Thursday, February 16, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds (by Flann O'Brien)

It's hard for me to know what to say about this one. It's a novel within a novel within a novel. On one level, it's about a lazy university student who is writing a book about a guy (Trellis) who is writing a book; on another level, a bunch of characters refuse to do what they're told and gang up on their author (also Trellis) torturing him and putting him on trial. O'Brien reportedly hated comparisons with Joyce, but it's Irish, it's experimental, it's satirical, it's mythical--it's at least from the same antecedents as Joyce. (Hey, Finn McCool is in it!)

It's weird and unique and at times very funny. I found myself appreciating the metafictional parts, but really enjoying the first-person narration. So I was somewhat disappointed when that first-person speaker all but disappeared in the second half of the book in favor of characters who I enjoyed much less.

Here's the thing though: I was really struggling not to feel incredible sympathy for Trellis during the scene at the end of the book, even though it could not have been more clear that it was a story within a story within a story. The characters (who in themselves are fictional) are sitting around arguing about what they should do to him next, they backtrack and change their minds, and yet, such is the power of narrative that I still felt bad for him! I guess whenever you read a story, on some level, you know it's "fiction" yet you still buy into it. But it was like watching a Shakespeare play where the actors are constantly breaking character to talk to friends sitting in the audience. Yet you still cry when Romeo and Juliet die.

I'm not sure ultimately what O'Brien is saying with this book--I might need to read some more essays on it--but that experience was certainly what stuck with me from reading it.

But really, tell me you don't want more of this guy:

"The mirror at which I shaved every second day was of the type supplied gratis by Messrs Watkins, Jameson and Pim and bore brief letterpress in reference to a proprietary brand of ale between the words of which I had acquired considerable skill in inserting the reflection of my countenance." (p.12)

(P.S. This book has the best blurb I've ever read, by Dylan Thomas. "Just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl.")



Blogger Beth said...

I love this book so much!

8:08 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I find it hard to connect with it on a "love" level! Even though I too am a loud, dirty, boozy girl.

10:17 AM  

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