Before Rickard Velily leaves Ireland for New York, his parents and friends hold an ‘emigrant wake’ for him, during which Rickard discovers he can sing like the great Irish tenor John McCormack. In the hazy morning Rickard’s father presents him with a blue, cream and orange tie and tells him that, if he falls on hard times, he should put it on and present himself at the Cha Bum Kun clubhouse. Once ensconced in the Big Apple, Rickard decides to pursue his ‘half-baked’ ambition to be a singer. He seeks the help of the Cha Bum Kuns and, as fortune would have it, stumbles into the company of Denny Kennedy-Logan, an ageing tenor who studied in Milan in the 1950s under the famous Italian baritone Maestro Tosi.
Even in his dotage Denny still yearns to form an Irish tenor trio and play the ‘front parlours and concert venues’ in New York, resurrecting what he believes is a latent love in the population for Irish ballads. So Denny, Clive Sullis (another Cha Bum Kun who had a previous life as a woman) and Rickard become the Free ’n’ Easy Tones. But in their quest to resurrect a musical tradition long dead they hadn’t envisaged the present culture as a ruthless battleground. Green Glowing Skull pits the technology of the future against a romantic dream of the past and presents a dystopian vision of culture in which technological progress works to undermine and exploit artists.
Corbett’s narrative voice is quizzical, replete with sharp wordplay and layered with subtle irony. Rickard has previously worked for Verbiage, who specialise in the ‘mining and repurposing of online text’, but it ‘had never been his business to use computers in a comprehensive way’. As such he is resolved to resist the mission creep of digital media, but soon finds out there is no escape: ‘encrypted military communiqués, scrambled recordings of Mozart symphonies, disassembled pornographic images – on every ordinary day all passed through his body on their way to somewhere else, unprompted by human fingers. What messages were these pulses picking up from the electrical exchanges taking place in his nerve cells, and what were they making of them?’
This paranoid tone is composed of sentences that shine like a procession of neon lights leading to calamity. The catastrophising is compounded by the presence of the murky ‘technology cult’ Puffball Computers. The company’s image is rooted in Sixties bohemia (no prizes for guessing its real-life counterpart), but it is in fact a ruthless monolith that thrives off – literally – capturing musical talent. Once Puffball is on the scene, this surreal novel disappears down antic alleyways and sets off on a series of madcap adventures. The three doomed romantics are pursued by the ‘ethereal communications’ passing through their bodies, strange Irish patriots, their own failed dreams and hordes of City slickers. Out of this plotless confusion computer technology emerges as a kind of sinister magic. Green Glowing Skull is brilliant and unnerving in equal measure.