Inventive debut but Joycean aims clash with modern life
Fiction: The Abode of Fancy, Sam Coll, Lilliput Press, pbk, 496 pages, €20
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
The biggest - or perhaps just the longest - Irish debut of the year is attended by a deluge of hype, so vociferous that you'd be lead to believe the author behind it, Sam Coll, was the second coming of James Joyce.
It all begins jauntily enough. An elderly singer, Martin Graves, attends the home of his friend Eugene Collins, who is later revealed to be the father of protagonist Simeon Jerome Collins, a lonely and disillusioned Trinity College Dublin student. This prologue turns out to be an elaborate framing device - on the dining table, Graves finds a collection of assembled objects, the inventory of which offers a summary of the entire novel.
Billed as a novel, The Abode of Fancy is structured more like a themed short story collection. The overarching narrative follows Simeon's college escapades and his dalliances with a series of women who don't return his affections, as well as his friendships with a loosely associated group of ageing alcoholics pondering the question of what it means to be a man of worth. Running parallel is the tale of the Mad Monk, a mythical character returned to Ireland in search of his dead brother Elijah.
The story is set in the present day, but bears the hallmarks of a much more old-fashioned style of writing. It's as if Coll has tried to write an early 20th-century novel and been forced to wedge in elements of 21st-century life, preferring to pretend modern conveniences don't exist and revel in the romanticised past. These moments can feel clumsy and misplaced, as Coll's Joycean aspirations clash uneasily with scenes of blunderous texting.
Coll manages to bring the vast cast of characters together in a tender finale, but the journey there can feel like a bit of an endurance test for the average intelligent reader. Characters are abandoned and reappear hundreds of pages later, leaving readers perplexed and hankering for a glossary.
There's no debating that, at close to 500 pages, this is a sizeable volume, and rather demanding for readers tackling the work of a first-time author. Even more challenging are the excerpts of lengthy poetic verse from the Mad Monk's "doggerel epic".
The novel is often marvellously inventive. Written while Coll was studying at TCD, it offers vivid descriptions of life on and off that storied campus, and evokes the most inflated, pretentious and verbose of students as the young characters wrestle with unrequited love, fickle friends and copious adverbs.
Coll's use of language is startling, as he plays with and parodies classic prose and contemporary slang, filling the text with comic digressions, pointed absurdities and hyper-stylised linguistic hijinks. It threatens to slip out of hand, as the modifiers pile up and you're left reeling by a character who "jocosely rejoined adroitly". The imagination of the early tales seems to have run out by the time we meet the "Clunge Monkey", a Promethean creature defined by his insatiable libido, and the sort of lazy, immature joke you'd expect from a 12-year-old schoolboy.
At other times, the novel can feel undisciplined and self-indulgent, as if the author is luxuriating in his own cleverness at the expense of the reader, which gives the novel an air of 'The Big Bloated Book of Me-me-me'. The 'me', in this case, is loudly, boisterously male, recalling the romantic ideal of the heavy-drinking, rarely-washing literary hero with a brilliant creative mind and mountains of existential angst. All of the characters Coll deems worthy of more than one dimension are male, from the volatile poet Tadgh O'Meara to the ailing weatherman Arsene O'Colla to the debauched gentleman Harry Carson.
Perhaps the flatness of the women characters is intentional, but there is little to celebrate here between the naïve wife tricked by her husband into an open marriage, the whining and shrill student, the dopey, oversexed hare and the servile banshee. None of these women can hold the male characters', or the author's, attention for long, acting merely as passing fancies.
Instead, Coll offers a catalogue of dribbling drunkards manoeuvring their lumpy buttocks on bar stools as they philosophise and muse on their own bowel movements. There are, it seems, more varieties of human excrement than women characters in Coll's book, as he showcases an almost impressively thorough (if frequently unsettling) level of detail and potency in descriptions of all bodily functions - and malfunctions.
The Abode of Fancy boasts a range of rancid smells far more vast than any human is likely to encounter in daily life, the likes of which do not bear repeating, for fear they might put you off your brunch. Suffice to say, at times the book may leave you gagging.
Readers may glean little from this work, save bewilderment and a sense of mild disgust. It's likely to alienate as many as it ensnares.