Liam Howley opens The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone (Jagged C Press, 344 pages) with an introduction to Cornelius Solitude Conlon, an aging man who, I assumed, was the primary protagonist. In fact, my assumption continued throughout a good portion of the novel, even though the narrative shifted to various other characters as I read along. Nevertheless, as the story progressed, Cornelius became but one piece in the game board that is Poulnabrone.
It is, in fact, Poulnabrone that is the centerpiece of this story. Primary and secondary characters appear on the scene, make an impact, and leave. Some return later on, some never appear again, yet others remain present to weave the fabric of the tale as it is spun along, carrying with them the thread of continuity without overshadowing the main premise.
And what is the premise? As with any good work of literature, it is open to interpretation, and I believe that no two readers will walk away from this story feeling the same exact way as to its meaning. For me, nevertheless, the premise is the state of humanity. Poulnabrone may be the game board; Cornelius, Lily, Tara, the Tully’s, Malachy, and all the others nothing but game pieces. Howley moves them around to advance the story, but not a single one of them carries the story on his shoulders. Together, however, they present a full picture of our modern society as it thrashes around in the wake of its deeds.
As I said, the novel opens with Cornelius. A beautifully developed character, who may appear crazy, yet may be the sanest person in the entire town. Cornelius is obsessive, devoted, indifferent, involved, hoping for a miracle while preaching doom. He is contradictory, and therefore utterly human.
The novel starts slowly, without any tension building up for quite a few pages. This, nevertheless, did not put me off. Howley builds on the scenery and characters’ interactions to set the scene, to establish Poulnabrone’s history, and to provide background for the main narrators. Later on, he capitalizes on this by moving the story along at a faster pace without having to resort to info dumps. And yes, a story like this one does not work without background information.
Genre readers accustomed to formulaic writing will probably struggle with Howley’s writing style, but those accustomed to reading the classics, and literary works, will be right at home. The Absurd Demise reads more like Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot than a contemporary novel. There is the poetic language of literary fiction and the rawness of psychological realism, stitched together by an interesting cast of fully developed characters weaving in and out of the narrative as the absurdity of our ‘civilization’ appears in the mirror Howley positions, but not forces, in front of us.
–Henry Martin, author of Mad Days of Me: Escaping Barcelona
“He died in here, the man, and yet never departed. He said the truth of God’s judgements lies empty. That when called before God to surrender, only absence awaited, a cage of awareness devoid of sense, only mindfulness and nothing more. He said that if we were made in God’s image, then He presents Himself in our own. He claimed to have been abandoned, left alone to judge his own reflection, to see himself at his most broken, racked with guilt for choices made. It made him fearful, and at once angry, and he felt that anger writhe, latching on beneath his skin, molding itself, mutating like some viral messenger of angst and hate, fixing on that one thing at first, fixing with this passionate loathing, as if in its limited form all rage could be held. But fury has neither place nor master, and eventually it overwhelms, rises up like a rash on the skin, leaves welts and bruises, excoriates the mind and burns it raw. There was no peace in his mind for there could be none without forgiveness. But some things just can’t be forgiven without being forgotten also. And therein lay his dilemma. To forget was unforgivable, and to desire such forgetfulness only compounded the original sin and all its torment. He was caught in a trap of conscience.
So against that terrible dilemma he made a choice and abandoned faith, He said that there is no conscience but what is learned, none discreet, but social. Mores may be owned by any person, but first by all, by a broad church, and this broad church kept him bound to his sin. You see we are told that to separate oneself is to void the right of God’s mercy, to lose all clement appeal. That we all sin, sure, but that redemption comes, we’re told, from understanding, and that there is no understanding without conscience, without surrender to self-consciousness, to the eyes of faith, to the ears of prayer. Abandon faith we’re told, and nothing is forgiven, nothing can be forgiven, But this man could neither forget nor understand. It was he who had to forgive himself.
But what really freaked out Robert was what the man said next. He said he, Robert, was but a dream of atonement, making room for the dead, for those not yet departed. He said that where they stood all time gathered, both limitless and nonexistent, where the dream would return to the dreamer as all dreams must. And so Robert looked at the man and in that moment saw himself.
Well, I had nothing to offer Robert, and so he left me alone with that thought. And that thought has stuck for all these years: that we might be nothing but the dreams of our ancestors, returning always to those horrors too great to resolve.”