Thursday, August 13, 2015

Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

It's really anybody's guess why it's taken me so long to read O'Brien (one of several pen-names of one Brian O'Nolan, who wrote in both English and Irish). It's not like I was unaware of his existence, and that his books would probably be the kind of thing I'd dig, but somehow he remained in the background of my awareness. What a goof I am!

 At Swim-Two-Birds is a book about an indolent college student who spends most of his time drinking at pubs and lazing about in his room, occasionally putting pen to paper and working on his novel, which is about a writer who is sorta-kinda himself, who hangs around in a pub with his characters, who resent having to do what he's always making them do for plot purposes and who counter-attack by slipping him sleeping pills so they can lead their own independent lives most of the time; eventually, they come up with the idea of taking revenge by writing their own novel about the writer. All of this is interspersed with autobiographical reminiscences about the real (in the context of the book) (though what does that even mean?) writer.

I don't know whether this sounds too cute by half to a contemporary audience, who is more accustomed to this sort of meta-fictional play than people would've been at the time, but I can tell you, At Swim-Two-Birds is fucking uproarious. Most of it consists of long conversations, and if you don't like nonsense, you definitely won't like this, because a lot of it is just O'Brien messing around for the hell of it. I was struck by how forcefully I was put in mind of Barthelme in parts: a lot of the dialogue has that feel, as to the extensive cataloguings and even the occasional bits of found text. I would eat my hat if O'Brien was not an influence on him.

It does, to a certain extent and in a certain way, deal with “serious” themes: about the nature of artistic creation, clearly; and also, naturally, about Irish heritage (characters include Finn MacCool and a pooka, and there's an extended burlesque of Irish mythological epic), but let's not get carried away: taking it especially seriously doesn't do it justice, nor am I certain that any mere review is capable of doing so. I like the quote from Dylan Thomas that's always cited: “this is just the book to give your sister—if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl!” You gotta read the hell outta this sumbitch!


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