Living In Walls

A Review of The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

After listening to an version of The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien, I'm delighted to have finally experienced it. There had been resurgence in the novel's popularity triggered by the quirky TV drama Lost. Based on an obscure product placement, in a show that seems to take itself very seriously, I had no clue how hilarious this "postmodern" novel would turn out to be. Flann O'Brien (real name, Brian O'Nolan), being a contemporary of James Joyce, reveals, perhaps, just from where so much of so-called "black comedy" originates. Absurdity abounds in this cautionary tale, a lovable absurdity, like an "F Troop" of one-legged men attempting to liberate a fellow amputee from the gallows. It is of course infinitely more readable than Joyce's enigmatic tale of a wake and I'm sure much more laugh-out-loud funny; at least inasmuch as Finnegan's Wake is purported, by those who pretend to understand it, to be.
The Third Policeman
In this story, the narrator - among other things, a scholar of a brilliantly scatterbrained scientist, deSelby (whose skewed theories are portrayed in the novel's ample subtext of footnotes) - is enticed by a neighbor to commit the grim murder of a certain miserly farmer. Then, as if that's not enough, he must retrieve the bundle of wealth the miser had hoarded from under the floorboards of his house. In so doing he awakens into a nether world where he has lost his watch, and by association, his name; but has found his soul whom he soon dubs Joe.

Jim Norton does a superlative brogue-inflected reading, and so much of the humor is tied to the rhythm of Irish argot. Often the characters engage in question and answer sessions where one will ask about a certain unknown object and his interlocutor will reply by asking a series of twenty questions-like inquiries. This technique of "cataloguing" is used chiefly in post-modern literature, perhaps as a parody of the modernist quest for meaning. Nonetheless, it all translates into one knee-slappingly funny story.

The Complete Novels (Everyman's Library)O'Brien utilizes his love of Irish language and people to color his landscapes. The peculiarities of many characters serve only to enliven the strangeness of their situations: freshly murdered men are suddenly alive again, the fronts and backs of houses merge into a two-dimensional reality; men, over time, take on the atoms of their bicycles and vice versa. And in the imperfect logic of law enforcement, those with no name could not have been born - do not exist - and therefore cannot be accused of thievery or murder. Perhaps in tribute to Joycean circumlocution, O'Brien - as one of his characters describes the fabrication of a set of trunks, each one just smaller than, and nested within, the last - does a bit of literary nesting of his own as the passage, almost seamlessly, wraps around within itself.

As we see throughout the novel, proportion plays a key role, to the protagonist's journey through his own sort of personal inferno. He moves easily through a window, for instance, which looks much too small for him; the policemen he encounters are morbidly obese grotesques, out of proportion with their surroundings; and the third policeman of the title lives within the walls of his neighbor's house, lurking on the fringe. Dimensions are way out of whack, even weight is unreliable. As he perambulates through this alternate territory, the narrator comes to realize that nothing can be trusted to work normally; that conventional science is `fubar', yet surprisingly more in alignment with the theories of his mentor, the eccentric deSelby.

Lewis Carroll would probably be considered one of the first popular benefactors of fantasy, nonsensical seeming worlds with nonsensical speaking characters. Other notable creators of satiric bizzaro reality have been Jonathan Swift, GK Chesterton and CS Lewis. But this book is denser than mere fantasy or nonsense; I would compare it more easily with the metaphysical work of Franz Kafka or the existentialism of Samuel Beckett . There is a heft to it for all of its lightness.

Ironically enough, O'Brien was not able to publish this work in his lifetime. The rejection of this his second book, following the great success of At Swim-Two-Birds, which was lauded by Joyce, proved a crushing blow. Yet he continued to hone his craft, as evidenced through his Irish Times column, Cruiskeen Lawn written under the pseudonym, Miles na gCopaleen. He also wrote an entire book, An Beal Bocht (transl. The Poor Mouth) in Gaelic. Flann O'Brien died in Dublin in 1966, probably due to complications from alcoholism, let's hope he's not obliquely wandering the distorted countryside like the protagonist of his greatest novel, still unable to pin down that elusive third policeman.

~Book Jones~  5 stars

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