At Swim-Two-Birds: Flann eats the snake that ate its own tail

Penguin Edition

Balls mad, Flann O’Brien’s highly-acclaimed, but often misunderstood, 1939 novel is one that doesn’t bode well for contemporary readers who demand narratives that stay the path. What begins as a tale about a mopish student at University living with his preachy Uncle eventually loses its wheels (intentionally rigged) as the reader falls into the meandering manuscripts of this bored student, who rarely finds much inspiration in his daily life besides the pint of plain and the occasional studious chat with his college mates. Then the novel takes a full-knuckled idiosyncratic twist, and the pantheon of O’Brien’s imagination springs a leak as the story moves into myth and madcap territory. We meet Finn Mac Cool, the giant of Irish lore, who contrary to legend is one sad bastard. We watch King Sweeney, imprisoned for murder, jump the treetops never to touch mortal ground again, picking thorns from his arse and waxing on about old loves and missed opportunities. And that clubfoot devil, the Pooka, also plays a pivotal role in this narrative, accompanied by a wise-ass, invisible fairy who takes shelter in his coat pocket. Some of the dialogue between demon and fairy is priceless, full of sharp banter with spot-on comic timing as though filtered from some unholy union between Monty Python and Howard Hawks.

But by the 2nd half of the novel, O’Brien is consumed less with breaking down the boundaries of narrative progression, and as he cuts and pastes, zooms in and stretches the structure (a tongue firmly planted in cheek as he mocks and pays respect to James Joyce) he also amps up the duel that is the underpinning of the novel: the creator vs. his creations. O’Brien pours a whole bottle of whiskey on the Pirandello concept, and watches it trickle down in a whole manner of wild concepts and subplots.

The narrator gives birth to Dermot Trellis, a sloth of a writer who works on Western novels, and one of his characters John Furriskey meets two other creations, the blowhard, Shanahan, and the sly, tempered Lamont. In an idle state, all three conspire to fuck with their creator, Trellis, and soon take charge. They create their own character, a writer named Orlick. With the help of Orlick, they plot their revolution against Trellis by writing him into a story where they actually gain a stronghold and eventually bring him to court (in a scene that rivals the nonsensical bleakness of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, no matter how absurd it gets) where he is tried for being negligent and cruel to his own creations. Beware, unexpectedly, O’Brien shows a cruel edge, seemingly out of nowhere. And he manages to still be hilarious while playing the sadist.

stay on the good side of the pooka

And that is just one thread. For the other thread has all the mythological creations joining in typical ‘quest’ fashion, moving through the forests towards the Inn where Trellis and his mates take shelter. This side-story is where O’Brien seems to be having fun toy with myth. Not only does he throw in MaCool and Sweeney, but also creates a nationalistic poet by the name of Jem Casey (‘a pint of plain is your only man’), who carries on with two trigger-happy cowboys from the States. Making this group even more diverse is the Pooka and his invisible fairy. Yes, Flann was out of his f’in mind. Thankfully.

One word of warning: to enjoy this novel to the fullest, don’t put it down and take a break. Flow is very important, and by sitting on it for a bit, it does take time to break back into the multi-layered worlds. I myself made that mistake.

O’Brien’s first novel is a true classic of the ‘anti-novel’ and while not perfect or ‘easy’, it is an important piece of fantasy literature (also, experimental and Irish) that will inspire future writers to toss aside others rules and play by their own. Vulgar, hilarious, frustrating, hauntingly sad (read the last page) and epic all in one. Truly a unique piece of literature.


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