Green Glowing Skull is a fantasy for modern Manhattan

Gavin Corbett blends the implacable logic of a folk tale with a funny, alternative-present setting.Gavin Corbett blends the implacable logic of a folk tale with a funny, alternative-present setting.

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Green Glowing Skull
Gavin Corbett
Fourth Estate, 371pp, £14.99

Rickard Velily is not a young man when he leaves Ireland for New York to make his way as a singer. He’s just past 40 and it’s not so much that he’s always longed to be a singer but that he loathes his Dublin job, working for a company called Verbiage, ­specialising in “the mining and repurposing of online text”. What does that involve, exactly? We’re never told and it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot we never learn in this swirling fantasia of a novel, which blends the implacable logic of a folk tale with a funny, alternative-present setting. This is a rich, strange world.

It isn’t our world – not quite. Rickard doesn’t want to be an Irish rock star. He wants to be an Irish tenor like John McCormack, whose renditions of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls” made him a celebrity in the early years of the 20th century. In Gavin Corbett’s vision of 21st-century Manhattan, there’s still quite a demand for this sort of music, or, at least, the version of it that the author presents. Everything in this novel is skewed so that we are kept just off balance, never quite able to get our bearings. Rickard’s path in New York and into music is smoothed by his father’s membership of the Cha Bum Kun Club, a secretive organisation that calls to mind the speakeasies of the Prohibition era. It’s here that he meets Denny and Clive and together they form a trio, the Free ’n’ Easy Tones, a name that had “a spunk and a jizz about it that might catch the eye of modern audiences”.

A description of this novel’s set-up makes it sound like something by P G Wodehouse but this is Wodehouse filtered through steam punk and Spike Jonze and infused, too, with the strange magic of old Ireland, where the question “Are you a fairy?” isn’t a slur on anyone’s sexuality but a practical inquiry. There are goblins here who work their magic on the unlucky human ­beings they encounter and a sinister technology company housed in a gleaming, glass-domed emporium filled with sleek and desirable products. The company is called Puffball – and I doubt it’s a coincidence that those globular fungi are the ones said to mark out fairy rings.

Corbett’s imaginative energy can’t be doubted. This is his third novel – his last book, This Is the Way, was shortlisted for the Encore Award and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year in 2013. But there is just too much in Glowing Green Skull; no one idea, no character, is given any room to get up a head of steam. The ideas keep coming, one after the other. The publisher calls it “a half-crazed brain shunt of a trip around the spirit world” and that’s true, but the most practised storytellers know that it’s a good idea to give those who visit that world a reliable companion to accompany them.

Individual scenes can’t be faulted. Corbett brings his weird inventions clearly before our eyes and his descriptions of what we know can be haunting, too.

There was nowhere in the world that sounded so like itself as New York City . . . Fifth Avenue stretched away to the north, to a little cluster of red and yellow, and sped the imagination along its lines to beyond this vanishing point and on to other places, times, and the products of other people’s imaginations.

Steam hisses out of the streets. The great buildings are ziggurats and Rickard is lost in their wonder. But too much is lost – there isn’t room for Rickard himself, or really for any other character here, as we are bowled along and things get faster and faster, odder and odder, until the text dissolves into a sequence of unreadable symbols.

Yet it’s impossible not to admire Corbett’s drive. He is a writer who knows how to take not just one risk but many.

And so he was lowered in a great bell into the place of his imagination, where was to be found his soul anyway. The bell sealed off a circle of earth and the air inside was laden and spicy. The air only grew heavier and heavier with the traces of the dead, and, constantly circulating, gave life to the dead.

Corbett gives life to this prose, too – ebullient life.

Erica Wagner is an author and critic and an NS contributing writer

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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