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Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman

One of my projects this year is to read a bunch of the books sitting on my bookshelves that I have heretofore ignored. I never buy a book I don’t intend to read, but often something else takes precedence and I never get around to reading it. Until this year, that is, I guess.

I read At Swim-Two-Birds, “O’Brien’s” (it’s a pseudonym) most famous work, around a decade ago, and didn’t really get it. As I recall it’s very postmodern (far ahead of its time, in 1939), with stories within stories and various fictional and mythical characters careening back and forth between them. I read the whole thing in kind of a daze and nothing about it really stuck. But a friend with whom I share many tastes said I had to read The Third Policeman, and so I bought it, and now have finally read it.

It’s pretty weird too, though easier to take in than At Swim-Two-Birds; at least it has a linear plot. An unexceptional (except for having a wooden leg and being a murderer) man suddenly finds himself in an odd environment with at its center a police station whose inhabitants seem to be interested in pretty much nothing but bicycles and the afterlife. When I put it like that it sounds kind of odd, and you know what, it is. He has a bunch of strange adventures and strange conversations, and the book actually sort of goes somewhere in the end, which was kind of a surprise after the first 180 pages.

Halfway through it I realized “Hey, this reminds me a lot of Alice In Wonderland”, and apparently I am smart, because this is what the scholars say too, although because they have Ph.D.s in literature they seem to say “Menippean satire” instead of “Alice In Wonderland”, or so I gather from a brief jaunt through the web.

The book is actually frequently hilarious in a verbal Monty Python kind of way. You will perhaps understand my comparison when I inform you that much of the humor involves the attempt to have logical conversations with policemen who are unable to understand any concept unless it is framed in terms of bicycles. I found the funniest parts of the book to be the narrator’s ongoing earnest attempts to relate his situation to the life and writing of the fictional de Selby, the most moronic philosopher who ever lived, complete with extensive footnotes detailing the history of scholarly investigations of his work. Your mileage may vary.

As usual when reading classic novels, I totally enjoyed it on the surface, while undoubtedly missing a lot of the interesting stuff that lurks beneath. I could tell that a lot of what was going on was probably referencing and making fun of contemporary scientific and philosophical fads, but as the “contemporary” in question was 70 years ago, it was less pointed to me than I’m sure it was at the time.

P.S. When I finished this supposedly obscure book, I headed over to Amazon to read what I figured would be 3 or so reader reviews. There were 79. Apparently, a couple years back one of the characters on Lost was reading it, so all the fanatics had to immediately buy it and scour it for clues. Hey, if it gets people to read classic postmodern literature, I’m all for it.

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  1. […] The Third Policeman (Flann O’Brien): Man, I don’t get this. I don’t mean that the plot is confusing — it’s not any more confusing than, say, Alice in Wonderland. I mean I don’t get the intent of the book, or why people would think it’s awesome (since some people clearly do). I feel like the author is going for something that I just didn’t understand, and I’m left with a couple of amusing bits loosely stitched together. I didn’t even get the ending — it seems to just ignore a major plot inconsistency, which, ok, whatever, it’s not the sort of book that it matters in, but it’s yet another confusing note to end on. (If you want something a little more coherent, read dfan’s review.) […]

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