“I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.”
– Infinite Jest (1996) David Foster Wallace
Flann O’Brien for the Inbetweeners crowd? The Abode of Fancy is new and wholly Sam Coll, wildcat wielder of high lyricism, whose mission is to amuse and to move.
Sam Coll finds the strange alchemy of self-promotion somewhat uncomfortable as we meet to talk about his dazzling debut novel The Abode of Fancy, published Thursday, the 27th of October, by Lilliput Press.
An actor throughout college, his brain is wired for audience cues. Sitting close to him you can hear his synapses firing for material.
“The whole thing has a posthumous feel for me. That’s why I’ve difficulty getting excited.” The Abode of Fancy was written more than six years ago when Coll was a precocious undergraduate in Trinity College. “Eighteen to twenty-one, dangerous, self-important years… The audacity of ignorance, youthful arrogance, I’ve lost a lot of that lately… “
Most of us shun our younger selves, but few are capable of prose like this:
Enraptured by the heady flow and gush of language that flooded his brain, he choked and gagged to set it down, couched in the coarse grid of a meter he would master through stint of a novice’s blundering, squaring ten syllables and five stresses to the line, counting his cadences and testing his inflections, learning slowly the steady pulse, the stately throb of redoubtable iambics: if it was good enough for the Swan of Avon, well, he’d give it a go.
This publication is long overdue and it comes as a relief to the author who is keen to get on with his writing.
“It’s a dead man wrote this novel, effectively, or a boy for that matter! Not me anymore… The thing I hate is that this is a book that was written when I had hair and it’s being published when I’m but too bald to enjoy it.”
Aware of the lauded (and often not read) literary pathways he’s roaming, Coll sets off in the novel at such a verbose lick that there’s no time for genuflecting. Almost 500 pages later, that intensity is maintained as little stagnation can be found amongst the spectacular prose hijinks that greets the reader page after page.
A sprawling Gaelic epic full of Rabelaisian bluster that flits from the arts block in Trinity out into the landscapes of Anglo-Irish literature traversing the pyschogeography of our literary past and stopping along the way at various Dublin pubs and Ben Bulben in Yeats country.
There’s a mix of fantastical and farmyard characters, students and local drinkers, as they sup, sulk, blather, philosophise and copulate their way through the book. Extrapolated within is the love-loss central to all youth:
“Ah… yes. Love. Sweetest of dreams, our life’s bitterest mystery, our foremost misery. I know the feeling well, old as I am, and have felt so frequently in my time its prick and sting, its brief and intermittent bliss that will so swiftly turn to rancour, that yet will come again to be a craving for sating, wringing our anguished hearts until we can take no more – though forever always we eternally do come back for more….
Sent reeling from unrequited love the reader goes pub crawling around the city where the twin inevitabilities of ageing and decline are imparted to the protagonist Simeon Jerome Collins (who shares his initials with the author); this is all rendered hilariously maudlin by dint of the barstool delivery.
Coll himself is full of contrasts and they’re evident in his writing. An introvert yet also an actor, painfully shy yet gregarious company, seemingly born to the wrong century yet able to render the self-importance of today’s youth in incisive depictions.
Like a jukebox of impersonations, he harbours both a wide-eyed naivety and a world-weary cynicism and this twined outlook litters his prose with sharp observations.
“The joke is on me. I set off trying to be experimental and push the boundaries but what I produced is a glorified 19th century novel. It has a beginning, middle and end. There’s even cliffhangers. But with the gimmick of being set in 2008. In trying to go forward I’ve actually gone backwards but ultimately perhaps stayed in the same spot.
“It irritates me because there are too many novels out there about young men,” he cringes,”I tried to vary it as much as I could. There’s plenty of inter-generational stuff going on and also the fantasy elements.
These contrasting layers lend the novel its humanity which sits absurdly alongside set-pieces full of a virile cast of hares, cows and mystic figures such as the Mad Monk, the Banshee, the Puck, the Pooka and The Clunge Monkey (don’t ask).
When Coll first started in Trinity back in 2007 he could be seen walking the cobblestoned campus like a character straight from James Joyce’s Dublin.
The time-warped garb was not the only thing he was trying on as a fresher, he was also busy scribbling literary imitations of his hero.
“Initially, it was a Ulysses rip off: Monday, December the 3rd, 2007.”
That was the exact day he started and after getting about halfway through the facetious exercise, having written about four hundred pages, he got some advice:
“The ever quotable Colm Tóibín came to the Literary Society and he quite rightly said, ‘forget exercises and write for publication.’
“It was going to be a short story. Then I got into it and kept adding and adding and adding.
“I filled a jotter hand-written. Then I started typing up that jotter. And it’s so easy to add stuff on a computer, god knows.
“If somebody like Joyce or Proust had had access to a computer, their books would be at least the height of the ceiling or beyond, wouldn’t they? Accretiveness, I love it, but there’s a time and a place.”
For his subject, he would plumb the depths of his disappointment, milking the great and aching sad lack of his life, his melancholy the fulcrum of a masterpiece…
There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw. Higher and higher the scribbled cluster of pages piled…
… Everyone he knew was in it, their names unchanged, their foibles and faults held up for scorn and ridicule, their virtues venerated, their quirks revered, yes, all, all of them would be given their space to shine and their page to prance, he would pull their strings and make them talk and walk, like a demented crackpot deity.
In part it would be the Great Trinity Novel…
This passage hints at the grandiose intentions of the undergraduate who scribbled away so fervently as his imitation became wholly his own imaginative adventure.
However, Coll knew that he’d have to break from the confines of campus life in order to develop his story.
“It was so much the Trinity novel that you just wanted to puke. I was trying to write a Ulysses rip-off but too much of it was set in the goddamn arts block. It’s such a limited bubble of a place, you need to get out. Get out more! Yeah, that was the thing to do.”
The breakthrough came when he plucked a character from a 1,000 page comic book he’d done years before.
“The Mad Monk entered. He was a refugee character from a comic book I’d been writing six years prior to that called Life of Watt. The doggerel [in The Abode of Fancy], if you remember, is an attempt to condense that thousand page comic book into about twenty pages of crap verse, to spare the innocent.”
The Mad Monk’s fantastical journeys gave the narrative its zeal.
When it is put to him that this is a madcap university novel he bristles at the thought before telling of his own brush with the Trinity authorities.
It happened as a result of an idea he had for a short play involving an ailing Jonathan Swift. It grew into an unhealthy obsession as he envisaged Michael Gambon playing the part.
“Gambon has this problem at the moment, he can’t remember his lines. So I figured the perfect part for him… Michael Gambon in a rocking chair, he has one line. Playing the old Swift rocking back and forth, saying: ‘I am what I am… I am what I am.‘ Surrounded by a thousand other voices speaking lines from Swift’s other works.”
“All Sir Michael has to say is one line, it’d be an experimental half-hour with film… He’s already played Churchill with a stroke. He’s doing a series of great men in decline, so it would work.”
His compulsion for the idea became excessive and this culminated in him losing his temper in the Players Theatre. He was shouting and roaring trying to convey his idea in completely the wrong fashion.
“I got possessed with it. I got aggressive in my means of trying to convey it to people. Stupid… I’m ashamed of it in retrospect. But the only solution is to stay out of Trinity.”
This incident lead to him being banned from the college campus. He’s quick to point out the cynical showbiz angle that could be taken from the story:
“This novel is the Trinity book, by a Trinity student, who can’t enter Trinity!!”
“…the original Japanese name for tearoom, Sukiya, actually roughly translated as The Abode of Fancy, inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse…”
Length was an issue. There was work to be done to get it in a form that publishers would even read. Originally the first draft was nearly 700 pages of manuscript, he got that down through a process of substantial cuts that avoided “amputation without aesthetic.”
This was when Daniel Caffrey of Lilliput Press got involved. What was his first response when he heard the title?
“I laughed because I thought it was the most ridiculous title I’d ever heard. It sounds like a bad joke,” says Caffrey, “When you hear it flat without any context that there might be a great book attached to it… I wasn’t aware of the Japanese concept.”
Caffrey can trace the dates exactly because he received the manuscript while his wife was pregnant with their first child. It was four weeks before she was due. He read the manuscript, mostly in the bath, and had his literary eureka moment.
“You never start a manuscript thinking, wow! This is a work of genius. You are stacked against the author in a way. I don’t know why… After a while you are just in this bad reader mentality. Honestly, print out Anna Karenina, send it to every publishing house you can. You will get it back with red ink everywhere, complaining, whinging – it’s just an attitude.”
“What’s great about a great book is that at a certain point you suddenly feel that falling away and then you’re really reading again. I got that after two or three chapters. That’s a great feeling.”
He finished the manuscript the night his wife went into labour.
“My heart was honestly racing when I finished the book. It was a very intense feeling. Look not everything is for everybody. But there are some things that are so for you. The book was exactly the book I’d been waiting to see.
“It is totally abnormal in the Irish literary landscape. There was something great about seeing someone just letting rip linguistically.”
It took four more years to get the book published. This timescale is not unusual in the “glacially slow” world of book publishing where talent like this is often found by smaller publishing houses whose Sisyphean work depends on moonlighters and interns. Any substantial cheques cashed on successful writers are usually realised by bigger publishing houses on subsequent deals.
While the editing was being done Coll moved to Kildare becoming temporary caretaker of a house Daniel Caffrey owned. This favour proved the perfect escape for the writer as he completed his MA thesis on Samuel Beckett, edited his novel and caught up on reading some doorstoppers. He’s nostalgic for that uncomplicated time:
“13 months, it was wonderful. It was a Jack Torrence [from The Shining] setup, except without the wife and child and that’s how I kept my sanity. Talking of a place to read that’s where I finally got through War & Peace, finally got through Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, got through all of these things.”
He had only six visitors during the year, apart from the gardener, who’d drop by every two weeks.
“He’d come and cut the hedges, deliver the post and say, ‘Don’t be working too hard now.’ To which I could say, ‘Oh, no fear of that, no fear of that! hey!’ Hash-tag banter!”
“It was so damp in the winter, my job was I had to move the portable radiator around from room to room to prevent the books from getting too damp. All these wee little beasties would come crawling in and you had to sweep them out, sweep them out, before they laid their eggs in his precious first editions.
“It was damn good fun. Happiest time of my life, in retrospect.”
Caffrey struggles to say exactly what it is about novel that so enticed him. This is often the case with things we really like, our critical faculty goes and we are left with just the visceral feelings.
“When I first read The Abode, Sam wrote as if he was both very young and very, very old. So he kind of covered the spectrum of human possibility. He seemed childlike but also had this incredibly gloomy sort of cynicism as well.
“Most writers I know that are strong in fantasy and imagination tend to be a little less penetrating on human beings, about actual emotions and feelings. But he’s very good at both… He writes naturalism and fantasy interchangeably.”
While down in Kildare Coll also got a start on his second novel, The Benign Comedy, which he is contracted to write with Lilliput.
“I’m hoping book two will be a bit more formally innovative or experimental. From what I’ve heard, you can get away with a lot more in your second novel.
“And there’s a reason that Infinite Jest was a second novel and not a first. Or Gavin Corbett’s Green Glowing Skull, I’ve just started it, but it’s certainly far more weird. It might put people off, but those who get it, they love it and go with it.”
Similarly, The Abode of Fancy won’t be for everyone, but what is?
Aware that he might not have plugged the novel sufficiently throughout the interview, he makes an attempt.
“I can go one better than the jacket cover blurbs,” he croaks with delight, slipping into character again, “It is Flann O’Brien for the Inbetweeners crowd.”
That’ll do. But comparisons with “Flann O’Joyce”, as he remarks, do get tiresome. The new this that or the other. That talk misses something: art isn’t comparative, it’s cumulative.
This novel is new and wholly Sam Coll, the wildcat-wielder of high lyricism, whose stated aims with this adventure were simple:
“To amuse and to move…” he says, in his best Michael Gambon voice.
This piece was first published in The Irish Times on Thursday October 27th.
Photo credits: Greg Purcell (*except Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape and John Joyce grave).