Book review: This Plague of Souls, by Mike McCormack

Mike McCormack has followed up his award-winning novel Solar Bones with an unforgettable work of brutal physicality and arch metaphysics, writes Stuart Kelly

It may be screamingly self-evident, but Modernism was concerned with what was modern. It tried to find ways both iconoclastic and numinous to deal with machines, mass and mechanised warfare, alienation, developing forms of urban living and sexual identity, capitalism’s klaxon under whose blaring toxsin “everything solid vanishes into air” as Walter Benjamin wrote, and much more. The mantra was Ezra Pound’s – “make it new” – but that was not just a plea to engage with the emerging phenomena, or modern content (a dear departed friend used to quiz authors about the first appearance of a plastic shopping bag in literature), but modern form.Yet, for many of the great Modernist artists, this crusade necessitated using distinctly un-modern tropes and tools. Throughout what is sometimes called “High Modernism” there is a strain of mysticism. It is there in TS Eliot’s clairvoyants, magi and Anglican piety, and that sense of “old ways” and submerged legend is in David Jones’s The Anathemata and Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys, to name but two. Joyce’s Ulysses may be bustle and slogans and Molly’s library copies of Paul de Kock, but Finnegans Wake is archetypes, epochs and avatars as well as quiz shows, untuned radios and ephemeral ditties.If industry chit-chat is to be believed, This Plague of Souls, Mike McCormack’s latest work since the Goldsmith’s Prize and International Dublin Literary Award-winning Solar Bones, is the middle part of a loose trilogy. If it is true, then I am a very happy man indeed. This Plague of Souls is a standalone work, but there is enough connective material between it and Solar Bones to upgrade the plausibility index to “not unsurprising”.This Plague of Souls is also set in Co. Mayo, in an isolated cottage in the shadow of Mweelrea Mountain (ominously and accurately described as “darker [than the Sheeffry Hills] and drawing all distance towards itself.”). Nealon has returned home to find it is not home. He has been incarcerated for some time, but was released following the collapse of his trial. His partner and child have left, he is a free man tainted by not being found innocent and no sooner has he arrived than he receives an enigmatic phone call. The anonymous caller knows who Nealon is, knows where the mains switch is in his house and wants to meet. So far, it is Kafka-esque without the comedy.Perhaps the most telling indicator that these novels share more than an ambience might almost be overlooked. Solar Bones begins with Marcus Conway, a civil engineer, on the Day of the Dead (All Souls’ Day, 2 November, also the date of Malcolm Lowry’s disorientating high Modernist masterpiece, Under The Volcano), hearing the tolling of the angelus bell. At the end of This Plague of Souls, face to face with his nemesis interlocutor, Nealon hears the angelus and his nameless sparring partner goads “I’ll give you a start: The Angel of the Lord declared…” This is the Annunciation, an event of world-changing significance to believers. Both books inhabit a kind of pre-Apocalyptic time and space. Something is out of sorts.Marcus’s daughter, an artist who swapped her own blood for oils, jumps off City Hall into the safety of an imitation sea as part of an art-protest against the Council’s handing of an epidemic (the novel was written, incidentally, in 2016). Nealon, also an artist, has one charcoal sketch of his partner as “some pale functionary with a specific role to play in whatever way the darkness will come down… the sacrificial lead in some cosmic altarpiece”. Though both books have references to pestilence, corruption, terrorist events, staged terrorist events, wars and proxy wars, unseen systems of coercion and power, these are the signs of what is to come, not the cataclysm itself.These are not novels one reads in expectation of a solution or an explanation; but they do have resolutions and revelations. Nealon, according to his bête noir, committed an impossible crime, skimming insurance policies to fund altruistic works. It is a project of Messianic proportions. His unnamed antagonist sees it as a new world order, a new Eden even, but with “real suffering at the bottom of it”. At the end – a toothsome, existentialist cliff-hanger – we get the visionary moment: “Sheets of light fold through each other and the whole moment becomes a layered nexus, at which all his pasts and present come together”. This echoes Marcus and the point where he grasps what it is “upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible”. Both have epiphanies that there is some structure, some order in a seemingly meaningless, cruel and arbitrary world. Although the word epiphany, in literary terms, is always associated with – who else? – James Joyce, for me it always conjures George Herbert’s poem “Prayer I” – “Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood / The land of spices; something understood”.McCormack is a singular talent, lucid sentences locking into an eerie and unforgettable edifice. It has brutal physicality and arch metaphysics. I hope the angelus rings again.

This Plague Of Souls, by Mike McCormack, Canongate, £16.99