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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Gender and the Pandemic Crisis, Contagion and Caring

29 October 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Orlaith Darling, Early Career Researcher at the Trinity Long Room Hub looks at crisis and gender in Mike McCormack's novel Solar Bones.

Orlaith Darling, Early Career Resercher, School of English.

I read Mike McCormack’s Goldsmith Prize-winning 2016 novel while curled up in my childhood bed at the height of lockdown in April. Solar Bones is a stunning piece of art for a number of reasons – formally, stylistically – but I was primarily struck by the efficacy with which McCormack had, several years previous, spoken to the ins and outs of the moment I was inhabiting.

In one scene, the narrator, Marcus Conway, describes his wife convalescing from her illness in their daughter’s teenage bedroom, nestled among “soft toys, posters and CDs – all the detritus of Agnes’s adolescence”.

The feeling of being shored up by the paraphernalia of my childhood, the familiarity of my mother’s cooking, her proximity lest I need a hug, the feeling of permanence derived from my parents’ house rather than my usual litany of rented accommodations – it’s all here. As against this cosy background, the spiralling chaos of the novel echoed that of the COVID-wracked world around me.

McCormack’s narrative is an extended consideration of crisis, with mounting disorder “of awe-inspiring magnitudes” spilling from one sphere into another – it stretches, as Rob Doyle writes, from “economies, infrastructures, the human body, the very machinery of the stars and galaxies”.

Marcus is a civic engineer, responsible for designing and building social infrastructure for Mayo, where he lives. Throughout the narrative, he expresses irritation with the politicking of local TDs and councillors, the cronyism which was so rife in Irish politics prior to 2007/08, when the narrative is set. And so, when cryptosporidium breaks out in Galway and contaminates the water supply, it serves as an indictment on the corruption of Ireland’s local governance, a criticism which is paralleled on the national level by the catastrophic economic downturn into which Ireland is plunged in the opening pages.

While the political and literal environs of the novel are built and controlled by men, the effects of these failing (patriarchal) institutions of state are embodied by women. Marcus’s wife, Mairead, is the only person in the novel to fall ill with cryptosporidium. As he observes his ailing wife, Marcus notes how, as a man, he has “never had any intimate sense of history’s immediate forces affecting my day-to-day life”. For Mairead, however, law and politics have always had embodied repercussions – from conception and pregnancy regulation to the male-centric world of medicine – and so “history and politics [as] a severe intestinal disorder, spliced into the figure of my wife” is merely a continuation of this trend.

Mairead and Marcus’s daughter, Agnes, is another example of this embodiment of crisis. A college art graduate, Agnes curates an exhibition entitled “The O Negative Diaries” which comprises headlines from local newspapers transcribed in Agnes’s blood and plastered to the gallery walls.

Marcus is highly disturbed by this bodily display – perhaps because it subversively foregrounds the ways in which local and national politics are played out on the female body. Indeed, Agnes is taken up as a political artist as a result, her body drawn into a narrative of social and political contestation which is continued when she is the front of a parade protesting the water contamination. The pageant ends with Agnes standing naked atop City Hall, poised to jump onto a tarpaulin below. Described as “a caryatid” and a “heraldic pillar”, Agnes’s body is inserted into a narrative of martyrdom. As a woman, she is sacrificed for the greater good; as a female, Agnes’s “suffering becomes emblematic of fuller subjecthood”.

This idea of crisis “converging on [the] woman’s body to make it the arena of dispute” resonates with the sexed implications of contagion we are currently witnessing. Although the virus affects both men and women, its overall social, economic and political effects have been heavily gendered. The majority of healthcare workers and carers are women, instances of domestic abuse have spiked under lockdown conditions, childcare has fallen predominantly to women working from home, research journals have noted a decline in papers submitted by women, and it is likely that women will bear the financial brunt of impending recession. At one point, Marcus tells Mairead about how, in a Mongolian tribe, one woman is charged with living her entire life backwards in order “to keep the world balanced”. In a way, this balancing work has been outsourced to women in lockdown.

In the novel, Agnes is mockingly nicknamed “Anagnorisis” by her brother, and she does in fact function as an anagnorisis for Marcus, providing moments in which his understanding of the world is radically shaken or even reversed. Similarly, it can only be hoped that the current pandemic serves as an anagnorisis for contemporary society, promoting individual and collective reflection on matters ranging from our built environments, our health systems, the distribution of wealth, the organisation of our society and so on.

If, in Solar Bones, cryptosporidium is an “onto-political virus”, so too is COVID-19.

Orlaith is a PhD candidate in the School of English, working on contemporary Irish women’s short fiction. In general, she is interested in the intersection of contemporary society with fiction. Her research is funded by the Irish Research Council.

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Politics in Trying Times (2 October 2020)

Deaf in a Time of Covid-19 (23 September 2020)

Dorothy Stopford Price and the BCG vaccination (16 September 2020)

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