Tuesday, May 29, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds

It has been some time since I have enjoyed a full-blown metafiction as much as I did Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a send-up of Irish folktales and fiction. The narrator, a college student in Dublin who drinks, sleeps, and writes instead of going to class, spins out the story of Dermot Trellis, a bartender who himself only writes and sleeps. Trellis works on a series of tales, including a tale of a “legendary hero of old Ireland,” a ludicrous American-style Western set in Ireland, the tale of an Irish curse, and others—all under his theory of “aestho-autogamy” whereby grown characters are born in life as well on the page with a complete back story. Several of Trellis’s characters, all of whom he forces to live in rooms above his bar in order to keep tabs on them, rebel against him while he sleeps in order to gain independence from the lives he forces them to play and eventually seek to destroy him in their own tale of revenge. Against this, the narrator’s uncle harasses him about his school attendance as his exams quickly approach.

At times, the parodies go on a little longer than I would really have liked. The story of legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool (“Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal.”) and the story of the curse each become a little tedious after a while. The strongest, because so ridiculous, is the Western, complete with Indian raiders on the Irish countryside. Otherwise, the book is best when it is shuttling between the various stories and the narrator’s life, other documents, and his insulting descriptions of his Uncle. At times the story of the characters rebelling against their author seems like a parodic reflection of the narrator’s struggle to make a story that will cohere; while it is that, by the end of the novel it becomes more and more apparent that their battle against Trellis is also much like the narrator’s rebellion against his uncle, their tale of revenge an outlet for his own resentment. The resolution to these dramas comes a little abruptly at the end of the novel, but that abruptness itself carries some significance in how lightly held the narrator’s opinions are and how quickly he will change them.

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