Solar Bones. Mike McCormack.

McCormack, Mike. Solar Bones. Soho Press, New York, 2017. F;12/18.

Samhain is a Celtic Festival observed in parts of Ireland on October 31. It represents the beginning of the “dark” part of the year, and is the ancestor of Halloween. Legend has it that at around that time “… the souls of the dead are bailed from purgatory for a while by the prayers of the faithful so that they can return to their homes…” according to Marcus Conway, this novel’s main character. The plot’s setting is stated on the dust cover but if you’re interested in not finding out what is really going on until the end, the rest of this review is under a plot alert.

Marcus, you see, an engineer, died in the past year. He narrates his reflection on his life as he sits at Samhain in the kitchen of his home waiting for his family to return. It’s not clear if they do (or if they did whether they could see or hear him).

He’s quite a likable guy, is Marcus, with an ambivalent view of life reflecting his early years in seminary and his eventual career as an engineer. Colourful daydreams occupy him:

(After shutting off the television he has) a burnt feeling behind my eyes as if the light from the monitor has scalded them to the core, the kind of feeling you imagine you would have just before the world goes up in flames, some refined corrosion eating away at the rods and cones, collapsing their internal structure before they slope out of their sockets and run down your cheekbones, leaving you standing hollow-eyed in the middle of some desolation with the wind whistling through your skull, just before the world collapses…

but engineer that he is he appreciates his father’s view of the world as a properly ordered and coherent place in which a man could find his way or take his bearings from certain signs and markers if he only did not allow his vision to become cluttered up with nonsense or things to assume outsize importance in his life…

Marcus has troubles, including politicians who override his opinion about the structure of a school which if erected as planned he knows will show fatal flaws within five years. He worries about his wife Mairead who comes down with a terrible cryptosporidiosis digestive illness from contamination of the city’s water supply, from which illness she is just beginning to recover when he dies. His kids are an older girl who has some early success exhibiting her artwork in town, and a boy with an enviable quick mind who has however taken off to Australia, grown his hair long, and is knocking around with a bunch of buddies.

As Mairead is getting better Marcus drives into town, buys newspapers and picks up a prescription for her, and has a dreamlike but realistic epiphany sitting in a café enjoying his lunch and all the fine decent people around him. Driving home, he is overcome with chest pain and dies in his car after pulling over to the side of the road.

I started out a bit annoyed at McCormack’s form, which technically casts the whole novel as a single sentence (no periods at all, and paragraphs marked by indentation without capitals) but as the gentle tone and the character captivated me I was happy to see this as a sort of Joycean Irish stream of consciousness, more of Ulysses than Finnegans Wake. There’s lots of effortless-sounding writing that carries momentum with only a few overwrought sections that had me skipping ahead a bit.

I liked Marcus’s switch from humanism to a technical trade which seemed like my own experience, and also the successful, motivated, confident daughter and hesitant, lost, and sometimes lazy-appearing son. This pattern in young people now in their thirties seems to me to be the unintended consequence of successful feminism which caught a generation of young guys in its backwash. Just as sad and unfair, of course, to have been a girl at the time I was growing up, or at pretty well any other time up until the present.

This was a nice quick read with a credible charming character, fair-to-good writing, and a neat culturally-based conceit shadowing it all with dark mortality. 8.5/8.3.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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