The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone by Liam Howley

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.”

5 thoughts on “The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone by Liam Howley

  1. When mommy and daddy pay for everything while one writes a book makes it a rather simple task. When there are no demands, no responsibilities… yes I do think it’s easy. As to a book being set in stone, yes. By a competent writer, anyway. When one gets over the learning curve of shakespeare there is no interpretation needed. We know what it is about although it will very likely take a few readings to understand all he had to say. Very few people can read and understand Einstein first time out. The watchword of modern criticism is ambiguity. Another way of saying the writer and/or critic doesn’t really know what’s going on and is just bullshitting the way though it. There are so many interpretations of a work because there is no interpretation to be made. Much like like modern art, where an artist has a stencil commissioned by others, spray paints over it, signs his name to it and is hailed as the greatest genius of the modern age. 10 million please. I would call such a person a hustler, babbling art school philosophical nonsense. Camus? Like Orwell, not really much of a novelist. They both should haves stayed with politics and philosophy. Plot, character, drama were not elements they could really float in, let alone swim in. Kafka? I will read it and get back. But I don’t have much hope for him. Critics seem more concerned with his own psychological issues as they are worked in to his stories rather then the stories themselves which means the work is incomplete. If one cannot tease out meaning from the work itself, needing other work to subsidise it then yes, it is incomplete.
    Sorry if all this comes across as a slam against you. Not really what meant. I was just frustrated at the lack of any real work going on, with minor writers being made instant icons, pandering to a solipsistic, lowest common denominator pushing their particular ism without regard beauty, truth, power…

    • I’m not taking it personally, trust me. While I disagree with a lot of what you have to say, I must admit that I can appreciate the passion behind your comments, and I thank you for your willingness to share your thoughts.

      The first part of your comment is a pure assumption. While I have not personally researched this author, I doubt that Liam was sitting around while his mommy and daddy paid for everything. Thus, I will not address it.

      Camus and Orwell should have stayed with politics and philosophy? I’m not familiar enough with Orwell to make a statement on this, but Camus wrote some serious pieces. What better way to reach the masses than with fiction? Throughout history, the most culture-altering works were marked as fiction, whether that was true or not. Novel writers altered the course of societies in many ways, through their use of the fictional novel as a tool to assess and address the collective unconscious and state of humanity. The truth is, masses do not read philosophical dissertations and manifestos. But they read literature.

      Nowadays the number of serious readers is declining, as more and more people seek numb entertainment instead, but there are still people who read serious literature, and there is still writers who address the state of humanity via fictional metaphors.

      As for interpretations being only necessary when a work is incomplete, I disagree with you there. A multifaceted literary work will not read the same way with any two readers. Our minds seek and relate to what we are familiar with, and thus no two readers will have the same experience. With formulaic writing, however, I would have to agree with you. Formulaic reusing of plots and characters does not leave much to interpretation, and thus we cannot relate to it on a subconscious level.

      Judging by your screen name, I’m going to assume that you like Tolstoy. Personally, I prefer Dostoyevsky, but I enjoyed a lot of Russian classics. Would you tell me that Tolstoy’s works are single-layered, set pieces that are not open to interpretation?

  2. Dunno. Sounds like just another school exercise. In other words, like some kid stretching out minor effort into real work. Oh yeah, literature is not open to interpretation. Like mathematics, it is specific and clear. Ambiguity is the mark of laziness, lack of talent and pimpnig up what doesn’t exist

    • Thanks for commenting on my review.

      An interesting opinion. Since the author shares the same birth year with me, I would hardly call him “a kid”, but that’s beside the point.

      In my opinion, literature is absolutely open to interpretation. Do you mean to tell me that literature is set in stone, that all messages are clear during the first reading, and that perceptions and opinions cannot change? I’d bet otherwise. Unless the work in questions is formulaic and unoriginal, no two readers will read it the same exact way, thus opinions will differ, and interpretation will play a huge role in understanding a specific text.

      Would you tell me that Camus’ The Stranger is about a man on the outskirts of humanity or about a man who does not care . . . or, would you tell me that it is about the state of our ‘civilized’ world, a statement about humanity at large?
      Would you tell me that Cossery’s Proud Beggars is about a disengaged philosopher and a pederast police detective, or would you say that it is about a state of affairs in Egypt? Or, would you say that the players are but metaphors in a play larger than the book itself?
      What about Kafka’s The Judgement? Is it about an obsessed officer or is it about the power of religion and the futility of it when there is but one true believer left?

      I do not know who you are, but finishing a novel is not a mark of laziness by any standard.

  3. Pingback: The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone by Liam Howley | Dactyl Foundation

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