Sam Coll - a thoroughly Irish take on the big parodic postmodern novel in the vein of Thomas Pynchon’s 'Mason and Dixon', but it is is far darker, far more uncanny, and far more savage than the picture that word paints


Lilliput-TheAbodeofFancy-Cover.indd
Sam Coll, The Abode of Fancy, The Lilliput Press, 2016.
extract
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'We Irish are a shallow people, albeit perversely fair perhaps, as cruel to others as to ourselves, treasuring the unconsummated and the failed, making shallow friendships founded on fatuous fun that runs so cold in the bitter end, backbiting and bitching and kicking our enemies when they are down, snide wiseguys who refuse to acknowledge the depths, emotional retards embarrassed by awkward topics away from which we shy, making nothing but a mess of our feelings, those horrid truths we would prefer to edit than be undone, to find the latent fun embedded in the torment, and make lukewarm comedies from the hash of our life's little disasters.'
Heartbreaking and hilarious, The Abode of Fancy fuses reality and fantasy in an extraordinary narrative. This astonishing mosaic of characters and images, of memories and prophecies, propels the reader into a world that reaches far beyond the printed page. In modern-day Dublin, Simeon, a melancholy student, is tormented by unrequited love, jealousy and loneliness. He seeks solace in the company of his father's friends, a disparate group of world-weary alcoholics, and through them glimpses a grim picture of his own probable future life. A parallel tale follows mythical man-god The Mad Monk on his return to Ireland, seeking out the ghost of his long dead brother. As these two worlds intertwine, the author delivers a powerful meditation on the impossibility of love and the consolations of friendship. The Abode of Fancy is a wildly imaginative addition to the enduring legacy of Irish comic literature, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, James Stephens and Flann O'Brien. Cosmic and intimate, sentimental and acerbic, harebrained and profound, it is a masterpiece of invention.


'This is everything I'd want in a novel. It's Count Curly Wee adrift in Nighttown. It's Wanderly Wagon hijacked by Laurence Sterne. It's Sinead de Valera with a bang on the head.'- Gavin Corbett


A work of cantankerous and bloody-minded genius, bursting at the seams. I utterly loved it.'- Jon McGregor'


A great Rabelaisian feast of comic ingenuity.'- Paraic O'Donnell


Wildly funny ...a huge, mad gem.'- Donal Ryan


Sam Coll’s The Abode of Fancy, written when he was a 20-year-old undergraduate at Trinity College, is a 500-page contemporary picaresque which will blow your mind. - Andrew Gallix


I started reading Sam Coll’s phone-book sized debut novel The Abode of Fancy yesterday after being bowled over by the musicality of his prose at the launch. I’m 90 pages in and I am staggered by Coll’s talent. By the prose most of all… it’s so audacious, a high ornate style that can look questionable on the page, but it always and I mean always sounds right in the ear, for Coll, like James Joyce, seems blessed with a perfect ear. As with Joyce, and I’m thinking of the Sirens chapter in Ulysses here, you can sometimes deduce in the sentences how musicality has determined Coll’s choices about things like verb/adverb order, the positioning of clauses, redundancies and such-like, and the sense is of an artifice - in Veronica’s Forrest-Thompson’s formulation - where meaning has been shaded (slightly but somewhat) by being sound’s servant.
The book, so far, is one of the most inventive things I’ve ever read. It’s a thoroughly Irish take on the big parodic postmodern novel in the vein of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon. The book is going to be talked about a lot, and I imagine we’ll hear the word ‘whimsical’ bandied about, but The Abode of Fancy is far darker, far more uncanny, and far more savage than the picture that word paints. A scene where a bull skeleton is reanimated by the Pooka gave me the type of goose-bump lunar shivers Robert Graves would associate with the White Goddess herself, death-in-life.
I’ve 440 pages to go, but I’m calling this now: The Abode of Fancy is a work of greatness.
Coll is only 27 years old. He’s some buck. - darragh's tumblr


“What do such large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?” With his Russian contemporaries in mind, Henry James asked this question in an essay about the lengthy novels of the 19th century. While Sam Coll’s debut opus doesn’t quite rival the wordcounts of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, at nearly 500 pages it is a sizeable commitment for readers approaching the work of a new novelist.
From Dublin and educated at Trinity, Coll may already be familiar to some from his short fiction, notably his rewriting of James Joyce’s Grace for the Dubliners 100 anthology published by Tramp Press last year. Its editor Thomas Morris wrote that “a piece of prose lives and dies in its sentences, and in Sam’s work the sentences positively pulsate: they are lovingly detailed, crammed with adverbs, and probably wouldn’t go down too well in a creative writing workshop.”
The same can be said of The Abode of Fancy, a hugely impressive linguistic feat that for the most part pulls off with brio a high register of grandiose diction that is both self-conscious and self-assured. Repetition, exaggeration, rhyme and deliberate embellishment – not the clueless overegging of those maligned creative writing students – are just some of the techniques used to create a buoyancy that is vital in a book of this length.
Although there are plenty of “queer elements” and many more queer episodes, there is little accidental or arbitrary about the book. Complex narratives require their authors to think seriously about form. The Abode of Fancy’s structure shows a striking amount of thought, from its framing device to the multiple strains of metanarrative that comprise the whole. Coll skilfully meshes fantasy with reality, whimsy with despair, prose with doggerel, while managing to bring his vast cast of characters together in the end.
A picaresque narrative centres on Simeon Jerome Collins, a disenchanted Trinity student who eloquently depicts his loneliness and unrequited love for various heartless women. Simeon, whose initials align him to the author, is “a hopeless romantic who always had to be in love, yet whose bitter and cynical cast of narrow mind forever daunted and soured the fleeting purity of his feelings, ultimately rendering them false”. Spurned by the callous and gratingly believable Saruko, Simeon finds solace in the friends of his father, a group of world-weary alcoholics.
There is the aging lothario Harry Carson, “the barfly, the ligger who always knew when the next reception would be held”; Albert Potter, the repressed homosexual genius who “these days had not even the luxury of oblivion”; weatherman Arsene O’Colla, who missed out on true love when his “anorexic bulimic” jilted him for no apparent reason.
A second fantastical narrative weaves into the lives of the group, often throwing up answers. The mythical god-man Mad Monk has returned to Ireland in search of his dead brother. Along with his henchmen, the Puck and Pooka, he either helps or wreaks havoc for those he encounters. Among the adventures are a grotesquely funny sex scene with a cow (“who calls him Sah”), burgeoning romance with a banshee, the reunion and subsequent destruction of two star-crossed hares, a mysterious death in Yeats country, a donkey named Balthazar and the Promethean creation of the hideous CLUNGE MONKEY.
And that’s just for starters. In a move that recalls the postmodern writing of Flann O’Brien, Coll treats his story as a piece of literary history with a framework that offers a fictional explanation of how the narratives have come to be. A prologue sees Mr Martin Graves sitting down in the house of his friend Eugene Collins – Simeon’s father and a link to many of the characters – at a dining table strewn with documents and paraphernalia.
A rundown of the items summarises the entire novel and includes: Life of Watt, a comic book of 994 pages co-authored by the Mad Monk; a packet of condoms belonging to Simeon’s rival; the bones of Peadar Lamb’s bull; an edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream “as signed by Robin Goodfellow, the Puck himself”; a prescription to stop the swelling of a foreskin; a self-portrait of a young Albert Potter; The Mad Monk’s Doggerel Epic, which will later be written for his lady love, Banshee Maggie Devlin.
Along with this montage of narratives, other postmodern elements include shifts in time and setting, multiple names for the same character, black humour, satire and a novel that draws attention to its own artifice, what Simeon’s frenemy Konrad calls “this whimsical shit . . . we really have to drop this dreadful gentlemanliness that marks our encounters”. A knowing use of cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and a Muriel Spark-like penchant for describing the deaths of characters almost as soon as we meet them also add vibrancy.
With so much going on, it is inevitable that the book flags at points. Lengthy intros before characters are revealed at the start of chapters test patience. Simeon’s later rants appear more authorial that his earlier elocutions. The Mad Monk’s doggerel may bewilder as many readers as it enthrals. Back stories sometimes feel repetitive, particularly on the subjects of unrequited love and awful mothers. Some tired imagery creeps in – the spire as an addict’s needle, that question about why one never sees baby pigeons.
But these are anomalies in a book where linguistic flair is to the fore. From the “beady rosary chain of hostile eyes” that a mother notes of her children, to a character named Fritzl who is “the sweetest of them all”, Coll pushes himself to the limit.
A meditation on the Irish mentality in a later chapter shows his skill and sums up many of the characters: “For we Irish are a shallow people, albeit perversely fair perhaps, as cruel to others as to ourselves, treasuring the unconsummated and the failed, making shallow friendships founded on fatuous fun that runs so cold in the bitter end, backbiting and bitching and kicking our enemies when they are down, snide wise guys who refuse to acknowledge the depths, emotional retards embarrassed by awkward topics away from which we shy, making nothing but a mess of our feelings, those horrid truths we would prefer to edit than be undone, to find the latent fun embedded in the torment.”
There is light, however, in the fact that “we make lukewarm comedies from the hash of our life’s little disasters”. It is an apt description of Coll’s novel as a whole, a book that goes out of its way to show the reader that it is recorded as opposed to invented, when in fact it is likely the most outrageous invention of a debut Irish author this year. - Sarah Gilmartin


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. - Meadhbh McGrath




Sam Coll was born in 1989, in Dublin, Ireland. He graduated in English and Art History from Trinity College Dublin in 2011 and later obtained a Masters degree in Anglo-Irish literature, writing his dissertation on Samuel Beckett and sentimentality. He has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and co-founded the Spoonlight Theatre Group, performing in their productions of Finnegans Wake and Heartbreak House, and can be found on YouTube doing spoken word performance.

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