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The Mad Muse

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett

The Abode of Fancy, by Sam Coll, Lilliput Press, 496 pp, ISBN: 978-1843516637

A few years ago I attended an event in Dublin at which authors with some of Ireland’s independent publishing houses read from their work. It was a bring-your-own, roll-your-own, three-to-an-armchair kind of evening. The tipsy informality suited the wired and wiry young man who took to the stage to read his piece. He was Sam Coll, though I didn’t get his name until afterwards, and his performance was electric; he somehow, while reading from the page, seemed as though he were composing the piece as he delivered it, pulling sentences out of the air like a man possessed by a mad muse. He stole the night, and I had to get my hands on more of his work.

I’ve had to wait: The Abode of Fancy is Coll’s first book. It is a truly original, stylistically ambitious comic novel, a wild, ribald, self-delighting, self-indulgent, overwritten romp. Coll writes sentences like a driver belting a camper van along winding hairpin-bent rural Irish roads with the accelerator fully depressed using the handbrake as a steering device. This is look-what-I-can-do writing, and it’s impressive.

Three main strands run through the book. One is that of The Mad Monk, a fantastical man-like creature with superhuman abilities, who clambers up cliff faces, claims to have created the world, and eats seagulls whole. He befriends a hare, whose love life he tries to sort out, and a cow, whom he sucks milk from and rides around the place. He marries a banshee, the ceremony enacted by a badger who has been “tutored in pig Latin by a beautiful otter with a lovely sleek hide”. Meanwhile the ghost of his brother wanders the land in a shroud of mist, whispering prophecies to goats.

Another strand follows a number of middle class men gone to seed in their late middle-age, who spend their time boozing, failing to wash, making crude remarks to younger women, and generally slumping into decrepitude. These boorish bores once knocked around together being harmlessly offensive (making a performance of scratching their balls in the Irish Film Institute, and other such clever carry-on), but now they have drifted into their separate spheres of unheroic eccentricity.

The third is that of the character who will come to dominate the latter part of the novel, Simeon Collins, a student of English at Trinity College. He and his incestuous group of friends, with bizarre names like Joseph Fritzl (!), Jezebel Temple, and Kyrie Elysium, are classic unlikeable Trinity students. Oblivious of their unoriginal preposterousness, they get drunk, declare their genius, copulate almost at random, weep in darkened streets for the sadness of the world, and generally aim for Hamlet but hit Falstaff. Stephen-Dedalus-meets-Withnail-and-I. Towards the end, poor Simeon has a hilarious foreskin-related mishap (a “self-wrought fate of auto-impotence”), the sort of gory detail of young male life that doesn’t usually make it into the heaps of “gritty” books about, well, young male life.

Here and there the chapters are interspersed with extracts from a long poem called The Mad Monk’s Doggerel Epic History, the discovery of which manuscript acts as a framing device for the narrative. Some good comic touches are found in these snippets of verse parody: “Just as you spun your sob story along / So too shall I unravel my oblong / Chronicle.’

Coll is great at up-close-and-gross description of the pungent sensual world, describing with relish everything from his characters’ enthusiastic sexual antics to the stains on an old man’s underpants, the result of “blue-moon nocturnal emissions”. There’s a hypochondriac fixation on physical decline and the brevity of youth’s passing ripeness. The men are either old and fat and due a heart attack or young but too drunk to wipe their own arses; the women, always seen through male eyes, are gorgeous young ones agonisingly beyond Simeon’s reach, or warts-and-all hags. There is a tiresome fixation on female bodily functions. The novel’s mix of puerility and self-conscious literariness is summed up in the sentence “Edwin had been busy slicing off some spatters of menstrual blood that had flecked the pages of his Rushdie book.”

The most striking feature of Coll’s remarkable style is the musicality running throughout the text, which rewards reading aloud. He makes lavish use of poetic devices, and animates his meandering sentences with prosodic rhythm. Sentences wend their way by the scenic route before breaking into a gallop of iambs at the finish: “ … thanks to the gossiping of his brother’s ghost, the numbers of those in the know had day by day the greater grown”. Many of them are paragraph-long, but never ponderous:

A ream of rheumy film fell over his eyes, that grew to be glazed and blank, as his hands fell back to his sides, dropping his stick as he abruptly left his place by the tombstone, and sleepwalked stumbling through the shadows, in a murky realm unknowing, in search of the source of the sound, that grovelling growling he could not resist, passing sunken lives stepping on snapping twigs in the twilight, faint light of the sky’s emerging stars glimmering through chinks in the trees, to patchily illumine his unwitting way, as he followed the path of the growling, until he found its ultimate subterranean source, in the cold graveyard’s darkest corner, over which hung the pining arms of a tree, divided down all the middle of its length, jaggedly split by a flash of lightning from the past, the fragmented trunk, its pockmarked bark gnarled and knotty, haggardly bent in supplication, its bowing beaten shape echoing that of a keening crone in mourning, the weeping willow a wailing widow, beside of which was laid a big black boulder, about as tall as was he, from under which the low growling was issuing.

So you see – the sentences are restless, relentless, long, and at times heavy going, though the rhythm helps to move them along. At some points the alliteration, the sacrificing of straightforward syntax for the sake of the sound (“Arsene was mighty happy this to hear”), and so on, feels gratuitous; and the price of Coll’s great fluency is that there are some missteps. But on the whole, he produces a style which is distinct, and original, and great fun.

In some ways the text is reminiscent of old forms of narrative verse, and there is something medieval about the story as a whole: the bawdiness, the characters’ habit of launching into tales at moments of leisure, even the device of the discovered manuscript that sets the narrative going. It seems likely that this is the only novel published in 2016 to at one point casually quote a verse from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

Commentators have, predictably, been quick to liken it to late-period James Joyce. It is no denigration of Coll’s book to say that there’s little justification for the comparison. The paranoid obsession with symbolism and delight in the endless proliferation of meaning which characterise the “Joycean” are not features of this writing; and while it is wildly inventive, the text is littered not with new coinages but archaisms  (“mid” is a favourite preposition, flogged to death in standing in for “amid”, “among”, “between” and even “through”). “Joycean”, it seems, has become shorthand for any stylistically ambitious, difficult Irish prose – to be applied to any writer seen to be “doing something weird” with language or form.

If we must find comparison in the modern Irish canon, The Abode of Fancy is more reminiscent of Beckett’s early prose, or James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold. But this obscures its really remarkable quality, which is not how it recalls the glory days of Modernism, but its newness. The joy of reading this book is witnessing a truly original young author backing his talent, following his own lights, and writing with abandon while making no concession to literary fashion.

The talent on display here is rare, in three senses of the word: exceptional, strange, and perhaps slightly undercooked. I sense that Coll is a better writer and that he will develop to be better still. The Abode of Fancy is the sort of oddity which most publishers won’t touch, and Lilliput Press deserves kudos for taking a punt on a writer who could go on to be one of the most interesting artists of his generation.

1/1/2017

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as a writer and editor.


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