By Mike McCormack
(Tramp Press, €15)
Meet Marcus Conway, County Engineer for Mayo, resident of Louisburgh, fiftyish, husband to schoolteacher 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 – his third, following Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes From A Coma (2005), and his fifth book if you include the short story collections Getting It In The Head (1996) and Forensic Songs (2012) – 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 the Lipitor cholesterol medication he is on, which weakens tendons down there. However, unlike the largely equanimous, even jovial Bloom, the metaphorical equivalence of this vulnerability is Marcus’ 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 (and vice versa), 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 as a boy in short trousers, to find the engine of the Massey Ferguson 35 tractor 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.’
He comments: ‘…since looking at those engine parts spread across the floor my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together, believing I saw here how heaven and earth could come unhinged when some essential cottering pin was tapped out which would undo the whole vast assemblage of stars and galaxies in their wheeling rotations and send them plummeting through the void of space towards some final ruin out on the furthest mearing of the universe and even if my childish fear at that specific moment did not run to such complete detail, only such cosmic awareness could account for the waves of anxiety that gripped me as I stood over those engine parts on the hayseed floor soul sick with an anxiety which was not soothed one bit the following day when my father drove the tractor out of the hayshed with a clear spout of smoke blurting from the exhaust…’ Marcus is quite an articulate, even at times verbose, prose stylist, for an engineer. Proust had his madeleine, McCormack has his tractor engine.
This idea of incipient collapse extends to ‘the global economic catastrophe, all this talk of virus and contagion, it is now clear to me that there are other types of chaos beyond the material satisfactions of things falling down since, it appears, out there in the ideal realm of finance and currency, economic constructs come apart in a different way or at least in ways specific to the things they are, abstract structures succumbing to intensely rarefied viruses which attack worth and values and the confidence which underpin them, swelling them beyond their optimal range to the point where they overbalance and eventually topple.’
Similarly, and in keeping with his Achillean sensitivity to perceived offences against his amour propre, or perhaps it is his integrity as a concerned citizen, he also has quite a hard-on against the havoc reeked by the venal short-termism of local councilors, TDs, developers and builders, looking to circumvent planning and health and safety regulations with a nod and a wink.
On the home front, his anxiety about the centre not holding and things falling apart is made manifest not just in the body politic, but also the physical body, when Mairead is infected with the coliform Cryptosporidium viral parasite, after a trip to the opening of Agnes’ first show at a gallery in Galway, a reference to the outbreak of food poisoning there in 2007 caused by infected water.
If this all sounds a little abstract and heady, it is in the familial moments that Marcus’ 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 musical 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’ 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’ 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 cosmopolitanly located contemporaries in tapping the pulse of the zeitgeist.