Sam Coll: The Abode of Fancy
If you are an Irish novelist, particularly a male one, you have to decide whether to embrace your national literary tradition, to openly oppose it or to just go your own way and ignore Joyce, Beckett, et al. Coll has gone for the first option. Beckett, Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Yeats and the Irish myths and legends can all be seen in this novel, even though Coll has, nevertheless produced a novel that is very his own.
It is a fairly long novel (500 pages) so it has a fairly extensive though not excessive cast of characters. There are perhaps two that we can identify as the main characters. The first one is called the Mad Monk and might be said to represent the myths and legends part. He partially tells his own story in verse but we also follow his activities.
Martin Graves, a tenor of note, who plays a relatively small role in this book, except for allowing Eugene Collins and his wife to use his flat in Athens, is visiting Dublin and staying at the flat of the said Eugene Collins. (He will not be the last person to do so during this book.) On arriving there, he finds a host of items, listed in good post-modern fashion. This list could, in a way, be said to summarise the novel. Indeed, though it appears on page nine, it is something that will only really be meaningful when you have read the book. (Oh, another digression – this book is full of digressions so I am afraid this review will be – Coll gives us another, very concise summary of the book in the last paragraph.). One of the items mentioned in the list is a comic book of 994 pages…LIFE OF WATT…co-authored by the Mad Monk (Watt does not appear in the book but is mentioned many times and may or may not have been the gay lover of the Mad Monk and was also his son-in-law) while another is a few scrolls of parchment…on which was written The Mad Monk’s Epic Doggerel History. This is his story in verse mentioned above, of which we get excerpts. (There are several other Mad Monk items also mentioned but they are less important.)
The Mad Monk is dead or, rather, was dead but has come back to life again. He has been tracking down his brother Elijah, who is dead but appears as a ghost. He also wants to feed his dog, the White Dog, who is also dead and buried beneath Ben Bulben, near whereYeats is buried. He gets directions from Tadgh O’Mara, a poet who drifts into and out of this novel and then he disappears. He then turns up near Ben Bulben and gets further directions from Aloysius O’Muadaigh, a recluse. Indeed, Alosysius take him to the site. Unfortunately the dead dog reappears and savages Aloysius O’Muadaigh, who dies shortly afterwards in the home of his (Aloysius’) brother, Ulick, author of the De Valera Code. Though the Mad Monk has difficulties with his dog, he seems to have a good relationship with other animals, for example, advising a hare on erectile dysfunction.
At Aloysius’ death, the Banshee appears (Banshees appear at the death of somebody). The Mad Monk, who is staying with Ulick and his wife, sees her and they have a fling and later marry. As this book is certainly not told in chronological order, the Mad Monk will keep popping up.
The other main character is Simeon (occasionally called Simon, possibly by mistake) Jerome Collins. Like the author, he is studying at Trinity College and, like the author, has the initials SJC. Whether he is Coll’s alter ego is anyone’s guess.
Simeon does not really play much of a role till the second half of the book. He is the son of Eugene Collins and is occupying his parents’ flat. We follow his love life, which is dismal. He is rejected by several women, in particular Saruko, who prefers Edwin Galbraith, and Jezzie (Jezebel) though remains friends with both of them. Later in the book, he has a friend called Konrad Merkel, with whom he has numerous (pseudo-)intellectual arguments as you might expect from university students.
He is writing the Great Irish Novel (this novel may well be it). He is not making much progress with much of what he has written so far focussing on the Saruko-Galbraith relationship. In particular, he has become a member of the Thursday Club, a group which consists primarily of old friends of his father. He is related to various people in this book including Aloysius and Ulick O’Muadaigh and the Banshee.
Eugene Collins seems to be a very gregarious man, making friends and doing his best to keep them. However, though we see him now and then, for the duration of the novel he is in Athens with his wife. However, we do meet the friends and they take up a good part of the novel.
Arsene O’Colla is a retired weatherman, a collector of Irish (i.e. Irish-language) books and a lover of the great composers, a love he shares with Martin Graves. He visits Dublin and stays with Simeon in the flat to attend a book sale. Arsene used to be a chess champion and, indeed, the Thursday Club started with a meeting chess of enthusiasts, but the chess has now, more or less, been abandoned. He will fall ill but will die a non-death.
There is Harry Carson, who inherited a fortune but has managed to squander it and now works for a bookseller whom he hates. He is expecting to inherit from his grandmother, who stubbornly refuses to die. Like the others he is something of an alcoholic and has not been successful in his romantic life, particularly as regards Ivana.
Albert Potter is another drunk, another former chess champion, another one with an unsuccessful love life, though he is gay, not heterosexual like the others, and overweight. However, he will come to play a key role with Simeon’s friends. The Thursday Club old men and Simeon and his friends get together in the latter part of the novel but seem to spend most of the time drinking and arguing.
I have not covered everyone – Tadgh O’Mara tracking down his daughter Hilda, Hermione Gauguin, the painter, the two sprites, Puck and Pooka, Peadar Lamb and his bull, Konrad’s parents, the mysterious I_C_C_, Boris Nigel Gillespie and others.
This book is certainly an interesting attempt to write the Great Irish Novel, though I am not sure that it succeeds. Frankly, quite a few of the characters are not particularly interesting, even if, at times, their lives are fairly colourful. The book is certainly rambling, going backwards and forwards in time and jumping from sub-story to sub-story. Where it does work is the unexpected ways the various stories link up and with the stories based on Irish legends – the Mad Monk, Elijah, the White Dog, the Banshee and Puck and Pooka. The legendary characters may, in some cases, be dead but they have no problem slipping into the current, living world and Coll handles that well. There are certainly a lot of stories and digressions, so if one seems boring, another one will along soon. In conclusion, I would say that this book was, for the most part, an interesting read and showed considerable promise for a first novel but it is not a candidate for The Great Irish Novel or even, after Ulysses, the back-up Great Irish Novel.
First published 2016 by The Lilliput Press