Solar Bones is notorious for two things. One is that the book is comprised of one 223 page long sentence and that there’s the famous ‘spoiler’ if you have the Tramp Press edition (which I have, the Canongate edition omits the spoiler). Oh and it won the Goldsmiths prize First of all don’t let the one sentence thing bug you. McCormack still uses paragraphs, however they are connected with words such as then, but, when etc so it’s readable. Secondly don’t let the spoiler affect you. Treat it like a game and figure out how the main protagonist came to that predicament.
On a surface level you could say it’s about a man, Marcus Conway, reflecting on life but obviously the book goes into more depth. Solar Bones, mostly is about politics, the absurdity of government decisions, the drive to be popular, the lengths a politician will go to in order to pander to the media, which is another big theme in the novel. Here media is seen to shock and forecast doom in every possible way. In this regard one could say that there are parallels with Ali Smith as she tackles the same topics in her latest book, Autumn.
Also there are elements of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, in the sense that everyday occurrences play a big role for the main protagonist. One example is when Marcus is eating a sandwich and finally realising how great life can be (although what happens afterwards kind of makes that premise sour) and there are further ‘Satin Island’ moments in the novel. However as banal as they seem they are important and form some poignant allegories, my personal favourite being the cake knife/married life section.
McCormack makes sure the grey cells are buzzing about in Solar Bones and as with most of the books on this year’s Booker longlist, the novel will benefit from a second reading.
One last thing. Is the one sentence used to prove to us readers that life is like one long sentence? I noticed the book does not end with a full stop so is McCormack hinting that no matter what life goes on? As I stated Solar Food is a novel that has long lasting after effects (and this is just one of the questions I have), which, for me, is a sign of a great novel.
Over the past few years I have become steadily disappointed with George Saunders short stories. I think his debut Civilwarland in Bad Decline suffered from repetition, I consider Pastoralia a masterpiece and from there onwards meh to ok. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel and I was inwardly hoping that some of that mischievous spark that populated his early work would crop up again.
Rest assured that Lincoln in the Bardo is brilliant. It is a return to Saunders offbeat humor, it’s also touching and goes into deeper territories that I did not expect. It also doubles up as a flowing entertaining read.
The book is based on a real life happening; the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, aged 11. From there historical accuracy is dodgy as Willie soul enters a limbo with other lost souls, or to be more precise souls who refuse to admit that they are dead and move on. As the book progresses we find out how these souls/ghosts entered the bardo which provide Saunders to tackle weighty topics such as racism and the wanton destruction that war brings. If I am not over interpreting the book, I would say that Saunders is mirroring the mistakes that have happened in the past with what is happening now i.e. there isn’t any change. Another theme is grief and how to progress it has to be accepted, something obviously difficult.
Once Willie accepts his fate then he is set free, something which shakes up the bardo and causes the other souls to realise their situation.
Lincoln in the Bardo will divide people due to it’s format. Instead of chunks of text we are presented with snippets of dialogue from the ghosts in the Bardo, historical documents, quotes from historians about Lincoln and his son’s death and observations from people who were around Lincoln at the time. Some of the quotes contrast each other while the quips from the ghosts relate the novels plot and the major themes. It seems like a mess but in reality a coherent story emerges, with some amazing scenes that will stick in the brain for a while . Probably this format adds to the fact that the book can be read in one sitting.
Although I know the term is over used but I think I can say that Lincoln in the Bardo can be seen as a future classic.