This novel by Mike McCormack is not really my kind of book. For one thing, it’s one long sentence. Actually, that’s the only thing. A book that’s just one long sentence would have to be pretty good not to irritate me. And it didn’t irritate me. I didn’t exactly fall in love with it, as so many others have done, but I did like it.
The book chronicles the thoughts of a man named Marcus Conway who is sitting in his kitchen in Ireland on All Souls’ Day looking back on his life. The stream-of-consciousness narration takes all the twists and turns that the human mind tends to think when just left to meander.
this is how the mind unravels in nonsense and rubbish
if given its head
the mind in repose, unspooling to infinity, slackening to these ridiculous musings which are too easily passed off as thought, these glib associations, mental echoes which reverb with our anxiety to stay wake and wise to the world or at least attentive to as much of its circumstances as we can grasp while
come to think of it
thinking of it now
now being thought
McCormack uses that keeps the book readable by using lots of short paragraphs and occasional fragments. You’re rarely confronted with a single wall of text, although there are no natural breaks in the narrative. When I needed to take a break had to make myself pay attention to when Marcus was turning to a new subject.
So what does Marcus think about? Most of his thoughts revolve around his work and his family, especially his wife and children. He’s an engineer, and he mulls over some of the projects he worked on. Mostly, though, he thinks about his two adult children and their mysterious lives. He also remembers when his wife, Mairead, was seriously ill and spent days in bed. The thoughts themselves aren’t especially profound. Marcus comes across as an ordinary man, but a decent one, who is doing his best in sometimes difficult circumstances.
When I read a book like this, I sometimes wonder what I would think of it if it were told in a more traditional, straightforward style. In the case of Solar Bones, the story on its own has some genuinely moving moments. I also liked Marcus’s bafflement at his kids’ choices, which might have been addressed more deeply in a traditional story because they’re a chief source of conflict in this mostly gentle book. But Marcus’s ordinary nature might for a dull book. Getting into his head and following his thoughts moment by moment makes him interesting. Plus, the way McCormack engineers his sentence, creating a single chain of ideas, seems fitting for a book about an engineer.
I wouldn’t want to read books like this all the time. My preference is still for a more traditional style. But this is a successful example of how stream-of-consciousness taken to an extreme can be successful. I didn’t love it, but I’d be happy to see it on the Booker shortlist.