Customer Reviews: At Swim-Two-Birds (Irish Literature)
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Published in 1939, the same year that James Joyce published Finnegan's Wake, this novel was lauded in its day by Joyce himself, Samuel Beckett, and Graham Greene. A wild concoction involving a completely disjointed narrative, multiple points of view, farce, satire, and parody, this "novel" offers any student of Irish literature unlimited subject matter--and equally unlimited laughs. In this unique experiment with point of view, author Brian O'Nolan has used a pseudonym, Flann O'Brien, to tell the story of the novelist/student N, who tells his own story at the same time that he is writing a book about an invented novelist (Trellis), who is himself developing another story, while Tracy, still another author, tells a cowboy story and appears in the previous narratives.
Believing that characters should be born fully adult, one of the writers tries to keep them all together--in this case, at the Red Swan Hotel--so that he can keep track of them and keep them sober while he plans the narrative and writes and rewrites the beginning and ending of the novel. But even when the primary writer stops writing to go out with his friends, the characters of the other (invented) fictional writers continue to live on in the narrative and comment on writing. Before long, the reader is treated to essays on the nature of books vs. plays, polemics about the evils of drink, parodies of folk tales and ballads, a breathless wild west tale starring an Irish cowboy, the legends of Ireland, catalogues of sins, tales of magic and the supernatural, almanacs of folk wisdom and the cures for physical ills, and even the account of a trial--and that's just for starters.
Totally unique, O'Brien's creation defies the conventions, both of its day and of the present, and even the most jaded reader will be astonished at the unexpected twists the narrative takes. Steeped in the traditions of the Irish story-teller, O'Brien keeps those traditions alive by creating multiple narrators to tell multiple stories simultaneously, while also skewering the very traditions of which he--and they--are a part. Mary Whipple
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on September 26, 1999
Is Swift's A Tale of a Tub a great novel? Is Carlysle's Sartor Resartus a great novel? Is Tristram Shandy a great novel? Each of these works takes as its basis another form, whether the controversialist pamphlet, the philosophical treatise, or the biography, and comes out the other side with a new type of work, as well as a new work. These books occupy an originary and terminal position: they are the first and the last of their kind. For readers, these works are stones -- either the stones that become the foundations for understanding or the stones that drag them down. At Swim-Two-Birds takes as its foil the popular novel and the Irish renaissance myth discovery and the personal narrative. Why should a novel have only one beginning, O'Brien (aka Brian O'Nolan, aka Brian Nolan -- a man who got into university with a forged interview with John Joyce) asks? Why one ending? If, as some reviewers have suggested, you try to find the "structure," you're missing the point. Trying to mash this book into a novel's mold is misguided, and O'Brien will eventually make that clear. In fact, it is the story of a college student (fictional), who is writing a novel about a man (fictional) who is writing an Irish western (which cannot be). Additionally, the student's translation homework -- tales from the Dun Cow Book -- emerge in a full Lady Gregory parody and begin to interact with the other fictions, and the characters of the Irish Western themselves begin to resent their lots in life. The book plays games on so many levels that reading it the way one reads a novel is useless. This is not about information and straight lines, but about play -- sometimes rough and tumble and sometimes gentle. All of the narrators lie, by the way, and there is always one more frame of fiction beyond the one in action at the moment. Do not buy this book if you're intolerant of play. Do not buy this book if you look at books for "what happens." If, however, you're one of those who enjoys, instead of resents, reading milestones like Sartor Resartus or think that Italo Calvino is extremely sophisticated, this book (not novel) will be the greatest delight the 20th century can offer you.
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on December 2, 1999
At Swim-Two-Birds is the first great cult book of the century. Well, maybe the second, after Ulysses. Or possibly the fifth, after Kafka's novels. Oh, never mind. The author, Brian O'Nolan (to give him his real name) wrote it in a fairly desultory manner, handing out bits to his friends and asking them what they thought; he would often change it on their suggestion, not always for the better (as comparisons with early drafts show). It gives the impression of being intricately structured without actually being so, as I found when I adapted it for the stage. In fact, it's structurally a mess, with a hastily tacked-on sentimental ending that was written after O'Nolan's father's unexpected death - the book is always threatening to get really dark, and then fudges it in the wind-up.. The humour is side-splitting the first time round, but it gives diminishing returns (believe me). Far better is his second novel in English, The Third Policeman, written without AS2B's pretensions to modernity and avant-gardism, and, paradoxically, much more genuinely avant-garde.
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on August 8, 2005
Wanted: A reader for Flann O'Brien's AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS.
1) Requisites: Forgiveness of the not-very-linear, willingness to suspend disbelief and attachment to conventions, flexibility to take hairpin turns and seeming leaps of logic without a moment's notice, and tolerance of sloth, drink and the occasional effluvia.
2) Experience and education: familiarity with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Irish literary culture of the early 20th century helpful. Competitive emphasis awarded applicants with a working definition of "metafiction."
3) Job description: Sort out nested narratives of authors and their characters; identify author's concepts regarding the creative process; laugh at author's lampoons, ironies and jokes; develop a high appreciation of author's conceptuality and use of voice; locate surprising floes of prose through which echo all kinds of intelligence; don't worry about getting absolutely every reference; appreciate William Gass's critical introduction to this edition, which adds to the fun and vision, and spoils nothing.
4) Compensation and benefits: Never boring, earns reader the metafictional and modern Irish literature badge of experience without much bloodletting.
5) Work location: Ideally read in proximity to others with whom insights and jokes can be shared but post-college isolation doable; bed not recommended unless weird dreams desired; does not go overly well with sand, gooey sunscreen and the sounds of the top 40 blasting from the radio three beach blankets away. The local pub would quite suit the content.
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on October 5, 2013
This is a book quite unlike any other. It may be the first metafictional romp, and it's a very Irish one at that. I enjoyed it, but it's not to everyone's taste, I'm sure. It's extremely quirky, humorous and the design and plot of the narrative is labyrinthine and surprising. All serious students of the novel ought to give this singular book a whirl. Those looking for a conventional tale, run for the hills!
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on July 4, 2014
This is supposedly O'Brien's masterpiece, but I'll take The Third Policeman over it any day. It's hard to follow if you don't know Gaelic, perhaps something is lost in translation. There are clearly snatches of brilliance in it, but for me, it didn't hang together well as a coherent story. Still worth reading, though, if you have any interest in Irish or avant-garde literature.
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on January 31, 2013
This is most likely the funniest book I have ever read. It is snigger, chuckle, laugh-out-loud funny, and I probably missed a good bit of the humor because part of it consists of lampooning various segments of Irish society and examples of Irish literature. It is not subtle in its humor, some of it being pure slapstick, much in the style of Monty Python. The plot, as such, is fantastical and sometimes confusing.

It's the writing that makes the novel rare and priceless. All characters have distinct voices and styles. And the book sings. There is something about English as spoken by the Irish (particularly from Dublin) that can give the language a lilt and a flow not present when those of other countries speak it. O'Brien's words sounded in my head so much that I actually read some of the book aloud to myself.

Just to give a glimpse into (part of) the plot: The unnamed narrator is supposedly a university student, but he spends most of his time in bed or consorting with his friends at drinking establishments. In his spare time, he is writing a novel about a Mr. Trellis, an author who also stays in bed a great deal of the time. Mr. Trellis likes to keep the characters for his novel close at hand, so he imprisons them in a hotel with him. Eventually they revolt and plot revenge. The son of Mr. Trellis,fathered by him with one of the female characters whom he ravished in a moment of weakness, writes the retribution for the other characters, giving Mr. Trellis his just punishment.

We also have one of the characters telling the story of his previous role in an Irish Western by a Mr. Tracy. And we have the story of another character who has been a part of an Irish folklore tale. And we have The Pooka Fergus MacPhillimey, an Irish devil with magical powers. And we have The Good Fairy. And so it goes.

This book is probably not for everybody, because of the absence of a coherent plot. It's maybe somewhat like James Joyce, but readable and funny. I believe it may be in my Top 10 favorites ever.
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on May 19, 2001
I have read few books which have delighted me as much as At Swim-Two-Birds..I will not do the book a disservice by attempting to summarize the plot. This must be one of the most original debut novels ever written; its form is like that of nothing else I've read, and is used with great success for the purpose of, among other things, parody. The facility the author displays with language is astonishing and unsurpassed; he has a perfect `ear' for the language, and combines it with brilliant comic invention, which pervades the structure and scaffolding of the book down to the prose. In my opinion, this is definitely his masterpiece in English; and certainly one of the greatest novels in the language.
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on July 7, 2006
ASTB is a story in a story in a story, starring a host of unlikeables and woven together by a surly, drunken master narrator.

If comedy is timing, then perhaps the meter of Mr. Nolan's prose is the key to his particular genius. A native speaker of Irish, he constructs sentences in ways that have the poetry of that language, and asserts such abrupt,hilarious, and logical sub-clauses that you sometimes find yourself laughing wildly and unexpectedly.

O'Brien's chief narrator, a drunk, lazy student, is the easiest character to understand and keep track of (his "biographical references" are the book's highlights). He has a rigorous jesuit brain, and a lazy, teenage body. He also has a fondness for consuming a great many "Pints of Plain", and observing the effects of these in himself and his acquantices with scientific curiosity.

I may be missing something, but in the final analysis I suspect that this book is not the masterpiece it could have been. That it was slashed by 1/3 by the author and one of his friends before publication may have rendered some of it more confusing than necessary. It's a pity he didn't take time to craft it tighter instead of just chopping out swathes of story. Maybe then I'd get what was going on a little better. Then again, maybe I wouldn't.

Should you buy it? Yes. It is an extremely clever postmodern piece of literature, and it will make you laugh. But don't try and read the whole thing in one sitting, or you'll find yourself irately meandering through some of the more surreal and apparently pointless dialogue. This stuff is best read slowly, as the point is not the plot, it's the scene and the poetry. If not for that, read it slowly for the simple reason that a story in a story in a story is just as confusing as it sounds.
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on March 2, 2015
For fan's of Irish literature this is a must read. It's a little hard to follow at times but remains clever and pays off in the end. As a novel experimenting with form, it is on top of its game. This book consists of several layers that intertwine nicely.
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