Wednesday, June 01, 2005

O'Brien: At Swim-Two-Birds

Beckett, not the magus Joyce, stands behind the pages of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), even though Murphy (1938) was still slick and strawberry-shiny from the womb. Its parturition did not, it seems, escape the eye of Flann O'Brien, however many others' it did. Beckett's pressure becomes almost overwhelming in the later The Third Policeman (wrt. 1940; pub. 1967) and The Dalkey Archive (1964)--in particular, the velocipedal obsession, and its use as a metaphor for the body. Both minor works share a fantasy in which bicycles eat food; or, in which disappearing food is attributed to the hunger of bicycles.

Knowledge of Beckett ruins the later novels, which have none of the inevitability, fatality even, that hammers even the logic of Watt or the so-to-speak Trilogy. Dalkey in particular seems the work of a haphazard imagination, it is a potpourri of thoughts, whereas Policeman has a tenuous logic. "Joe," or the person whose soul Joe is, is exploded by his friend Divney, who is also his archnemesis, for they have killed a Mr. Mathers jointly, but will doubtful share the spoils jointly. Divney lures him into Mathers's house, where a bomb erupts and projects him into a dream-afterlife where he does not realize his own death. That is what is worth keeping. Aside from the simple question: "'Did you ever in your life,' he [Sgt. Pluck] asked, 'mount a bicycle from the right?'" Throughout there is the merely odd interlarding of footnotes from the scientific annals of one De Selby, which adds nothing aesthetically to the novel. De Selby, in Dalkey, wants to hasten the apocalypse and freeze-frame time by depleting the world of oxygen through a chemical reaction with his fabricated substance D.M.P. (also the acronym for Dublin Metropolitan Police). If there is one good passage in O'Brien, it is De Selby's speculative mistake:
The early books of the Bible I accepted as myth, but durable myth contrived genuinely for man's guidance. I also accepted as fact the story of the awesome encounter between God and the rebel Lucifer. But I was undecided for many years as to the outcome of that encounter. I had little to corroborate the revelation that God had triumphed and banished Lucifer to hell forever. For if--I repeat if--the decision had gone the other way and God had been vanquished, who but Lucifer would be certain to put about the other and opposite story?
Why? "The better to snare and damn mankind." Other than that is little worth keeping: Mick (the hero) daytrips to Skerries to meet Joyce, who has survived (he falsified his death) but who wrote neither Ulysses (a hoax of Sylvia Beach's that he repudiates in moral horror) or Finnegans Wake (of which he has not so much as heard). But apart from the disavowals the encounter is no more memorable than that of De Selby with St. Augustine in a cave under a marina, which has gone here uncommented for that very reason.

At Swim-Two-Birds is another beast again. Its revolt from form is its charm, because its candor: "One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings." Or also for instance, in its inventory-style (Joyce again) colon here in a paragraph set apart: "Description of my uncle: Red-faced, bead-eyed, ball-bellied." Etc.

Literary descent is descent with modification, in Darwin's phrase and perhaps as in the thesis of the recent book Madame Bovary's Ovaries, as yet unread by me. But in many authors there are evident vestiges of another author that serve no new functional purpose, like the appendix or coccyx, when the sub-author is not a genuine writer. Writing to write, not from a thrust of moral compulsion. And the massing of vestigial stylings, so to speak, is a measure of that author's authenticity. All this is a stultified meditation on scraps of Bloom's theory picked up from The Anxiety of Influence. O'Brien's archivism is of this vestigial nature. Pure formal experiments might have use for authentic artists, but are not themselves authentic.

After the later two novels Swim-Two-Birds is not a compelling enough read to carry thru to the finis: herewith I sign out.


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