Sunday, January 15, 2012

the last book I read

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien.

Ah, bejaysus. So, anyway, our un-named narrator (a device we've seen before, here, here, here and here for instance) is a young student living with his uncle in Dublin. Like all students he's a bit too fond of going out drinking with his friends, lolling around in bed in an unhealthy manner and generally neglecting his studies, much to his uncle's chagrin.

But there's precious little time for studying with all the wild flights of literary fancy our young friend is committing to various notebooks: wild fantastical tales based on Irish mythology and featuring mad King Sweeny and Finn MacCool (the bloke who's supposed to have created the Giant's Causeway, among other things) and various other goblins and random folk dreamed up for the purposes of narrative mischief.

Things start to get out of hand when one of our narrator's literary creations, Dermot Trellis, conjurs up in turn various other characters - Furriskey, Shanahan, Lamont - who eventually rebel against the narrative purpose Trellis has for them and gather at the (also fictional) Red Swan Hotel to exact their revenge on him, assisted by Orlick, Trellis' son who has recently sprung into existence fully-formed at the age of about twenty-five and is also, handily, a writer.

The revenge takes the form of a rambling tale (written by Orlick with narrative suggestions from the others) describing Trellis' abduction by a Pooka called MacPhellimey, the various tortures and humiliations inflicted upon him and his eventual trial in front of a jury composed, strangely, of his accusers. Just as verdict and sentence are about to be passed, we are interrupted in the real world by the news that the narrator has passed his final exams; his uncle calls him into his study to congratulate him, the book-within-a-book snaps shut and the story ends.

So there you have it. Strip out the story-within-a-story-within-a-story bit and all that happens is some scuzzy student guy has a few nights out and a few long lie-ins and then passes his exams, but then again something similar could have been said for, say, Inception (levels within levels within levels again) and I thought that was pretty good. And At Swim-Two-Birds is pretty good, too, notwithstanding the opinion of some contemporary critics that it carried "a general odour of spilt Joyce" (it was published in 1939, the same year as Finnegans Wake). Since my Joycean reading starts and ends with A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, though, I wouldn't really know about that; all I can say is that the wild flights of imaginative fancy here, especially the outlandish torments visited upon Trellis in the second half of the book, are very amusing, though if you're at all allergic to metafiction and general authorial intereference and smart-arsery and prefer Proper Ruddy Stories you might want to give it a miss.

At Swim-Two-Birds is another book in this list to have also featured in the rather more prestigious list of Time magazine's 100 best English-language novels since 1923, the previous one being Snow Crash. It also fulfils one of the major criteria for being a Proper Serious Work Of Art by selling pretty much zero copies while O'Brien (whose real name was Brian O'Nolan) was alive; O'Brien supported himself by working for the Irish civil service and writing various columns for newspapers. Apparently there was a brief spike in sales of his later novel The Third Policeman after it featured fleetingly in an episode of Lost in 2006 (far too late for O'Brien who died in 1966). There's product placement for you.

Interestingly, it seems that there is a film in the works as well, the brainchild of actor (and now director) Brendan Gleeson, and with some pretty big names attached to the project. If there was ever a book that warranted the epithet "unfilmable" I would have thought this would be it, though.

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