It should go without saying that Oisín Fagan’s Nobber is hysterically funny. The title speaks for itself but doesn’t quite convey the breadth of Fagan’s talent as a humorist. His protagonist is named Osprey de Flunkl (please, say that out loud). He can execute a page-long diatribe about the enormity of a medieval Gael’s balls with the same punch as a pun: both will leave you breathless with laughter. His brand of literary comedy is refreshingly wide-ranging in our current era of one-note, Saunders-inspired irony. It feels so much more real, so much more alive.
But it’s almost a waste of space to write about Nobber’s funniness, because where the novel distinguishes itself from other farces is in its ability to address serious subject matter. All sharp satire interrogates contemporary society; only great literature asks moral questions of its reader. Nobber does both.
Briefly: a band of four Englishmen (de Flunkl, a teenaged noble; his servant, Harold Tuite; William of Roscrea, a half-Gaelic translator; and Saint John, a disabled boy who spends the entire book tripping on psilocybin mushrooms), roam the medieval Irish countryside, snatching up titles to towns where everyone has died of the plague. They approach Nobber, a village that’s been quarantined by a mysterious man claiming to be a cleric. Of course, a violent clash ensues.
Fagan’s characters act as vehicles for his ethical quandaries, and the answers they present are exceedingly dark. They’re situated in a plague-ridden society – which, though it makes for compelling subject matter, is Fagan’s laziest metaphor – where disease is just as widespread as moral rot. In such a society, can well-intentioned people do good? Nobber says no. Its benevolent characters, Harold and William, repeatedly capitulate to the greed of their pubescent leader. One dies in an act of valor, and the other is ambushed. In Fagan’s world, purity signals weakness. So, the reader must examine Nobber’s two villains: de Flunkl and the Nameless Man. The former is evil born of ignorant entitlement; the latter, an evil of cunning malevolence. That’s a simplification, as neither character acts consistently. But still, the fact that de Flunkl ultimately triumphs gives readers a clue about Fagan’s ultimate point: ignorance is not only bliss, it may be the only possible route to goodness.
The novel’s unsung hero is Saint John, the handicapped child. He blinds himself and spends most of the book in a state of tripped-out ecstasy, but there are hints that he’s attained a sort of enlightenment: he exhibits psychic tendencies, and his infrequent dialogue is the most insightful and honest in the book. His story reads like a fable. It proves that the only possible way to act without self-interest is to lack self-awareness.
Fagan’s medieval Ireland isn’t much different from ours: people follow their hearts, or their greed, down misguided paths, they hurt each other, they comfort one another. Everything is fragile; the human race is fleeting. And if true goodness is impossible, we might as well laugh on our way to hell.
Words: Sophie Stein