New American Library, 1966 pp. 315
I first read this book (or rather, part of this book) when I was a teenager. At the time its form perplexed me and its content struck me as bizarre and surreal. It was also, in places, hilarious.
As far as I can make out, this book has the right to claim the mantle of ‘first postmodern novel’. It was published in 1939, which saw the publication of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and the beginning of World War Two, so it got lost in the historical and literary shuffle of the time. If Joyce’s oeuvre propelled modernism into strange new territory, At Swim-Two-Birds took a wholly different tack into surreal and self-referential territory. (I admit that I managed to get an MFA in visual arts in the late 1980s without really knowing, or much caring, what constituted ‘postmodernism’. My distrust of the area was due to what I saw as a close alignment with irony. Irony is fine as a seasoning but it makes an indigestible meal.)
Anyway, a nos moutons ... The narrator, the first-person-singular, of At Swim-Two-Birds is a young college student, living in his uncle’s house and given to self-absorbed apparent idleness and speculative literary experiments. One among his theories is that there should be a limited number of fictional characters that should be made to do duty in different books -- rather than authors being burdened by having to re-invent new characters all over again for each new book. Further, he states that “a good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author ...” He then proceeds to suggest three separate beginnings, one featuring the Pooka McPhellimey, the next a Mr John Furriskey who was born at the age of twenty-five and, finally, legendary hero, Finn McCool. These characters start living autonomous lives quite separate from their creators and go on to mingle with characters from other books, some of whose authors are also fictional. Along the way we also meet a bad-tempered Good Fairy who cheats at cards, the mad king Sweeney and a pair of cow-punchers from Ringsend -- or was it Sandymount? -- who featured in cowboy stories set in Dublin. There then ensues a revenge tale where fictional characters turn the tables on their evil creator. Meanwhile, the original narrator, our college student who, the author assures us in the fly-leaf, is “entirely fictitious’, goes about his life, making dispassionate observations of all around him. Indeed the book casts a pretty merciless eye on Irish pieties and presumptions of the time -- and of the present day, too, no doubt.
There are times, I feel, when some passages might have benefited from a little editing but the author seems to be aware of this, too. I’m thinking particularly of times when Finn McCool starts up with the oul’ chat and goes on and on ... but several characters in the book mention his tendency to go on a bit, and the verbosity is the point. Mad Sweeney is in there, too, pretty much as he appears in Buile Suibhne, complaining at length about his lot and all the while declaiming verses about the beauties of Nature. And the truth of the matter is that many of the old legends and stories can be repetitious to long-winded to the modern ear and O’Brien is nor afraid to point this out. You’ll find this same merciless observation in other books of his -- The Poor Mouth, for instance, has some biting satire about Gaelic Ireland and those who champion its virtues.
You might also want to try The Third Policeman or The Dalkey Archive for wildly imaginative, funny, clever and biting stuff. O’Brien was a fine and funny writer who may finally (I hope) be getting the notice he deserves.