Green Glowing Skull by Gavin Corbett review: A blizzard of imagination
Ebullient charm propels this stylish New York-based novel, says John Self
Gavin Corbett: his strong and strange new novel turns up the dial on both aspects to a dazzling, often blinding brightness
Green Glowing Skull
‘Plots can be a bit of a nuisance,” Gavin Corbett said of his last novel, This Is The Way, which won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award in 2013. Sure enough, that book, about a young Irish Traveller, was a wonder of narrative voice but structurally slight. Corbett’s strong and strange new novel turns up the dial on both aspects to a dazzling, often blinding brightness.
Green Glowing Skull tells, loosely and teasingly, the story of three Irish men in New York, sometime around now. Our eyes and heart are with Rickard Velily, 41 years old and trying to prove to himself that he has a future after leaving Dublin, where he worked for a start-up that “specialised in the mining and repurposing of online text”. If that doesn’t seem to make sense, you’re getting the idea.
Rickard starts his New York life in an Irish community in the Bronx, where “everywhere there were murals that depicted sporting and paramilitary activities and featured Celtic script and men with basic eyes and very pink faces. Many of the buildings were in the faux-Irish village style just like many of the buildings in Ireland.”
He then finds a welcome in the mysterious Cha Bum Kun club, which Rickard gets into with his father’s club tie and special knotting technique. There he meets Clive Sullis and Denny Kennedy-Logan, older Irish emigrants. Together the three, all keen singers, form a close harmony trio called the Free ’n’ Easy Tones and the book covers their career up to, and beyond, their first explosive live performance.
That is the springboard for the story, although it hardly touches on the sparks and rockets that fire off from it. A subplot involves a sinister technology outfit called Puffball Computers, whose chief is named after the defunct shipping company Townsend Thoresen. There is an organisation called Bring Our Boys Back Home, which helps the Irish diaspora to return. There is a very big secret in Clive’s past, and an enormous surprise in Denny’s future.
It is a blizzard of imaginative energy, and that’s without mentioning details such as the goblin brothers who become secondary characters in the book.
The overall impression is that Corbett has had a dozen ideas for every chapter, and he has kept them all in. This means that initially some ideas seem underexplored, such as Puffball, but they keep coming back, and in the end it all seems to crookedly fit.
More than this, however, Corbett gets away with it through style and aplomb. The prose sings on every page, sometimes loudly, with silly song titles and arch dialogue, but often by seducing the reader – confidence is an attractive quality – while it slips its strangeness in. Once, when Clive believes himself in need of a weapon to thwart an enemy, he finds the very thing in a butcher’s shop. “He scanned across the platter under glass and saw a mound of purple-brown tongues, outsized tongues that were still furred and glistened with pinpricks of light. A tongue was a weapon his pursuer could understand. He could slap him across the face with it and it would have a mystical, symbolic significance. He got his tongue for one dollar on account of how late in the day it was.”
The oddness spreads. Sometimes the story has a dreamlike logic, where locations shift unexpectedly, or themes loop around, are lost, then return. Text devolves into gobbledegook computer code. What looks like a passing joke or metaphor turns out to be literal and true. This happens from the first page, when Rickard, working as a journalist, is asked by his editor to write about New York’s shih-tzu population. “Most shih-tzus in New York were wild creatures with orange in their beards that lived in pipes under the street.” It reads like a disposable gag, but then it comes back with force at the end of the story. So the reader is placed squarely alongside the characters: like them, we can’t tell what is real and what is imaginary. The narrative degrades and challenges our faith in the author as an omniscient figure: who really knows what’s going on? Are we seeing the character’s viewpoint, or reality? And what does reality mean anyway in a work of fiction?
At times this can make Green Glowing Skull feel sterile: when the rules of realism are abandoned it requires much skill not to devolve into whimsy. But there is emotional heft in this wonky world of pure imagination: Rickard, Denny and Clive are all confused and conflicted about how and where to live. They are searching for a different life, unsure if they want to go forward or return. The skittish structure of the book reflects their inner turmoil.
But the book’s chaotic surface also brings to mind a future war that Rickard imagines as he walks New York’s streets, a war between “the harvesters and users of information” and “the latecomers, the pussyfooters and the intransigents” – in short, between those who live online and those who opt out.
The book is a sort of representation of the lawlessness of the internet, a rejection of simple, linear life and of simple, linear literature. It is equal parts modernist experiment and grand entertainment, and it defies logical response: on the last page Rickard “opened his mouth, but found he could not say anything. He was not sure what he wanted to say.” The reader will know how he feels.
So this book will not be loved by everyone, but its ebullient charm makes it very hard to resist. You could throw it against the wall, but it would just bounce back. John Self blogs at theasylum.wordpress.com Gavin Corbett will be talking about his writing at Smock Alley Theatre on May 17th, as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin; ilfdublin.com