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At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
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At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

by Flann O'Brien

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Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
But which of us can hope to probe with questioning finger the dim thoughts that flit in a fool's head.I will admit, I liked The Third Policeman better. I will also admit to holding this as the better book, one with recognizable traces of TTP amidst so much more. There, alongside the author's singular wit and superb hand at mixing the pragmatic with the absurd until neither can tell which is the other, is performance, is parody, is a supreme consideration of reality's dance with fiction both foolish and all too wise. The book is a train with a sober first stop and a mad tomfoolery increase in speed with every page and nested trope, but the ending is well worth the grim hanging on for dear life.

I mentioned that I did not like this as much as my first reading of Flann O'Brien as conducted through the equally as peculiar dash of The Third Policeman. That right there is mostly bias, as in TTP there was a great deal of engineering style slap dash, physical laws and computational calculations extended to an absurdity in reality and a recognizable form in the classroom. There's a hint of that in At Swim-Two-Birds, a heavy dose of it near the end bringing some satisfaction to my Bioengineering bred sensibilities, but unfortunately for me O'Brien was far more focused this time on classical mind, specifically of the Irish. I caught a reference here and there, but the large tracts of Irish mythology escaped my enthusiasm in terms of anything more complex than story and poetical sensibilities.

However, that component was far from the majority of the work, and while being familiar with the original material augments enjoyment of the parody, it is not always necessary. Besides, there was so much else going on outside of the Finn Mac Cool and his tall tale rhasodizing, so many odd tricks and twists with minimal punctuation that I was quickly distracted from my poor knowledge of Irish lore. Bamboozling at points, tedious for longer than I'd like, but always, always, a lure to the next and the next and the next.

Lovers of meta, have your meta and eat it too, but also compliment your meta, become engaged with your meta, elope with your meta to newfound states of the detail and the devil so long as you mind your meta-ed manners. We may be seventy-four years on in time and a few in the know-how may moan and groan at the nouveau metas and their ironic urges, their self-conscious-consciousing to an all too often boring degree of banal nihility, but here it is still fresh, here it still has heart. A boisterous and boozy and far too long abed heart, to be sure, but here there is a heart bulleting its way to the soul of the fiction of the time, the odes and cowboys and morality gimmicks and all the poor charactered creations succored away from their easy nonexistence and spit out onto a stage of the so called author's making.

Parts of it light and pounds of it weird and buckets of it deathly serious, but when in doubt, be sure to let yourself laugh. Each and every time will land you a little farther along, and in no time you'll have finished this highly lauded and extremely odd piece of work. Then, I can assure you, you'll have an awful lot to think about in terms of cast and creator and everything in between, and is that not all we can ask for? ( )
  Korrick | Feb 26, 2014 |
Don't be scared off by the fact that O'Brien's name gets tossed around with Beckett and Joyce, and definitely don't be scared off by the word "metafiction", because this book is hilarious and hard to put down. O'Brien takes the piss out of all manner of Irish blarney, yet by the end you love the whole Irish thing all the more.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote piccoline | Feb 5, 2014 |
Reading Flann O'Brien always makes me feel I am on the edge – on the edge of understanding, on the edge of sanity, on the edge of enjoying myself. That is, O'Brien's dizzying approach to "story" and the associated images is far enough out there that I am not always sure I have been invited on the correct trip.

But I have always found the voyage (whether I was really invited or not) bizarre and strange, and there has not been a trip I did not enjoy.

At Swim-Two-Birds comes as close to leaving me at the station as any of O'Brien's work. In fact, I'm not sure that, this time, I made it for the actual ride.

Plots are somewhat superfluous to what O'Brien is doing with his writing (not to mention confusing if not just down right unintelligible), but here is what's going on this time. The narrator is attempting to go to school as he writes his novel. However, it is obvious that laying about, drinking, and living off his uncle are much more important than school. In spite of this somewhat suspect focus in life, his novel is making progress (as is his school work.) The novel itself is about a novelist who is writing a novel. However, this second novelists creations are coming to life, fighting him and trying to take over. (Or are there three different stories being written by the narrator that, as they come to life, intertwine? I'm not sure I ever got this straight. But I'm also not sure it is that important.) Absurdity mounts as the characters begin to take umbrage at the gentleman who is writing their lives (one of the characters in the novel – not the narrator himself), so they drug him and begin to take control of their own lives. One of the characters, to provide retribution against the author in the story, becomes an author himself and writes about his creator's trial and death.

Did I mention that describing an O'Brien plot is an exercise in frustration? Suffice to say that absurdity is piled on absurdity.

Such adventures can be fun. And O'Brien has numerous examples of his success at writing this way. Unfortunately, this time I felt as if I wasn't allowed in on the joke as strongly. In particular it seemed some of the exposition went on too long. And, in a very rare response for this type of writing, I got to the end and wondered what it was all for.

There is entertainment to be had in this book. And O'Brien's writing is as absurd as ever. But the final product just doesn't have the resonance of other efforts I have read to date. ( )
1 vote figre | Dec 29, 2013 |
I'm glad I can write a review of this without giving it a rating, that's for sure. The last thing I need is to be assaulted by legions of self-consciously intellectual and/or hip readers decrying my inability to 'get it,' because I gave a crappy rating to a probably interesting book. Instead I can write a review which such readers won't bother reading and perhaps save you the effort of picking the book up, or, alternatively, help you discover that this is a book of the type that you enjoy.

But seriously folks, take my mother, really, take her please, and make sure she doesn't have to read this stand up routine masquerading, quite self-consciously, as a novel, or rather a novel about a novel, or, to be quite precise, a record by the narrator about his life while writing a novel about a pub-owner writing a novel about characters stolen from other novels, in which those characters spend all their time telling stories and reciting poems, i.e., kind of talking out very short novels, only all the characters are also 'real,' not fictional, and can affect the life of the pub-owner. Meta-fictional nonsense ensues, self-consciously, and conceptually it's interesting in a two page Borges story kind of way. But it takes over 200 pages.

Now, I'm quite willing to believe that other readers might find all of this hilarious. But not being an aficionado of Irish myth and legend, cowboy novels, blarney, or novels about novels, I found much of it tedious. It's a fabulous linguistic showpiece, and I'm willing to keep it and give it another shot in a few years. But for now I find it unreadable.
1 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Ladies and gentleman, for your consideration: the archetypal slacker-college-student-undiscovered-artist. His lofty aspirations and lackluster ambition average out, topographically, to a tragically amusing meadow of some kind. He's curt and defensive to those by whom, we're assured, he's woefully misunderstood (including the inevitable tuition-paying family). He's haughty in the classroom or any other venue where his superiority isn't acknowledged up front. And of course, he's often brilliant and entertaining among friends or a friendly audience – particularly when fueled by alcohol. He's been a staple in literature since, well, since colleges, and literature, were invented.

Among the most brilliantly-rendered and hysterically funny members of this fraternity is the unnamed, Dublin university student at the center of Flann O'Brien's 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds. He lives in a spare room in the home of his uncle (“holder of Guinness clerkship the third class” we're told derisively and often): an uncle who's suspicious of the sleep-to-study ratio he's observing in his nephew. The young man's interactions with his uncle, or his drinking mates, as he divides his days between astonishing quantities of sleep, Imperial Stout, and occasional visits to class, are worth the price of admission alone. But it's the novel he's working on, and the progress of its characters, that make At Swim-Two-Birds astonishing to read.

His novel's central character is one Dermot Trellis, who lives in the Red Swan Hotel and has stayed in bed for as much of the last twenty years as is possible. And of course, Mr. Trellis is working on a novel as well. His novel, however, is birthing characters who chafe at the control the author exerts over them, including those whom Trellis 'borrows' from other novels and fables. They discover autonomy during Trellis' extended slumbers, and begin to fight back. Keeping track of which novel a given character inhabits at any given time is as challenging as it is entertaining. But it's the conversation of these absurdly diverse characters, rendered with with O'Brien's gift for language, that makes it hard to read in public, which reacts with suspicion to those who burst into sudden, repeated laughter.

At Swim-Two-Birds is a gem, and the blistering pace of the final chapters becomes a shocking study of the ethics of authorial invention (and intervention) – shocking mainly because you continue laughing throughout. Its reputation among writers (I first learned of it while reading William Gass' essay 'Fifty Literary Pillars') is well deserved, and I look forward sitting down with it again to see what I missed on the first go-around. ( )
  buffalopoet | Aug 2, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
At Swim-Two-Birds has such a strong claim to be one of the founding texts of literary postmodernism. All the markers of that baggy but indispensable cultural category—the deconstruction of narrative, the replacement of nature by culture, an ahistoric sensibility in which tropes and genres from different eras can be mixed and matched promiscuously, the prominence of pastiche, the notion of language itself as the real author of the work—are openly declared in At Swim.
 
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Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.
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I'm thirsty, he said. I have sevenpence. Therefore I buy a pint.
...
The conclusion of your syllogism, I said lightly, is fallacious, being based on licensed premises.
Licensed premises is right, he replied, spitting heavily. I saw that my witticism was unperceived and quietly replaced it in the treasury of my mind.
The passage, however, served to provoke a number of discussions with my friends and acquaintances on the subject of aestho-psycho-eugenics and the general chaos which would result if all authors were disposed to seduce their female characters and bring into being, as a result, offspring of the quasi-illusory type. It was asked why Trellis did not require the expectant mother to make a violent end of herself and the trouble she was causing by the means of drinking a bottle of disinfectant fluid usually to be found in bathrooms. The answer I gave was that the author was paying less and less attention to his literary work and was spending entire days and nights in the unremitting practice of his sleep. This explanation, I am glad to say, gave instant satisfaction and was represented as ingenious by at least one of the inquirers concerned.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 156478181X, Paperback)

In a 1938 letter to a literary agent, Flann O'Brien described his first novel as "a very queer affair, unbearably queer perhaps." The book in question was At Swim-Two-Birds--and if we take queer to mean diabolically eccentric, then truer words were never spoken. The author, whose real name was Brian O'Nolan, had successfully stirred Gaelic legend, pulp fiction, and grimy Dublin realism into a hilarious cocktail. His mastery of modernist collage would have been an ample accomplishment itself. But O'Brien was also blessed with the writer's equivalent of perfect pitch, and in At Swim-Two-Birds he squeezes the maximum beauty and banality out of the English language. All he lacks is a tragic register, but he makes up for this deficit with a sense of comedy so acute that even James Joyce couldn't resist blurbing his fellow Dubliner's creation: "A really funny book."

O'Brien labored mightily to make At Swim-Two-Birds summary-proof. But here, anyway, are the bare bones: the narrator, a university student, is writing a novel, which keeps morphing from mock-heroics to middlebrow naturalism. Meanwhile, one of his characters, Dermot Trellis, is himself writing a Western--an Irish Western--whose cowpunching protagonists will eventually throw off their fictional shackles and attempt to murder their creator. (Talk about the death of the author!) There's enough structural shenanigans here to keep an entire industry of critics afloat. Still, what matters most is the pungency of O'Brien's prose. His dialogue is agreeably grungy, his parodies delicious, and the narrator speaks in the sort of Jesuitical dialect that we associate with Samuel Beckett:

That same afternoon I was sitting on a stool in an intoxicated condition in Grogan's licensed premises. Adjacent stools bore the forms of Brinsley and Kelly, my two true friends. The three of us were occupied in putting glasses of stout into the interior of our bodies and expressing by fine disputation the resulting sense of physical and mental well-being. In my thigh pocket I had eleven and eightpence in a weighty pendulum of mixed coins.
Snippets, alas, do little justice to At Swim-Two-Birds, which relies heavily on cumulative chaos for its effect. Graham Greene, an early fan, compared its comic charge to "the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage." A half century after its initial appearance, O'Brien's masterpiece remains a gleeful read--a marvelous, inventive, and (last but not least) really funny book. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:48 -0400)

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