Why Flann O'Brien Is So Funny
The unsung Irish genius who belongs up there with Joyce and Beckett.
Truth is an odd number, even numerals are the province of the devil class, and there is safety in a triad. These are some of the essential wisdoms in the world of Flann O'Brien, the Irish writer who is often said to form, along with Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, "the holy trinity of modern Irish literature." O'Brien—whose real name was Brian O'Nolan—briefly flickered just as bright as his Irish contemporaries, but he has never received commensurate acclaim or much of a following—though readership did pick up in 2005, when his second novel, The Third Policeman, made a cameo appearance on an episode of Lost, before an audience of 31 million viewers. (One of the show's producers said, somewhat ominously, that the book was chosen "very specifically for a reason"; in the two days following the episode, the book sold 10,000 copies.) Better late than never, O'Brien's five novels have at last been collected into a single volume, just published by Everyman's Library.
O'Brien's lack of readership is particularly surprising since of the holy Irish trinity, he is by far the funniest. His masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), has the singular distinction of being consistently laugh-out-loud funny, even on a second or third read, even 70 years after its publication. Many readers today regard Ulysses or the Molloy trilogy in a daze of stultification or with mild terror at the novels' calculated efforts to frustrate narrative convention. Yet it would take a reader of calcified heart to read O'Brien's best work without laughing his face off.
There may be safety in a triad, but to lump O'Brien with Joyce and Beckett is to miss the playfulness, black humor, and deranged whimsy that characterize his style. As Martin Amis has written, "there is only one event in Ulysses: the meeting between Bloom and Stephen." One could go further with Beckett's novels and say that there is rarely any event whatsoever to be found. There is much exhibition of genius, eerily beautiful descriptive passages, and startling inquiries into the workings of the mind and the heart, but there is also a determined de-emphasis on anything like traditional storytelling.
The opposite is true of At Swim-Two-Birds, which features such a profusion of stories that a reader happily loses track of where each one begins and ends. To describe the plot as succinctly as possible: A university student endeavors to write a novel about an author—Dermot Trellis—who is himself trying to write a novel. O'Brien's novel begins four times, in four different ways, and contains at least as many endings. The rationale for this rampant metastasis of tales lies in a peculiar theory proposed by his nameless narrator, an indolent fellow prone to idle musings, who has just discovered the pleasures of Irish porter:
A satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. … Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet.
O'Brien himself seems to share this theory, which might seem to promise a descent into a daunting realm of disorientation. But to bear with him is to be swept into a peculiar landscape in which a coming-of-age story set in modern Dublin, a fairy tale set in the Middle Ages, and an absurdist allegory about the frustrations of writing complement one another with a persuasive internal logic.
To keep Trellis company, O'Brien reaches deep into the limbo of Irish literature and pulls out such characters as Finn MacCool, a legendary hero of old Ireland whose gargantuan proportions are exalted for pages on end in purple, mock-heroic encomiums ("the chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs"); Pooka MacPhellimey, a devil who engages in heated scholarly debate with an invisible fairy; and the cursed Mad King Sweeny, who sprouts feathers on his back and is forced to hop across Ireland from tree to tree for the remainder of his days, naked. He lives on leaf dew and watercress, and laments his sorrow through the recitation of increasingly batty lyric poetry:
The thorntop that is not gentle
has reduced me, has pierced me,
it has brought me near death
the brown thorn-bush