Sunday, July 23, 2017

Flann O'Brien, The Dalkey Archive (1964) naturally, this, O'Brien's final novel, was the one I was really keen on reading, and not just because it's the namesake of my favorite publisher so I really ought to, oughtn't I? There's also the fact that it seems to harken back to the zaniness The Third Policeman, even if it doesn't have the same reputation as that masterpiece. Well, let's see.

So the protagonist is a fellow named Mick, who, with his friend Hackett, comes across a strange individual named De Selby, who--yes!--is the crackpot scientist the narrator in The Third Policeman was obsessed with (though in that book, he never actually appeared). He is allegedly able to manipulate time, and he has a plan to destroy all life on Earth due to Earth people and civilization being generally bad. Also, there's a magic underwater cave where he goes to talk to the ghosts of Christian church elders (he takes Mick and Hackett with him to meet Saint Augustine). Also, there are eccentric policemen who are borrowed from The Third Policeman, as is the idea of human/bicycle hybrids. Oh, and also, he meets James Joyce, accounts of whose death were greatly exaggerated.

So far so good. This stuff all sounds like the ingredients for a corker of a novel. But...I have to say, I think the conventional wisdom is on the money in this case. It's fine, more or less, but the satire feels plodding and labored in a way it never did in O'Brien's best novels. Look at the bicycle thing, for instance: it was perfect in the surreal, vaguely sinister context of The Third Policeman, but here it feels kind of awkward and doesn't really fit in with anything. This may be representative of the whole novel. The plot, too, is ragged as anything: both the De Selby and Joyce businesses are rife with potential, and both of them end up feeling like jokes without punchlines. Again: not bad, but a disappointing end to a career that began so blindingly.

And now...jeez, man, as big a fan as I am of Dalkey Archive the publisher, I have to take them to task for the back cover copy, which reads, in part:

James Joyce turns up alive and well, serving drinks in an Irish pub and claiming that Ulysses was only a practical joke. St. Augustine is interrogated in an underwater cave, where he announces: "I was a man that was very easily sunburnt." Though a mad scientist named De Selby is bent on destroying the human race, Mick and Hackett--the only men who can save us--are too preoccupied with the lovely Mary to concentrate on foiling him. the first sentence is okay as far as it goes, though it'll give you a slightly misleading idea of the Joyce situation. But that second one...JEEZ. Yes, at one point he SAYS the indicated sentence, but there's actual context when he says it. It's not, as this would indicate, just something he comes up with out of nothing in a LOL RANDOM kind of way. And as for Mick and Hackett being "preoccupied:" NO. First, it's not some kind of love triangle; Hackett isn't involved. And second, at no point does Mick's colleen get in the way of any world-saving that is to be done. Whoever wrote this just made that up in the apparent belief that it would make the book sound more wacky. Dammit. You gotta be better than this, anonymous back-cover-copywriter!


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