The Abode of Fancy by Sam Coll review: a hugely impressive linguistic feat
Fantasy and reality fuse in an ambitious and linguistically powerful Irish debut
The Abode of Fancy
“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.
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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.
The Abode of Fancy is available to preorder now from www.lilliputpress.ie at €20