Who are you? Are you the physical body you inhabit, the family/country you were born into or the person that you believe yourself to be? Trapped as you are in your own consciousness the boundaries between these states of being flow effortlessly from moment to moment. In other words “One day you’re yourself, the next you’re not quite.” Traditional narratives construct stories that lead you through a character’s journey that often hint at the tensions between that character’s internal and external reality. Gavin Corbett breaks all those walls down in his novel “Green Glowing Skull” so the separate containers of identity all slosh into one riotous head fuck. It’s absolute chaos, but it’s also true.
I know that all sounds abstract, but it’s what I think the novel is really about. I’ll try to give an approximate summary of the story. An Irish man named Rickard Velily moves to New York City where he meets two older long-time Irish immigrants named Denny and Clive. The later was actually born as a woman named Jean Dotsy. There is a belief about Ireland that “The country’s gone to ruin and there’s no going back. The rot has set right in deep now.” Aidan Brown (nicknamed “Quicklime”) is a man who works for a charity seeking to convince “valued” Irish expats to return to their native land. He tries to target Clive who persistently resists his entreaties. Rickard, Denny and Clive form a tenor group singing folk songs that remind Irish expatriates of their homeland. Many of these expats meet in the city’s Cha Bum Kun clubhouse which supports Irish men freshly arrived in the city who are in need of housing. The historic clubhouse might be in its final days with a billion dollar offer on the table for the property which could give these men personal freedom, but also sever the ties to their native country. The story also contains wild shih tsu who prowl the city’s sewers like vermin, exploding heads and a man that turns himself into a bowling ball.
The overriding preoccupation of this entertaining and wild novel is national identity. In many ways it’s a familiar tale. Someone from Ireland moves to New York City. It’s a story that’s been told in many forms – even in recent great novels like “Brooklyn,” “Academy Street” and “We Are Not Ourselves.” Corbett resists traditional forms of narrative because he doesn’t want his protagonist to “feel like a tragic cabbage-scented character in a Irish rural drama.” Rather, the three main characters pursue their singing which conjures Ireland as a place more powerfully as a state of mind than a physical location. It’s stated that “It was a dream Ireland, yes, they both admitted, finally and without any provocation; but it was an Ireland that they once had been prepared to fight and die for to make real, just like those Young Irelanders.” Equally, the New York City that these immigrants come to is also a state of mind, something Rickard wanted to enter into after seeing it portrayed in his favourite film. The trouble is that the reality of either place doesn’t align with how people imagine it to be. People cast about desperately and without a home to call their country. They lose their heads.
There is also a sense in this novel that technology is changing our consciousness, the way we communicate and even the physical world. There is a coding underlying reality. Back in Ireland, Rickard worked for a company which harvested redundant text from the internet. “The world of information, he was told, was not just a paperless one but a wireless one now too. The medium was the air – even matter – itself; its bore limitless. Moving in three dimensions these days was to move through a fourth dimension, and for it to move through him.” There is a curious sense of synaesthesia which occurs when someone sees a string of nonsense lettering, numbers and symbols where that can instantly translate within the mind into a colour. Corbett also has a talent for combining humour and social observation with playfully-expressed nonsense. A colleague of Rickard’s enthusiastically decrees that “we stand on the threshold of a new conceptual framework for non-augmented non-experiential eventfulness.” This could be the nonsense speak of a corporate ethos, but here it’s revealed to be the gibberish it really is.
I have a particular fondness for absurdity in literature and I loved this novel. Some of my favourite books are Eugene Ionesco’s only novel “The Hermit” and Samuel Beckett’s novels which twist identity and time so that the physical world becomes wildly distorted and, consequently, a more accurate representation of the loose foundations of the stripped-down consciousness. Corbett’s writing unapologetically takes similar liberties disregarding what is realistic for what feels right. However, I often found in this novel that just when I felt I was being taken to the brink where I couldn’t comprehend what was happening at all, Corbett reeled me back in with absolutely tender and honest scenes. For instance, there is a section of dialogue between Denny and his wife where he says: “Do you know what is great about you? I can tell you things that I don’t tell myself.” This is such a romantic and true way of expressing how we reveal ourselves to those we love when we can’t even understand who we are, yet it doesn’t deviate from Corbett’s absurdist style.
“Green Glowing Skull” is a wholly-original, cleverly-filthy and entertaining novel that shifts your perspective of reality.