Friday, July 21, 2017

Flann O'Brien, The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor (1961)

Ack! Why does the title appear as part of the subtitle of O'Brien's previous novel? IT'S TOO CONFUSING ARGH. Well, calm yourself, citizen. Take a deep breath and know that in spite of the titular similarities, this is a completely different novel than that other one. Given that he was writing The Poor Mouth exclusively for an Irish-speaking audience, O'Brien wouldn't have had reason to concern himself with our later consternation (I AM VERY CONSTERNATED).

Right, so the narrator is named Finbarr; his mother dies when he's small, so he and his older brother, Manus, go to live with an uncle, Mr. Collopy and his daughter, Annie. And he has to go to school and do normal stuff like that. You would expect--from the title and just generally from the premise--that this would be a tale of grinding misery, not unlike The Poor Mouth but less specifically Gaelic. You'd be wrong, though. It's not a great life, but Collopy isn't a terrible surrogate parent. I mean, not great either, but if you were a Dickensian orphan, you would consider yourself fortunate to have him looking after you. As I said, kind of normal. So what happens? Well, Collopy argues with a Jesuit Priest, Father Fahrt (ho ho) about Jesuits; his brother, Manus (normally just referred to as "the brother") starts wheeling and dealing and making money in not-super-ethical ways and eventually moves to London. Collopy is devoted to some sort of cause related to women's rights which is only spoken of vaguely and euphemistically. They go to Rome to see the Pope. And, well, that's about yer lot.

The thing is, it's an extremely odd book, by O'Brien's standards. Because, while there are elements of wackiness--the brother's first money-making scheme is mail-order tightrope-walking courses; the Pope ends up getting in a fight with Collopy and damning him to hell--it's really not especially wacky. It's more restrained than any of his other novels. And yet, these realistic elements are so underplayed that the whole thing really feels like neither fish nor fowl. It's not strange enough to get by on that alone, but neither does it entirely work as a realist novel. Reading it was certainly not an unpleasant experience, and, you know, it's short, so not much of a sacrifice in any case, but I think we have to put this down as the author's weakest novel.


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