Mike McCormack: ‘Ireland’s most criminally-overlooked writer’

Mike McCormack burst onto the Irish literary scene in 1995 with his debut collection of short stories, Getting it in The Head. Described by Olaf Tyarensen of Hotpress as ‘Ireland’s most criminally-overlooked writer’, McCormack has become a source of pride for NUI Galway.

McCormack informs me that he graduated from NUI Galway with a BA in Philosophy and English ‘over twenty years ago’ – an imprecise estimate that is irreflective of the meticulous and scientific attitude he takes to his writing. Exactitude aside, McCormack is a very experimental writer. Solar Bones received praise for being written entirely in the stream-of-consciousness format. Taking five to write, the book’s 223 pages adhere to no conventional literary style or punctuation guidelines known to man.

When McCormack began to write the book, he knew the narrator had to be a ghost. As he put it himself in a recent talk with final year English students here in NUI Galway, ‘a ghost would have no business with full stops’.  Inspired by Northern Mayo traditions of a very real respect for the dead on All Soul’s Day, his writing is steeped in a primal sense of spirituality. It echoes a fascination with the dead and our landscape of religion that haunts many of Ireland’s greatest writers, but McCormack’s experimental narrative drives this tradition to new and beautiful places.

As the Guardian triumphantly declared when reviewing Mike McCormack’s latest offering, Solar Bones, ‘excellence is always rare and often unexpected’. This could not be truer, even when applied to the greats of modern Irish writing.

McCormack, who is now the head of the Creative Writing undergraduate programme here at NUI Galway was feted in style in the Quadrangle on the 22 of February this year, where President James Brown thanked Mike for ‘both the pleasure he has given to readers over the past two decades as well as the insight he has shared with students’.

Solar Bones has amassed a wealth of plaudits, most notably: The University of London’s Goldsmiths prize, the Eason Book Club Irish Novel of the Year and the overall Irish Book of the Year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. When quizzed about these accolades, McCormack simply stated his surprise that ‘people put awards on it’. Such modesty is a mark of a great man and writer who should probably get used to his work receiving such wide acclaim.

To those who have followed McCormack’s career, such high praise comes as no surprise. Notes from a Coma remains in my locker to this very day, to be returned to in case of emergencies.

When asked about his preparations for the celebratory night back in February, McCormack replied in typically humble fashion. He said he was ‘quite anxious and nervous that no-one would show up’ and that it would be just himself ‘and a handful of students’.

He also expressed his shock at the fact that Solar Bones has ‘taken on a life and been both a critical and commercial success’. This is most likely because of the experimental format of the book, which McCormack thought ‘wouldn’t be for everyone’.

The entire plot of the book takes place over an hour, where a man reflects on his life between noon and the one o’clock news. However, to refer to this book within such simple parameters is to do the genius of McCormack great injustice. In a recent talk to final year English students, McCormack describes it as positing ‘a really old message’ that in many small towns, ‘life is of a piece..a harmonic whole’ in which ‘good decent people are going about good decent lives’. The book invokes the themes of family, life, work and civic duty while also offering an ode to small-town life. It looks at the ‘rhythms and rituals…the solar bones’ of rural Ireland. Simply put, it is an extraordinary look at the ordinary.

McCormack has been reluctant to allow himself onto the podium of great experimental Irish writers. He believes that ‘Ireland’s greatest writers are our experimental writers’, people who ‘gave something new to the tradition’ of writing through an ‘anxiety and willingness to push out the boundaries of the received form’. While he may not believe it, there’s no doubt that Solar Bones will go down as one of Ireland’s greatest contributions to the genre of experimental fiction and with that, McCormack himself has cemented a much deserved legacy in the annals of Irish writing.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack is published by Tramp Press and can be bought in Dubrays, Charlie Byrne’s bookstore and is also for sale online.

-By Kate Robinson and Eoin Molloy

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