At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien
One thing this book reminded me of was writing a rag called "The Cuckoo's Nest" when I was in grad school in the 70ies. It was a dittoed paper distributed throughout the English Department and the goal was riffing on "academic style". I wrote abstracts for fake papers, agenda for academic conferences, riffs on footnotes. It was very popular for awhile and I wasted a lot of time at it. (I don't have anything left so maybe it wasn't as funny as I thought.)
I'm not saying of course that I really had a masterpiece going, but I felt that spirit behind At Swim Two Birds. The narrator is a student who drinks and parties too much and spends endless time in his room so that his conventional uncle—with whom he lives—assumes he’s wasting time. He begins by telling us that the rules of fiction—one beginning and one ending, for example—make no sense. He insists that no new characters are needed; that writers should use existing characters—which he does, importing, for example, two cowboys from the American West into his Irish story. Well not so much into his story but into the story of the writer, Trellis ,he writes about. And at the end of the novel, the characters take Trellis to court for cruel and inhuman treatment.
I suppose there’s a sense in which this book—which is difficult to follow and defeats many readers not willing to follow where it leads—as John Updike says to “drunken banter, journalese, pulp fiction and Celtic myth”—is a novelist’s novel, or at least one primarily of interest to those who study/care about the novel as form. That may account for the fact that although it’s been touted as a work of genius since it was published in 1939, it’s not read much, except in university courses in the novel—which is where I first encountered it 40 years ago.
O’Brien’s—his real name was Brian O’Nolan and he also wrote a long-standing column in The Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen—immediate predecessor is of course Joyce. One friend of mine, in fact, calls this novel "Joyce Lite", i.e., likely to prime readers for reading Ulysses and maybe even Finnegans Wake.
Nothing illustrates O’Brien’s writing genius like when he gets hooked on a tale or a topic and runs away with it—until the reader collapses in laughter—innocuous subjects like tea and tobacco (which I remember from near the end). Usually totally out of the context of the story or only tangential, but an individual opportunity for cleverness and humor. Even just lists as when he "characterizes" Furriskey, Lamont and Shanaghan by systematically going through a list of qualities using a word or phrase for each character. Starts out informative and ends up hilarious.
Head: brachysephalic; bullet; prognathic
Vision: tendencies toward myopia; wall-eye; nyctalopia
Configuration of nose: roman, snub; mastoid
Unimportant physical afflictions: palpebral ptosis, indigestion; German itch
The descriptions of Finn McCool in the beginning are like that—the descriptions go way beyond "describing" and into the area of the kind of humor that results from building up of detail upon detail—all that circumference of his body parts—“the neck to him was as the bole of a great oak, knotted and seized together with muscle humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with the bards. His chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs.” And so forth, longer and cleverer than you’d think any man could extend the comparisons.
All this would be tedious were it not so outrageous in the detail and so well written. The details are carefully chosen (no matter how random they seem) and if you read it aloud, the sentences are beautiful. There's a blurb by Updike about O'Brien on the back of my book: "Like Beckett, O'Brien...has the gift of the perfect sentence, the art, which they both learned from Joyce, of turning plain language into a lyric pitch."
It also reminds me a little bit of Basil Fawlty when he goes off on one of his very funny tangents. In fact the humor of Monty Python works on a principal which Flann O'Brien uses again and again in this book. It's not so much the subject of Fawlty's raves that provides the humor, but (1) the sheer accumulation of ridiculous detail and (2) his ability to deliver the long speech fast and furiously with physical movements to enhance the humor--the acting equivalent of a perfect sentence.The title, by the way, comes from the literal translation of an Irish place name.