Mike McCormack published his first book of short stories Getting it in the Head in 1996. The debut earned him the Rooney Prize for Literature, and was chosen as a New York Times notable book of the year in 1998. McCormack has published two novels: Crowe’s Requiem, and Notes From a Coma, which was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award in 2006.
Forensic Songs, his latest collection of short stories, fuses traditional social realism with elements of science fiction, and the detective genre. While some stories here follow the path of straightforward naturalism; analyzing the difficult relationships within families; or the alienation of emigration, others probe issues that move into the world of futuristic surrealism.
In one story we encounter an interventionist God who appears in the form of a piece of innovative technology, ready to rescue society from the ills of mind-numbing consumerism. McCormack writes with a daring imagination that is never afraid to experiment, and his prose asks intriguing questions about mankind’s relationship with machines.
‘Forensic Songs’ is a book concerned with the human quest for knowledge. Each story explores how all information is somehow inextricably linked, giving meaning to lives that often descend into chaos.
McCormack spoke to the Spectator about why he puts his faith in technology, why he believes the short story explains the loneliness of the human condition, and how J.G. Ballard influenced him as a writer.
Can you explain why loneliness seems to haunt the short story?
As a form it has an internal gravity towards loneliness. It’s also strong medicine, and that’s why I like it. The novel is open hearted and generous, accommodating all sorts of foolishness and time wasting, rather like life itself. The short story has no patience with that, it’s much more surgical, lending itself to a more difficult proposition that says: right son, you are on your own. The novel will tell you that being human, you are among other people, whereas the short story seems to say, you are only fooling yourself. It measures itself out in a few thousand words for that very reason.
Have you always been interested in technology, it seems to crop up in many stories in this collection?
Yes. I don’t like to see technology being demonized. I believe the better angels within us are sometimes in our machines. We never have a difficulty in seeing the better parts of ourselves in our music, metaphysics, or poetry, so why not in technology? I did a lot of reading on this subject in university, particularly on Martin Heidegger, and his ideas on technology. Also, ever since I read J.G. Ballard and other science fiction writers, I was convinced that technology has a huge part to play in our lives.
In the story ‘Beyond’, the images of the empty shopping mall and car park seem very Ballardian: critiquing the emptiness of consumerism, and analyzing the alienation of modernity. Do such themes concern you?
Well that particular image, is in a way, a homage to Ballard – who is a totemic figure as regards short story writing. Ballard is certainly one of those filters through which I see the world sometimes. You get off the plane at Heathrow Airport, walking through one of those glass corridors; or anytime I’m stuck in traffic on a motorway, I think: here I am, in a Ballard story.
But I also worked for a time in a shopping mall. It was my job to clean the public area. Sometimes we used to go to the security guards, and we would see the cameras overhead. So that was a landscape that I was intimate with for a long time.
How do you see technology enhancing our lives in the future?
One of the theories out there among futurologists, is that in 30 years or so, there is going to be such a radical explosion in technology that we will probably have to make a new calendar. It will be as a decisive moment in human history, as say, the advent of Christ. From then on, we will have to rethink what it is to be human, what governments will be, what sort of culture we have, and so on.
Do you find writing fiction takes you to a dark place sometimes?
When I wrote my first book, Getting it in the Head I would have been quite surprised about some of the things in there. I live a fairly low-key life. I’m not obsessed with serial killers or anything! But when I sit down to write, I am completely different. If your brain patterns were monitored when you are writing, you would see very different signals than what your brain does in every day life. I firmly believe that you access a very different part of your soul when you are writing. With this book, there is a lot of sediment in there: it can be a dark and cloudy place at times.
Does this become troublesome, coping with this?
I think over the twenty years I have been writing, I have armored myself a little bit against it. Sometimes, I have been upset by some of the things I have written. But as a writer, I actually pride myself on not knowing that much about anything, because I think prose fiction should be exploratory, speculative, and conjectural. I’m not a big believer that it’s holding up a mirror to life.
These short stories seem to move stylistically between social realism, science fiction, and the detective genre. What’s the attraction in mixing up the style?
I am a fan of all three genres. For example, my last novel, Notes from a Coma was an attempt to splice together two genres: Irish domestic realism, and a kind of 1950s science fiction. Someone said it was like John McGahern and Philip K. Dick were contracted to write an episode of the X Files! But with regards to this collection, the detective element is really about a central theme that is running through the book, which basically asks: what do we know, how do we know it? And what happened? These are all questions that became very prominent in popular culture after 9/11.
In what sense?
Well the condition of knowledge became a subject in itself. For example, we ask several questions: what happened at the twin towers? Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Knowledge became not just an industrial or a commercial commodity, but a political commodity. It’s no coincidence that all the forensic and detective programmes are obsessed with knowledge. This book has a preoccupation with knowledge. Now I didn’t set out to write a book of short stories that intended to investigate this; it’s just that my pen took on a certain gravity. In the end a whole bunch of stories gathered around such a preoccupation.