Plugging into the Future

A recent review of mine from the Irish ExaminerMike McCormack’s new story collection Forensic Songs.

"Forensic Songs"Forensic Songs

Mike McCormack

Lilliput; £12

Review: Val Nolan

While writers such as Mary Costello and Kevin Barry have lately been rejuvenating traditional themes and motifs in short form fiction, Mayo-man Mike McCormack has been busy expanding the frontiers of Irish writing into the future. Building on his 1996 collection Getting it in the Head, as well his excellent 2005 novel Notes From a Coma, the twelve offerings here respond to a world enveloped by “a gathering chaos, something so deep and widespread it can only be resolved by divine intervention”.

In the case of many of these stories, said intercession takes the form of a literal “Deus ex Machina, the god from the machine; techne and logos finally brought together”. Or least brought together in theory for, in practice, the mismatches explored by McCormack savagely demolish the myth of progress through soulless development alone.

In the opening story, a wicked sending-up of the Irish tendency towards miserable autobiographies, two Gardaí fret over “the only man in this jurisdiction not to have written a childhood memoir”. It is one of several “gaps” in official records found in this collection, an unfeasible state of affairs in a Twenty-First century where everything is indexed, referenced, and tallied with existing accounts beneath skies crisscrossed by “planes, satellites, unmanned drones…”

Another standout, “There is a Game Over There”, baits a prisoner with a “turn-based, wholly intuitive” computer game focused on “the abstract realm of politics”, a work financed by “P. O’Neill”, the pseudonymous identity of the IRA spin-masters. The game is revolutionary because, like real life, it has “the possibility of infinite endings” and so lends itself to a story which questions the fluidity of identity – if not reality itself – in a digital age where the screen has more substance than the truth.

It is exactly this attitude which gives Forensic Songs its distinctive flavour. In it, a child attempts to harness the “complete profile” which TV says will someday make him a serial killer; a spurned politician fancies himself a deity for building “roads and bridges and bypasses”, restoring time “to the living”; two Men in Black, agents of “the New World”, appear on an Irish doorstep; meanwhile, set in Prague, the brief, almost Murakami-esque “From the City of Dolls” draws on the legacy of Karel Čapek (who coined the word “robot”) to query the ubiquity of technology in our lives and bodies.

“A beautiful woman stepped in from the cold, in out of the blue, sat down beside me and told me a story,” the story’s narrator says, learning that his new acquaintance has an electrical device in her chest, a “jumpstart” to counteract a cardiac condition. Along with the new science of “Prophet X”, the creation of a CEO with a Messiah Complex, the woman’s implant is one of many “redemption technologies” and “Christ machines” which McCormack’s characters struggle to align with pre-existing worldviews.

Indeed, the Ireland of Forensic Songs is like a computer system itself, the hardware of the old century yoked to the software, the mindset if you will, of the new. Run through with bleak humour, this collection hones McCormack’s previous depictions of small town, surreal Ireland into something unique and wholly needed. Stories which shatter the dangerously parochial conception of what contemporary Irish writing is, Forensic Songs is highly recommended.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 1st December 2012, p.16.

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One Response to Plugging into the Future

  1. Pingback: ‘Experiment or Die’: an Interview with Mike McCormack | illusory promise

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