Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman (1967)

It sounds crazy, but somehow, At Swim-Two-Birds failed to prepare me for just how astonishing O'Brien's second novel is. And I use that term advisedly: it's certainly correlated with literary quality, but it's not at all the same thing. Barchester Towers is a fine novel that isn't at all astonishing. But BOY HOWDY, rarely has a book astonished me as much as The Third Policeman, which blithely transgresses the bounds of logic and convention in a way you don't see every day. The thing about ASTB is that, yes, the structure is deliriously warped, but within the terms of that structure, the characters and their actions are basically logical, in a very stylized way.

In the case of The Third Policeman, not so much. I realize I'm doing a kind of terrible job of talking about these books and what makes them special, which is partly down to me simply being at a loss for words and partly down to not wanting to really say too much about the content, since discovering that oneself is truly a great pleasure. But basically: there is a man who commits a murder but is unable to find the money he was after. By a logical leap, he decides to consult the local constabulary on the subject. But he runs into problems when the two police officers that he meets are very preoccupied with the subject of bicycles and the ways that people, allegedly, become part-bicycle and vice versa. He is sentenced to death for reasons that aren't wholly clear, but this only seems to involve very notional imprisonment beforehand, and the policemen are only too happy to explain things to him, including taking him to see eternity, which is down a brambly path and underground. Can he and his spirit, Joe, escape from this surrealistic scene? Will the gang of men with wooden legs rescue them? You may or may not find out, and you'll also read lengthy discurses about a clearly mad philosopher, de Selby, excerpts from the narrator's detailed overview of the man and the extensive school of criticism that has somehow arisen around him. At novel's end, you do get a somewhat clearer idea of some aspects of what exactly is going on here and why, but it remains irreducibly weird. And funny. And chilling.

It is customary, in discussing this novel, to bemoan the fact that O'Brien was unable to find a publisher for this novel (which was written soon after ASTB), and that as such it was only printed posthumously. Far be it from me to buck the tradition; in all fairness, though, it must be noted that if the wikipedia entry for the novel is to be believed, he didn't actually try all that hard. Still, the entry quotes a rejection letter as saying “we realize the author's ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so,” which reeeeeeaally makes you want to kick the prick who wrote it in the teeth. Of course, rejection didn't stop O'Brien, and his post-TTP literary output seems fairly respectable; however, it seems like a pretty solid consensus that his first two novels are his zenith, and one is left wondering whether this rejection might have slowed his momentum a bit, novel-writing-wise.

Still! We are left with The Third Policeman. As you may recall, I was quite taken with At Swim-Two-Birds, and TTP is better.


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