A true son of the country

IN ‘Of One Mind’, one of the short stories in Mike McCormack’s new collection, Forensic Songs, the protagonist describes a ‘weightlessness’ that he has come to experience in his everyday life, a sense of being “at a remove, standing at arm’s length from myself.”

A true son of the country

This feeling of being strangely outside oneself is one common to McCormack’s characters and such weightlessness seems to guide McCormack as a writer, 1too. The Mayo native hovers in fascination above the gaps in our understanding of ourselves and our world. What distinguishes his style is the ease with which he can apply this weird state of mind to multiple genres. His absorbing tales – so frequently set in the West Mayo countryside he grew up in – might resemble a John McGahern snapshot of rural life one minute, a techno-parable by JG Ballard the next.

“For better or for worse I think of myself as a writer of ideas,” says McCormack. “In the book there are all sorts of ruminations on life, the universe, and the whole damned thing. But that’s just one pole. There are also stories that are down-home realism. There are pieces that are genre-driven but also steeped in popular culture. The book is full of references to video games, TV programmes and country-and-western songs. I think that’s just the way the brain of my generation works. We’re steeped in popular culture. So I look at television and I read Martin Heidegger. My imagination is strung between those two poles.”

The sheer breadth and adventure of McCormack’s imagination first earned him plaudits in the late ’90s when Getting It In The Head won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and received a Book of the Year nod from the New York Times. Two novels have followed: 1998’s Crowe’s Requiem and 2006’s Notes From A Coma, the latter particularly well received. Forensic Songs returns McCormack to the short story, the form with which he made such a splash. He sees many resonances between the new collection and his debut.

“I’ve always liked writers who wrote the same books again and again. My favourite writers are people like Ballard and Kafka and Beckett. They wrote the one book all their lives and I like that. And, actually, I think I have written Getting It In The Head again. In the first collection, there’s a story, ‘Machine: Part II’, about a redemptive machine and in Forensic Songs there’s a story – ‘Prophet X’ – about a redemptive machine. There’s a story about returning brothers in both books. So I think I’ve written the same book again in many ways. The rhythms in this book are slower and I hope the depths are deeper. But there are certainly parallels and similarities.”

Though it hardly exhausts the wide range of Forensic Songs, technology and machines once again provide McCormack with inspiration.

“I’m a great lover of machines,” he says. “I really do believe that the better angels of our nature are manifest in our machines. I think that they are largely hopeful and to our betterment. I don’t think that they are for the rack and ruin of the planet. It baffles me as to why people can never see the better side of ourselves in our machines. These are the children of our imagination, no less than our books or our art, our metaphysics, our theology, our music, or anything else is.”

The book’s wonderful closing story, ‘Prophet X’, takes its cue from the real-life case of an Irish company which a few years ago claimed to have created a free energy machine. McCormack invokes it to locate hope and even a transcendence in the aspirational arc of technology.

“It was one of these Celtic Tiger moments,” says McCormack. “The company’s CEO spoke in these evangelical terms about this machine no less than the saving of the world. And, of course, there is a theory in science fiction, and in futurology, that there is a thing coming down the road to us called a ‘singularity’. It’s basically a techno-telling of the Christ story. There will be a new calendar because this technology – whatever it may be – will create such a fissure between the past and the present that we’ll be speaking about a new world entirely. That idea has been on my mind for the longest time.”

Redemption is something that quietly underscores the Mayo man’s writing. Much like the American writers George Saunders and the late David Foster Wallace, McCormack is excellent at sifting through the eclectic weirdness of popular culture with one eye always scoping for something that would save us.

“The notion of redemption and the idea that we can make amends keeps us going, doesn’t it? I think a day-to-day variant of that gets us out of the bed every morning: that we can turn over a new page and start afresh, that we can do something that will make us and the people around us better.”

In another short in Forensic Songs, McCormack channels a real life story of his own in which he met a beautiful Czech woman whose heart had been fitted with a fascinating electronic gadget. Yet what the character in the story – McCormack’s own double – ultimately finds most wonderful is not the woman’s strange tale but the fact that she could walk in and share it with him, a complete stranger.

Some of the domestic rural dramas in the book – all of them hinging on the relationships between brothers – are notable for a darker realist edge.

The relationship between men in rural communities is in fact a recurring one.

“That’s my background,” he says. “I’m from a farming background. I’m a country lad and it informs a huge aspect of my work. Male friendship is a recurring part of that. I’m always writing about it. My dad died when I was 18 and that’s a big male gap in my own life, and all this mentorship, friendship, and fathering is wish- fulfilment or something like that.”

McCormack’s nose for country life and his tremendous ear for the idiom of the West of Ireland bring a distinctive flavour to his writing, so much of it versed in sci-fi and pop culture. He is a rare Irish writer who, without any clumsiness, can articulate the intersections between the local and the global, between small towns and big ideas.

“My work is very much grounded in the specific locale of the West but it flies off after that,” he says.

“The West of Ireland is my font and ground but it’s not the be-all and the end-all. Once I have the fields and the roads of West Mayo solid beneath my feet then I don’t have a difficulty with spaceships coming in, or robots or machines, after that.”

* Forensic Songs is published by Lilliput Press — www.lilliputpress.ie

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