Promising conceit becomes an undisciplined splurge
Gavin Corbett's previous novel, This Is The Way, about a young man hiding out in Dublin to escape a Traveller feud, won the Kerry Book of the Year award. His follow-up to that effective, unsettling and relatively slim volume is an undisciplined splurge of a book in love with its own verbosity.
On one level, the story couldn't be more conventional. A dissatisfied young man, Rickard, leaves Ireland for New York to make his fortune. There, he decides that what he really wants is to become a tenor. The skeleton of that narrative is then fleshed out over 371 exasperating pages before collapsing under the weight of whimsy.
Like many before him, Rickard finds companionship far from home with other uprooted men who cling on to an idealistic vision of the Ireland they left behind.
They tell him: "We were after a dream country, oh to be sure, unbound and unburdened by any social realities, or any of the other realities."
That's an apt description of the book itself, but a story which wallows in its dreamlike quality is always a risky undertaking; and, as it tosses in everything from fairies to the kitchen sink, Green Glowing Skull reads as if it's so achingly desperate to attain cult status that it hasn't even bothered laying the necessary groundwork to make a reader even want to suspend disbelief.
One might praise Corbett for taking that risk, but it's not as if plenty of others haven't done it before. Flann O'Brien is the obvious precursor. Alasdair Gray's Lanark is another. The problem is that every comparison only shows up his book in a poor light.
There are promising conceits, however. Corbett riffs periodically on the invisible world of wireless communication through which we now move, a technological counterpart to the magical realm of those fairies.
"Encrypted military communiques, scrambled recordings of Mozart symphonies, dissembled pornographic images - on every ordinary day, all passed through his body on their way somewhere else."
He never really embraces this theme, however, preferring to pile incident upon incident, words upon words - endless synonyms and phrases, signifying nothing - together with huge dollops of Oirishry, which are presumably meant to transcend pastiche by virtue of being ironic. Let's not even mention the passages in Unicode.
A few pages from the end, Rickard finally snaps.
"O the blather! O the guff! And it's not as if I'm able to intoxicate myself through it. Get me away from here now."
Many readers will know exactly how he feels.
Green Glowing Skull
Fourth Estate, hbk, 384 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie