Solar Bones Explores the Harmonies in Life’s Small, Interlocking Parts
Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones has a simple, possibly insipid premise — on All Soul’s Day, the spirit of Marcus Conway returns to his home and remembers his life — and a potentially self-indulgent stylistic conceit; it has no full stops and is delivered in one ceaseless stream of thought and memory. So we can be forgiven for expecting it to use vapid stylistic flourishes to conceal a hollow story. Yet Solar Bones manages to bypass possible pitfalls in its subject and style by merging form and content to create a singular examination of a life’s constellatory emergence from a vast collection of memories.
The genius and challenge of McCormack’s unstopped novel lies in the unassuming, fluid prose that conceals its rigorous construction. In Conway, we have an amiable and perceptive narrator. An Irish man in an Irish town, a civil engineer with a wife and two children, Conway is positioned as a classic every, and he recounts his unremarkable life with little fuss. There’s no grand impetus for this telling, no single arc for the novel to cohere around, just one thought leading to the next, one memory reminding Conway of more, a detail unveiling a trove of meaning, and a man taking stock of his life by observing “all those human rhythms that bind us together and draw the world into a community, those daily / rites, rhythms, and rituals / upholding the world like solar bones.”
Solar Bones eschews the sentence’s natural completion in favor of open-ended events and unsealed thoughts. It develops a leaky prose of associative progressions, where no memory is cordoned off from another and where everything is happening, and all at once. Global events, local politics, childhood memories, natural sciences, and forsaken lives meld through the porous writing, which often obscures where one idea ends and another begins, and rather than chain anecdotes together in a linear fashion, McCormack performs transpositions and dissolves that allow for anecdotes to fade into one another until they eventually coexist.
Early in the novel, Conway speculates on the 2008 financial crisis, and within one page he pivots from the collapse of markets to the general nature of collapse to a memory of his father, not of the “ragged shambles he would become at the end of his life” but of him when Conway was a child and found him in a hayshed dismantling and reassembling a farming implement, a habit of his because he needed to know how pieces of equipment worked to “be assured his faith in them was well placed.”
The fluidity of the prose moves us from a relatively recent global event to a distant, personal memory with such slyness that we hardly notice. The disparate threads incorporate into one another, leaving no topic in a vacuum. Conway’s long discussion on his father and his father’s farm implements remains tethered to Conway’s reflection on the financial system’s fall to ruin “in that specific way which proved it never existed.” Unlike the tools his father could build with his own hands, which buttressed his faith, these opaque and distal financial tools make Conway wonder if “every toppled edifice creates both the light and lens through which the disaster itself can properly be seen.” And by underscoring the contrast between these disparate concepts, a contrast dependent on their shared ability to collapse, Conway makes them coeval, so neither takes precedence while each enhances the other’s significance.
While the subtle transitions progress across disparate topics, they don’t abandon the earlier anecdotes. Moments of recurrence arise when a topic is revived after scores of pages, so while decades can be leapt across in a few lines, time can also be folded over, making such leaps inconsequential anyway.
When Conway tells about his father’s demise, he recounts a scene of them outside beneath a gray sky, waiting for the GPS-enabled tractor to be restarted by satellite. The scene is almost a negative of the one from earlier, when his father dismantles and rebuilds a tractor with only his hands and an open-end spanner. Now his father can no longer verify the reasons for his faith, and he must look up at the sky and wait for an unknowable satellite to start his engine. Separated by over a hundred pages, the moments become concurrent, and time is made light of.
Conway’s focus on anecdotes involving engineering and parts assembling into wholes is not only a product of his occupation as an engineer but also a way to underscore the novel’s method for reconstructing a life. Like in the old tractor, the novel’s small pieces only become animate when they join up, and as gears can only function with their teeth grinding together, Conway’s memories become significant only when situated together.
Though the layered, diffuse structure mimics life’s diffusiveness and posits a world of elusive purpose and multichannel origins, many of the events recounted in Solar Bones involve people’s search for defined meanings and clear narratives. One of the novel’s many small dramas regards a virus that spread through a city’s waterways and infected Mairead along with hundreds of others. Officials seek the source of the virus, but like the novel’s circuitous form, the city’s water system is a decentralized web, thus the virus is lost among the “rolling fog” made from the “convergence of adverse circumstances,” which makes accountability a “murky realm.”
Despite Conway being the voice who delivers the novel’s digressive flow, he is acutely interested in synecdoche, and he often searches for an image or a memory to stand in for the whole, “a look or a word, enough to hang a whole life on,” an idea which the novel’s structure seems to oppose.
He remembers how Mairead’s cheeks would bloom with color each spring, and he tries to make it an origin point, but he recollects an earlier memory, then returns to this one and thinks:
A whole person and their life
Cohered clearly around these few details and how, if ever this woman had to be remade, the world could start with the light and line of this pose which was so characteristic of her whole being, drawing down out of the ether her configuration, her structure and alignment, all the lines and contours which make her up as the woman she was on that day, with her health and spirit intact and content, this moment in which she was lost to herself in books and music, heedless to the whole world in a way that allowed something true and unguarded of herself to present so clearly that I found myself standing at the corner of the house, gazing at her from a distance, hardly able to believe that I shared a quarter of a century with this woman who…
Exemplary of Conway’s rigorous yet perambulating thought process, the passage shows him trying to encapsulate his wife, an attempt whose failure is suggested by his inability to close the thought from all others, making the “light and line” continuous with everything else, not superseding them.
Solar Bones’s greatest achievement lies in its inherent continuity, which allows for no piece to either take precedence or be superfluous. In the enmeshment of events and memories, the novel’s form and the narrator’s ideas converge, for while Conway seeks particular moments to draw meaning from, the novel’s structure displays them all as both particular and banal. The banality of moments like when Conway rises to go to work and is “filled with a marvelous sense of how important and serious it was as a father and husband to be up and about so early,” makes the task into a node through which Conway shares something with millions of men he’ll never meet. In this novel of simple parts joining into complex, animate wholes, Conway and the other men become these parts who can only expand once connected to one another, a fact which Conway appreciates when he sings a song “which can be sung away to your heart’s content with just that measure of regret which allows you to feel that, for all your loneliness, you are still part of the wider human drama and that this is a genuine kinship.”
Conway’s impulse for connection guides the novel’s unending sentence and creates his insightful moments of appreciation. He sees how any moment, even one as simple as eating a sandwich in a diner, requires an endless amount of circumstances to even be possible, and his recognition of this is what leads to unending digressions and associations. In constructing Solar Bones with a narrator so attuned to the world’s bridges, McCormack gives us a novel wherein each page is communing with every other. It is a rare work that both upsets our expectations and surpasses them, weaving form and content weave together so that the digressions and details work in concert with one another to sketch out the messy sprawl of a life.