Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

This, uh, certainly was a book. A strange, confusing book, about people meshing with bicycles and one-legged men, and a house that seems to exist outside of time, but needs constant tending of the valves lest something drastic happen.

It all comes together at the end, kind of. In that the hallucinatory nature of the book is sort of explained, but even with that, I'm not sure why these were the thoughts that came into the narrator's mind, instead of others. If that's the explanation, the answer seems to be that dreams are just made up of random firings instead of any meaning.

Which is fine, but when you stretch that out to book-length, it does go bafflingly on.

The main character seems to come from a long British heritage of characters who somehow managed to grow up utterly clueless and inept about virtually anything or everything. He lives on his family farm, which seems to be getting winkled out from under him by his main help.

The man who is taking over his farm hatches a plot to kill and rob a rich old man in the district, and the two do, but then he seems to be alive again, and then...then the nameless narrator goes to the police with a false story to try to get their help in finding the lockbox he killed to steal. The policemen are more interested in bicycle thefts in the district, and turn out to be responsible for them, to prevent bicycles and humans from exchanging too many atoms.

No, I'm serious.

It's a strange surrealist romp, it's short, it's not hard to read. It's a bit baffling, but not in a bad way, I suppose. I didn't feel edified at the end, or even distinctly amused. It was amusing while I was reading it, but it seems like a studied attempt to reject meaning, or even to mock the search for any kind of meaning afterwards. Almost like it's the kind of book written to intentionally torment English majors.

At the start, I was frustrated by the gormlessness of the main character, who apparently went away to school without ever learning any of the rudiments of how to notice anything in the world. I tend to find that extraordinarily unlikely - there might be glaring gaps, but it's hard to grow to adulthood completely oblivious about every fucking thing. Even Neville in Harry Potter grew the fuck out of it. 

I've noticed it before in English literature. It makes me think of the narrator of The Wasp Factory, but that character was purposefully shielded from learning anything about the world in any substantial way. Or Adrian Mole, except Mole may be clueless, but he's not quite this this clueless. 

As it became more and more apparent that this was a comedy and not to be taken in any way literally, that irritation subsided. Still, I read the whole thing, and I can tell you what happened, but I'm fucked if I can tell you what it's about.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting you should cite the Iain Banks similarities: having read the Wasp Factory some years back and recently picking up Flann O'Brien's The Hard Life I couldn't help wondering if Iain had been heavily influenced by the Hard Life as the narrative tone, the dysfunctional motherless family, the aloof and competent, though lawless, big brother are all very similar.
    It's a pity you didn't get The Third Policeman. One of the scariest stories I've ever read. The main character is actually dead for most of the book although he only discovers this at the disturbing end to the book(quite a few clues about that in the alternative universe he inhabits). Have another go at it.