Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Oddballs by Manchán Magan

Despite some superb prose, surreal twists and strong characterisation this first English-language novel from the Gaeilgeoir, travel writer and documentary maker doesn't quite work.
It is a pity, for there are many insights into the human psyche – especially those who live in the hinterland of what is perceived as normal.
Magan is also strong in his descriptions of place – particularly the coast of Kerry where much of Oddballs is set – nature and wildlife.
Three of the main protagonists, Rachel, Charlotte and Colm might have carried a novel by themselves.
The descriptions of Rachel – an American teenager, grieving at the loss of her boyfriend, who is self-harming by making incisions into her stomach with a knife – are truly moving and her rational for doing so totally convincing.
Colm, an autistic teenager, who seems to have insights into the higher selves of those he meets through the 'light' that they emit, is baffled by the world in which he lives and which seems absurd when viewed through his eyes.
Charlotte, the coke-snorting, self-styled white witch is absurdly delusioned, her hippy ideals random and subject to change depending on circumstance.
The fourth main character, Donal, a hard-drinking, bitter young fisherman, angry at the hand that life has dealt him, never really convinces. While his angst is understandable, he doesn't particularly elicit any sympathy.
The main problem seems to be that having established the outsiderness of his various characters Magan has built an expectation that when they inevitably get together the offbeat narrative will fall off the wierdness scale. But it doesn't.
It is a bit Samuel Beckettish in that nothing happens – twice in the case of Waiting for Godot and in Oddballs quite a few times more.
The plot is too fragile, the scenarios in which Magan places his players too limp to be really that interesting.
Maybe he is just trying to be post-modern, for he scatters his narrative with arcane pieces of knowledge, philosophical musings and a barely articulated spiritual (for want of a better word) subtext.
There is much to be enjoyed in this novel and as anyone who has read any of Magan’s three travel books (see my review of Truck Fever) will know he is a superb descriptive writer with unusual but pertinent insights into the human psyche.
I wanted this novel to be good, but while the writing and the characters did make it worth persevering with my high expectations, based on Magan's previous output, were not met.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Thanks for this; I remain curious and if I can get a copy of this one day, based on his travel narratives that I too have admired and reviewed, I will still give it a go. I like flawed or off-kilter books as much as music of the same! More human, that way.