Wednesday, 6 April 2011

At Swim Two Birds review: Experimental Pub Chat?


I started this book to help my daughter who was reading it as part of her uni course and was a bit flummoxed by it. Anyway she gave up on it 20 pages in but for me it has been a relevation.
A complex work I suppose you could call it an “experimental” novel, it was Flann O’Brien’s first work. Having said that , although written in 1939, its structure is similar to the early novel: Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy et al.
There are no real chapters although the words Chapter I cheekily emblazen the first page but are never referred to again. It is episodic and in some ways a patchwork quilt of different work – fragments are drawn from a variety of sources – a circular letter from a dodgy bookmaker, an old poem, encyclopaedia entries, a Western novel. Ostensibly though it is about a waster student in Dublin who lives with his sanctimonious uncle but spends most of his time on the drink or in bed.
He is a writer however, and I think this is right, he is writing a novel about a corrupt writer, Trellis, who rips off his ideas from another writer – of Westerns – and creates a series of characters including some lifted from Irish legend. These characters despise their creators and gang together to torture and destroy Trellis. This is done by another writer an illegitimate child of Trellis – caused by him violating one of the female characters he created!
Thus the work is about the nature of writing, narrative structure and character. There are a couple of passages which may, or may not, be O’Brien’s view of the nature of the novel: “A modern novel should be largely a work of reference”. This makes it sound drier than it is but it is actually very funny.
As well as dealing with the nature of the novel though it explores the Irish character – it juxtaposes the re-telling of ancient Irish myth, Finn MacCool and Sweeney being turned into a bird – with guys having banal drunken chat. For example there is a hilarious argument over the nature of poetry and what is “good”. A poet of doggerel also makes an appearance.
The drunken conversations are particularly good – some within the novel within the novel and some by the student himself. They are out of time I think I have had some of these chats! Can also see why it may not appeal to a 19 year old female undergraduate though.
There is so much more in it as well though. The nature of creating myt h – some of the language telling the sagas from old Ireland is quite beautiful, how to take minutes of boring meetings, the joy of drinking and many comments on Dublin itself. It is difficult though but more accessible than say Becket who deals with similar issues. Although Becket never really engaged with the Irish identity to this extent. There also seems to be quite a casual misogyny as well: there are no female characters of note or if there are they literally are a plot device. Maybe he’s making a point about the male writer.
Glad I read it and a challenge but shows the power and unique things that a novel can do compared to other forms of art. And remember A Pint of Plain is your Only Man!

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