September 24, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Clear 16°C
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Bios & Memoirs


War Music

Christopher Logue's personal "Iliad" recharges Homer and makes the ancient actual.

The Great Fire

For Shirley Hazzard, mid-20th century fires raged both in both world and heart.

Break it Down

Lydia Davis' early stories demonstrate an uncanny gift for "real-time" subversion.

Death Sentence (L'Arrêt de mort)

Blanchot's seminal "novel" is about the act of creation itself, and its costs.

Talking to Ourselves

Andrés Neuman's slender but astute novel examines death from three sides.

The Unknown Quantity

Hermann Broch's novel of the life and times of a 1920s mathematician is sadly overlooked.

Can't and Won't

Lydia Davis has a problem: she can't not display her ingenious bravura.

Open City

What's most impressive about Teju Cole's debut is its modulated darkness.

Never Love a Gambler

Irish writer Keith Ridgway is beautifully uncompromising in his pitch-perfect thug chronicles.

Scenes From Village Life

Amos Oz's interlocking stories are parables for a brilliant, haunted nation.

The Third Policeman
By Flann O'Brien
Dalkey Archive Press, 1967 (2014). 209 pages

Irishman Flan O'Brien's surreal black comedy is a masterpiece of sublime imagination and bizarre conviction. His riotous vision of what it means to be very modern and very dead runs to gobbledygook and back, coagulating around a netherworld cosmos inhabited by boisterously fat policemen and their best anthropomorphic helpmates, bicycles, the craftiest of which are supple, demanding, crafty, with "willing female pedals."

Completed in 1940, it begins as murder mystery but soon enters a punch-drunk netherworld that rotates on its own axis by poking fun at science, numbers and answers. O'Brien (born Brian O'Nolan) plumbs atomic alchemy, the nature of conscience and consciousness, and stirs the mix with insights from "great thinker" and "ballistician" de Selby, a self-styled lunatic savant.

The party gets started when the impressionable narrator, a wooden-legged thug with a penchant for de Selby's gibberish, joins pub-hand Divney in murdering a wealthy recluse. The deed done, the narrator wants his payoff, but Divney balks — or seems to — plunging his ne'er-do-well accomplice into life with a "vast sequence of imponderable beings."

True to his beloved De Selby — who has long posited that life is a hallucination and death its most supreme accomplishment (he also thinks night sky merely dirty and in need of washing) — the narrator tries approaching the wacky goings-on rationally. He is a wretched Alice in a wicked wonderland ("regions which I had never seen before") where soulful bicycles are hunted down by grotesque policemen who loudly stretch out particles of light while ruminating on the color of wind. It's a "queer" Leprachaun-ville not even the narrator's witty talking alter ego Joe knows to understand.

O'Brien's "astonishing parade of nullity" lampoons mortal existence so fiercely it makes death stand tall. Even the narrator is duped, at once point wondering about the "commercial possibilities of eternity." Many of O'Brien's people and situations are Disney-like and neutralize macabre mortality (as Jonathan Swift did before him). De Selby, a maker of "hydraulic elysium" but who can't distinguish men from women (his mother is a "very distinguished gentleman"), is an archetypical mad professor spun from Einstein.

This exceptionally radical lump of comic genius was ironically deemed too bizarre for a world on the eve of world war, yet its lunacy was apt. The rejection all but extinguished O'Brien's literary hopes and he died a lifelong drunk at age 55. Sadly, not even the 21st-century seems likely to give the tall tale the appreciation it deserves.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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