragh, Skyping from Australia, asks his dad if he has made any headway with Radiohead's Kid A.

In Marcus's opinion, 'it sounded a lot like unleaded King Crimson', a band his offspring describes as, 'music for engineers, all those dissonant chords laid down at right angles to each other', prompting Marcus's conclusion, 'exactly, my generation demanded more from our music than soft emoting'.

Mike McCormack is an important writer, not just in the Irish context, but internationally. Writing from and about the furthest edge of Europe, he is leagues ahead of many of his more cosmopolitan contemporaries in tapping the pulse of the zeitgeist.

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