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O Sons O'Joyce, ReJoyce:
The Novels of Flann O?Brien


Happily, his furtive practice continues to pay dividends, as evidenced by the recent Knopf Everyman edition of five novels, a hefty volume framed in sensuously tactile scarlet trade cloth (rub it against your face and see what I mean) and ribboned with a gold bookmark, a flag for a continent offering comic delight to Catholic and Protestant alike, regardless of whichever part of town he finds himself in.

When reading O’Brien, the words of Max Beerbohm — not an Irishman — sail into view.

“Laughter becomes extreme only if it be consecutive. There must be no pauses for recovery… The jester must be able to grapple his theme and hang on to it, twisting it this way and that, and making it yield magically all manner of strange and precious things, one after another, without pause.”

The last three sentences — particularly the first — deserve special attention.

“He must have invention keeping pace with utterance. He must be inexhaustible. Only so can he exhaust us.”

In the sense that O’Brien might have kept pace until eternity’s end, he certainly exhausts. The exhaustion the reader feels at the end of his novels is the exhaustion following long-distance running or coitus terminus: an invigorating activity, one you will no doubt want to repeat someday. What’s most fulfilling about O’Brien’s work is that, as anarchic as the action may get, the story never loses its way, never smashes into a wall, sending shards of logic flying every which way (as in, say, Neal Pollack’s Never Mind the Pollacks or John Swartzwelder’s The Time Machine Did It). O’Brien the Committed Alcoholic could have fallen into a vat of Johnny Walker Black and drunk his way clear to the bottom, but O’Brien the Novelist always remained abstemious, dry, and in control. He invites you to invest in his copious fancies, and never loses your trust betraying the rules of suspension of belief. Once you’ve cashed in, every absurd notion makes perfect sense. Such is your reward.

At Swim-Two-Birds, published in 1939 and considered by many to be O’Brien’s masterpiece, established its author in the manner of Joyce, not so much an ejaculated Modernist as a premature Post-modernist. Birds concerns an Irish university student who, bored silly with his Gaelic studies, daydreams of an Irish novelist who writes Westerns. (O’Brien uses the studies as an opportunity to parody the witless translations of Lady Gregory, a professional Irishwoman of the period.) The notional novelist’s characters, it turns out, hate the narrative he has written them, so they come to life, knock him out, and contrive their own plots. Birds was one of the last books Joyce ever read, and, having completed it, hailed the author as a “true comic spirit.”

The Third Policeman
, written in 1939 and 1940 and published in 1967, concerns a nameless, one-legged protagonist who commits violent crimes in hopes of financing his study of a scientist/philosopher named de Selby. He and an accomplice go looking for a box purportedly containing seed money and are beset by fat, incomprehensible policemen. Along the way, we are treated to a disquisition on the subatomic theory of the bicycle, giving one the sense that O’Brien was one of the first writers to understand the fictional possibilities of Einsteinian thought. (Having immersed himself in the polyphonic spree of Ulysses might have prepared him for it.) The book’s very landscape begins to warp as the narrative proceeds — though if you know what a Möbius strip is, you’ll find yourself on firmer ground than those who don’t. As with Birds, post-modern novices should be kept away from Policeman, as it will fill their heads with any number of bad ideas.

The Poor Mouth
(1941) is a parody of traditional Irish narratives of misfortune and disaster, as if the country’s history were one long situation tragedy, its many episodes of suffering accented with a sob track. The book is set in Corcadoragha (or, Anglicized, “Corkadorkey”), a land removed from civilization by geography (it never stops raining here) and language (everyone speaks “the learned smooth Gaelic”). Though the natives are always saying, “I do not think we shall see its like again,” they are well accustomed to “its like” by the time a gaggle of Irish language lovers (or Gaeilgeoirí) invade their turf. The language lovers are the 19th-century equivalent of modern-day slumming dilettantes, who crave the authenticity of the authentic poor, regarding them as transmitters of a lumpen sensibility ripe for exploitation — that is, until this lumpen sensibility starts chucking bricks through the windows of their corner Starbucks. In Poor Mouth, the language lovers’ departure is hastened by the authentic poor, who come to appear too authentically poor for their taste. Before that, they insist that their fellow Irishmen should not only speak Gaelic, always, they should always be discussing the Gaelic question (its promotion, and how). Upon finishing this book, I got the impression that V.S. Naipaul, on scholarship at Oxford in the early Fifties, might have read Poor Mouth and, having absorbed its ethos, would later turn a similarly jaundiced eye on his ancestral India. In that respect, Naipaul’s writing seems informed by Poor Mouth, which, if a valid thesis, would make O’Brien a proto-post-colonialist. Damn, that boy was talented!

The Hard Life (1961) purports to be the author’s autobiography. All I will say about this book is, whether he’s lying when he says he’s telling the truth or telling the truth when he says he’s lying, you’ll drive yourself crazy caring either way. Just enjoy.

Finally, there’s The Dalkey Archive (1964), where Joyce himself makes an appearance as an elderly bartender, who disavows Ulysses, doesn’t know from Finnegans Wake, and pines for the priesthood. De Selby, an absent presence in The Third Policeman, appears here in all his demented glory, an inveterate inventor who wants to destroy the world by removing the oxygen from the planet’s atmosphere. O’Brien wasn’t able to find a publisher for Policeman in his lifetime, so he plundered many concepts from that book — de Selby, the policemen, de Selby’s atomic theory of the bicycle — for Dalkey. Those who believe O’Brien was, as with everything else worth being proto-, a proto-environmentalist are, I suspect, onto something, as the author, who believed there were way too many fictional characters in existence as it was, definitely was into recycling.

On this, our annual Saint Patrick’s Wake, this Reinforcin’ of the Stereotypes, I say: O Sons of Erin! Rise above your intemperateness and your sloth and show yourselves worthy of your heritage! O’Brien go bragh!

 

 

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