Thursday, February 16, 2006

Looks at Books!

The Third Policeman
Flann O’Brian

I was never able to get through Beckett’s Murphy, if that is indeed the Beckett I am thinking of, but I read The Third Policeman in about two days.  Of course, TTP had the massive benefit of not being written by Beckett at all – it’s by obscure, extremely stereotypically-named Irish author Flann O’Brian (not to be confused with Seamus O’Leprechaun or Top O’ the Morning).  The novel follows the misadventures of the nameless narrator, a would be scholar of de Selby with a wooden leg.  For those of you who don’t know de Selby, O’Brian made him up, and commentary on his works forms a footnoted intertext.  O’Brian handles this potentially annoying interruption with a light touch, and de Selby’s bizarre theories remind me of a cross between The Brothers Quay and Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String, both powerfully weird and interesting artists.
     The actual plot, however, follows the aftermath of a murder/robbery, wending its way to a bizarre police station home to two policemen who seem to have wandered off the avant-garde stage and spend their time monitoring bicycle crime.  In the great absurdist tradition of Franz Kafka the narrator becomes embroiled in the machine of justice, with sexy results.  O’Brian handles his narrator’s predicament surely, and his frequent and sure touches of Irish humor give the story a lightness lacking in, say, Kafka’s parable of the door (which itself is of course not without humor, though not Irish, except for the part in The Trial in which K. pisses himself after Colin Farrell kicks him in the stomach).
     The chief joy in O’Brian’s novel is his language – he writes dialogue and action as surely as he does description.  He is funny, trenchant, sometimes moving.  I suppose you could call this a novel of ideas, but it has none of the annoying gravitas associated with people who use phrases like “novel of ideas.”  O’Brian is always and simultaneously puckish and serious.  The finale leaves something to be desired, but you will remember the images and episodes from The Third Policeman.  Quite wonderful.

1 comment:

segrant said...

It remains to be said that the most important biographical factoid about Flann O'Brien is that his real name is Brian O'Nuallan (pronun for us non-Gaelics: Oh-No-lan).
He had me duped until I read the introduction to the book.
And, it also remains to be said that de Selby is a main character in The Dalkey Archive, another book in the O'Brian/O'Nuallan omnibus which involves infinity, Jacques Cousteau-style exploration, and conversations with the spiritual presence of St. Augustine. James Joyce also, as a character in the book, denies having written all the "smut" that's in Ulysses. A precarious trope carried out with aplomb.
I wondered, however, why the policemen three didn't try to use the omnium to make more omnium. I know it's awfully close to using a magic lamp wish to wish for more wishes, but omnium seems less bounded by the whims of a tyrannical genie. I also am continually amazed that omnium is the fabric of the entire universe, and yet, it's contained within a small black box.
I have a small black box and all it holds is grandma's ashes. Part of them. I sneezed once, on accident.
Flann O'Brian, Irish McPaddyIrishman, does wield his literary influence somewhat recklessly. He present us with the most truthful state of science and humanity ever: the exchange of molecules due to the Heisenberg model of the atom, and its corresponding theory of electrons, Brownian movement, etc. In essence, you exchange molecules with what things you come in contact with. Based on my sleep habits, by now I am 48% Bed, and 52% person. If you ride horses, you could be a certain percentage horse. Do you whinny? Prefer oats to shrimp? Find yourself longing for a more noisy sound to the slapping of your feet on pavement?
O'Brien puts this serious problem out there, but denies us of any coping mechanism. His denunciation of our established precepts of molecular theory and identity leaves us without any constructive commentary on how to deal with this serious problem. Is it reversible? Is it fatal? How do we prevent it? Is there anyone to talk to about this? When some people claim that artists, cartoonists, and writers are on par with terrorists, perhaps they have Flann O'Brien in mind...