Thursday, May 17, 2007

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

I'm a little ashamed that it's over two weeks into the month of May and I have completed exactly one book. Part of that is having just finished exams, but part of it also that the book I have chosen, Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two- Birds, is not exactly "light reading." It is, in fact, just the opposite.

Here is something similar to a summary: A college student in Dublin is writing a novel. His novel is about a man named Dermot Trellis, who himself is writing a novel. The idea held by both the student and his character is that it is unnecessary to create characters when you can use the ones that exist in the corpus of literature, so Trellis' novel (and by extension the student's, and by extension O'Brien's) is filled with strange characters: cowboys, fairies, and denizens of Irish myth like a pooka (demon) and the legendary hero Finn MacCool, which sounds like a mascot for a family seafood restaurant. But the characters won't stay put and they drug Trellis so that he'll stay asleep and they can do what they please instead of doing what he tells them to do by writing.

So, yeah. The story of the college student is told, but mixed in with it are pieces of his novel as well as whatever excerpts the student feels necessary to include, like a lengthy translation of the legend of Finn MacCool or selections from (probably fictitious) books meant to explicate on given concepts. Structurally, the whole thing is messy, and stylistically it's purposefully formalized and stiff, but humorously so, in a way. I can't on good conscience recommend this to anyone without a certain warped kind of taste, but just beholding it produces in me a certain kind of awe. It lacks a certain sense of direction, but that too is on purpose it seems, and in a way reflects on the character of the student, who constantly avoids doing any real schoolwork.

This is one of those books that you're not sure whether you love or hate. If you're a big Joyce fan, you might enjoy it, because it's as difficult and twice as Irish. Maybe I should just say, "approach with caution."


Brent Waggoner said...

Augustine Howitzer gives this book two thumbs up.

Carlton Farmer said...

Wow. The plot sounds quite complex.

Christopher said...

Brent: This is modernism. Not post-modernism.

Brent Waggoner said...

Labels are only important insofar as they tell critics how to feel about a particular work.

Anonymous said...

It is the funniest books ever written. It is not one novel. It is five or six: the story of the nameless narrator writing the novel to avoid having to think about the exams he must take (and eventually passes); the story of Dermot Trellis, created by the narrator, who is himself writing a novel in which other characters are writing novels; the story of the novels and story associated with those stories within the novel within the novel, e. g., The Flower o' the Prairie by William Tracy, a Western of the Zane Grey sort, with cattle rustling in the city of Dublin; it is the story of Finn MacCool and Sweeney, legendary Irish heroes who appear in both Trellis novel and in the novel At Swim-Two-Birds; the story of the child, Orlick, Dermot Trellis conceives with one of the characters he has made up; the story of Orlick's rebellion against his father-author; the story of the pookah McPhellimey and his relations with a good fairy; the half mock, half real poetry of ancient Ireland as opposed to the work of the proliterian poet Jem Casey; the trial at which all of these characters are judged or are about to be judged. This is a novel about the role of folklore and the method for reading gas meters; it asks questions of much import such as why horse excrement is square if a horse has a round behind; it ufes medial f's; it lists flowers and different types of cloth; it mades learned Latin jokes (Virgil's "Timeo Danos et ferentis" become two characters in the book); it is a send-up of pedantry and an affirmation of "spirituous liquors"; it is noble and smutty. It is 315 pages in some editions and 228 in others. It is wholly infectious, like the plague and like laughter itself; once one finishes it, everything else is part of it. This is a book to dismiss and cherish, and I'm telling you you'd better do that.