All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon

Hardcover, 400 pages
Publisher: Viking (March 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Mary Mount

“An enormously ambitious and affecting novel about what happens to a community in the face of man-made disaster.” —Mary Mount

All That is Solid Melts into Air is the debut work of Irish novelist Darragh McKeon. The book takes its title from a line in the Communist Manifesto, but also from Marshall Berman’s 1982 book about society’s conflicted modernisation. Between these two themes lies a long shadow: that of the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. All That is Solid Melts into Air is the tale of several families’ struggle during and after that cataclysmic event, but also deals with the opposing, grinding forces of totalitarianism and social modernisation.

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When Yevgeni closes his eyes, the world comes in.

The world rattling and banging, whispers and footfalls, the hiss of trains, the bleep and slide of doors, announcements on the tannoy cracked and frail and distant, people saying, “Excuse me”, or, less polite, “Out of my way”, “Move in”. Sound in tides. The train comes, the crowd boards, the train goes, nearer silence now, new people striding down the platform, the train arriving again. Escalators relentlessly creaking, jumping in pitch, constant in rhythm.

A clasp unhooks on a bag, resonating timidly.

He can make out all the individual noises; this is the easy part, a recognition game. But Yevgeni can also block out all associations, can bathe only in pure sound, the patterns it weaves down here. This is the child’s special gift, although he doesn’t know it yet – how can he, nine years old.

Yevgeni’s head is tilted back; he’s standing ramrod straight, arms by his side, an unlikely statue in the centre of the concourse.

He opens his eyes to see a parachute jumper shooting towards him face first, his chute rippling behind him, caught in the last few seconds before the cloth would unfurl hard and taut and the man would be yanked by his shoulders right way up and float silently in the clouds, abandoned to the whims of the wind. Yevgeni can hear this too, block out all the noise around him and listen to the bulging drone of the passing plane, to the darting air currents, the sound of the man’s fall, sound stretched in time and air and speed.

He is in Mayakovskaya1; station, gazing at the oval mosaics overhead, each one forming a part of the overarching theme: “A Day of the Soviet Sky”2;. Yevgeni doesn’t know the scenes have a title and it doesn’t matter. He can just stand and look and let imagination fill in the rest. Down here there is no music, only noise, pure sound, the passing plane has no orchestral sweep, the man has no sonata accompanying him to his destiny. Down here Yevgeni is free to put together melodies from all that surrounds him, the tumbling effluvia of daily life. There are no crotchets and quavers down here. There are no stave lines and indicators of tone: forte, pianissimo. There is just sound, in the fullness of its natural expression.

Smack.

A raw stinging in his ear. A shrill industrial note, the same one the TV makes when programming is finished for the evening.

Yevgeni knows what to expect before he even looks.

Two kids from school, a couple of years older than him. Ivan Egorov and his friend Aleksandr. Everyone calls him Lazy Alek; he has a lazy eye. There are a thousand jokes about Alek. Why was Alek late for school? His eye wouldn’t get out of bed. Alek gets this all the time, but not when Ivan is around. Nobody messes with Ivan. 

Alek speaks to Ivan. “My mother says why can’t you be like that other boy, play an instrument, like that Tchaikovsky boy. That’s what she calls him, ‘the Tchaikovsky boy’.”

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[1] Mayakovskaya is a metro station in Moscow. 
[2] There are 34 mosaics by Russian social realist artist Aleksandr Deyneka in Mayakovskaya station, all depicting various positive aspects of Soviet life.

  • All That is Solid Melts into Air