“I couldn’t give my work away, to be honest with you. No one wanted to know.” Now in his 50s, Irish writer Mike McCormack spent a decade in the doldrums before the triumph of Solar Bones, a single- sentence novel in which the ghost of a Mayo engineer called Marcus Conway looks back on his life and death.
Now out in the UK, it was originally published last spring by the tiny Irish press Tramp; hailed in the Guardian as a book for “anyone who believes that the novel is not dead and that novelists are not merely lit-fest fodder for the metropolitan middle classes”, it went on to win the Goldsmiths prize for innovative fiction.
As judge Blake Morrison pointed out, “its subject may be an ordinary working life, but it is itself an extraordinary work”: taking in faith and family, politics and art, sex, death and cosmic anxiety - as McCormack says now, “life, the universe and the whole damn thing”.
What marks it out is the continuous prose, surging on through memories and digressions. “A ghost would have no business with a full stop,” he points out matter-of-factly. “It might fatally falter and dissipate.”
McCormack had enjoyed early success before he “dropped completely off the radar”. His prize-winning debut, 1996’s short-story collection Getting It in the Head, was sharp as knives, mixing tongue-in-cheek bog Gothic with metaphysical flourishes and lashings of ultraviolence.
The novel Crowe’s Requiem followed two years later: a fantastical mashup of young love and doomy student alienation set in Galway which McCormack describes now as “a magical realist kind of goth fairytale”.
It divided readers, he admits, receiving “the worst review of a book I’ve ever seen. I’m quite proud of that now: I’ve never heard of anyone else provoking a critic to lament the loss of trees.”
It took seven years to write his next novel, Notes from a Coma, which splices a realistic small-town narrative with an ominous SF strand about an EU project to make the penal system more efficient by keeping prisoners in a coma.
One young man, plagued by guilt and ennui, volunteers as a research subject; his anxious friends and family take it in turns to recount the story straight, while from further down the page what McCormack calls “flaring offshoots, contingent riffs” break into the main body of the text. “My wife says I’ll go to my grave roaring ‘they’re not [expletive] footnotes!’”
Whatever they are, they give McCormack the freedom to dig into the metaphysical implications of digital technology and the overweening ambitions of the Celtic Tiger, along with the rise of reality TV and the intricacies of death metal.
“I know people object to it,” he says now of the fractured text and ungovernable annotations. “Say it’s very bitty, it’s fragmented, all over the place. I say well, you know, it’s called Notes From a Coma, it’s not called Long, Continuous Narrative from a Coma.”
McCormack found writing the novel “extraordinarily difficult. I didn’t know what I was doing for years and years. It’s only a short book. Says something for how slow I am.” Composed on the “rising arc” of the financial boom, it came out in 2005, a couple of years before the crash, and “commercially was just a complete disaster. Every review said, ‘This is very original’: seems like that was the death knell.”
The book was at odds, McCormack now recognises, with the conservatism of the Celtic Tiger, which “had loads of energy and muscle but didn’t have one new idea in its head. One of the things it did was repetition: the same basic commercial tricks, the same developmental transactions ... “ But the novel’s contrariness, its very opposition to the times, brought it cult acclaim, with one critic describing it as the greatest Irish novel of the 2000s. Small comfort, when it lost McCormack his publisher, and “disappeared without trace”.
A decade later, the publishing scene in Ireland looked very different. In 2012 McCormack had brought out a “respectfully received” second short-story collection, the more relaxed, discursive Forensic Songs, with the indie press Lilliput. When it was time to send out the manuscript of Solar Bones, “people liked it but wouldn’t go with it and wouldn’t go with me. ‘Ah, it’s another McCormack book, there’s this experimental thing going on in it, typically odd.’ This is the way it went for about a year.”
Then Tramp, young publishers who set up shop in 2014 and had been McCormack fans since they were teenagers, intervened. “Every detail that other publishers had moaned and whined about, they ran with,” says McCormack. “Intellectually they met it head on.”
Tramp, which also publishes the acclaimed Sara Baume, is part of a resurgence in Irish fiction that has swept McCormack up in its wake. Now, “people are looking at me like a debutante. ‘OK, on my fifth book I’m a debutante!’ It’s very much what I feel like.”
“The generation behind me seem to be much more open to the idea of experiment,” he says. “I sometimes think we forget that Irish writers are experimental writers. Our Mount Rushmore is Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and if you’re not talking about those writers then you’ve lowered your gaze. For me they’re the father, son and holy ghost. They’ve nothing in common except they all went to some trouble to expand the received form, and there’s something of that happening again - a rejuvenation of the experimental instinct.”
Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing has been crucial to this resurgence. “She made no bones about the fact that she was influenced by Joyce. And you never, ever hear Irish writers saying that, because Joyce seemed to be more a luring, disabling presence in many ways. She saw him properly, as an enabling presence, and she ran with it.”
McCormack wrote Solar Bones while teaching essay writing to mature students in various universities (“good, honest work, but it takes up an awful lot of real estate in your head”): what he sought to tap into with it was “that spirit of generosity and recklessness” fuelling Beckett and Joyce. Having written four “forensically chiselled, quite finicky” books, he’d been aware for a long time that “something messy and slobbery about life was falling outside of that kind of attentiveness.
The only way of gathering that type of thing in is to write a big, huge social novel. Now, I don’t have the dramatic swaths to do that kind of thing. But I thought maybe if I start writing a big sentence ...” Not that he remembers much about the process: “I’m not so sure I wrote the book. In some sense I feel that I took dictation for five years.”
McCormack was born in London in 1965: his parents left Mayo to find work, met at a dance hall and started a family. For part of his childhood he lived in Ireland with his grandparents, before his mother and father moved back to the small seaside town of Louisburgh where nearly all his work is set.
“I sit down and my mind will default to it,” he explains. “It’s the one solid thing I know about. After that, anything can happen - I’ve no difficulty with ghosts, or penal experiments, or rare diseases. But the bedrock in which those fantastical things are cast is the place that I know most about.”
The family home was just under Croagh Patrick , Ireland’s holiest mountain, and McCormack was an altar boy from the age of seven to 13: “When I started to write I had this massive reservoir of ritual and myth. Those things are the backdrop of my imagination.”
When he was 18, his father died suddenly of a heart attack, a propensity that runs in the family as well as throughout his fiction: all his books are obsessed with the miracle and fragility of the heart. It’s not surprising that fathers are a recurring preoccupation, too, and he’s mildly pleased to point out that rather than the “sullen, passive-aggressive fathers that tend to dominate Irish fiction”, he mostly gives them “a good rap”.
It was a bleak time, remembered through “an incredible slough of rain and bad light”. McCormack signed up to study engineering, feeling that “as the man of the house I had a responsibility to look after my family. I knew within three hours I didn’t have the maths for it.” Instead he took a gardening job in a pharmaceutical company and settled down to read high up and low down.
“It was the year I discovered Pynchon, Calvino and all of those Picador books that had such a firing effect on my generation. We all went out and bought a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude: completely turned our heads. In many ways, that was the most important nine or 10 months of my life.”
He went on to study English and philosophy at Galway University, where his fondness for science fiction fed into plans for a thesis on Heidegger and technology. He was a “dull student”, though, and when he first started writing short stories realised “Jesus, I’m better and happier at this than I am at reading philosophy”.
It seemed to him that being “an ordinary farm boy over in the west of Ireland was not the stuff of a writerly background”, and he was intimidated as well as thrilled by the fiction he loved.
Then he read Thomas Pynchon’s self-deprecating account of his early writings in Slow Learner. “I thought Jesus, if the great man is having these misgivings, it’s OK for me to have them. That essay was hugely enabling. It cleared my head a small bit.”
It was while he was reading for his unwritten thesis that he “became utterly convinced that engineers make the world”. Decades later, Solar Bones is, in part, a hymn to engineers - who are, as McCormack points out, underrepresented in fiction.
“Engineering has this curious position at a crossroads where politics and commercial interests and civic interests all come together. Engineers have to navigate projects between these rocks. They get distorted. They never fulfil their potential. If the world was run by engineers it would be run differently.”
Technology, a preoccupation through all his work, tends to be badly served by fiction generally, he says, citing JG Ballard (“my short story hero”) as a rare exception.
“There’s the old humanist snobbery of writers and poets not wanting to have anything to do with the machines, seeing the devil’s work in them. Whereas I think technology is one of the glories of the human project. God is no less obvious to us in our machines than he is in our flowers and our poetry and our metaphysics.”
Technology and engineering come to the fore in Solar Bones - yet so does art, in the person of Marcus’s daughter Agnes, who creates a solo exhibition out of her own blood.
McCormack “fell among visual artists” after university and spent his 20s living with painters and sculptors, providing “a complete other education”; he is married to the artist Maeve Curtis.
But it’s family that is at the heart of the book; and finishing it coincided with an event that was no less life-changing. McCormack sent the manuscript off to his agent in the small hours of a winter morning, and later that day became a father for the first time. “As my wife said, it’s either the book or the child, the house isn’t big enough for the two of them.”
He sees domestic life as grounding the ideas and impulses behind Solar Bones: “Marriage and family bring with them a great enabling urgency.” In Marcus Conway, passionately committed to his wife and children, wrestling with the politics of work and what it means to be a citizen, weighing engineering against faith, McCormack has created not one of his usual outcasts and oddballs, but a character with “complete involvement with the world. That’s what kept me going back to him.
“For my first book, the soundtrack was Scandinavian death metal, and now this book is Hank Williams,” he chuckles. “You get middle aged, you mellow. You like to think you deepen.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd