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Funny in Places,
This review is from: At Swim-Two-Birds (Irish Literature Series) (Paperback)
Because it's confusing, I'll mention that Swim-Two-Birds is a place name, a place where a character stops briefly on a couple of occasions.
When it was published in 1939, this book got a lot of play for being what is now called a meta-novel. That is, much of the action occurs among characters who are executing a conspiracy against their author, who is himself a character in a novel written by the 'author' (Flann O'Brien) or the persona of O'Brien, who, confusingly, writes under several other names. It's not a new Idea, going back in the novel at least to Cervantes. These days it is not such a stimulating narrative device. An author can no longer get mileage merely out of writing metafiction because we are used to more sophisticated versions of it like Milan Kundera's IMMORTALITY, Ian McEwan's ATONEMENT, or THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY by Michel Houellebecq, to name a few, where the relation between character and author resonates more interestingly with the themes of the book.
My reaction to this book was mixed. It's not wonderful; it's not terrible; I relished parts and was board in others. I enjoyed recalling the old Celtic Sweeney poem. There is quite a bit of sort of Animal House humor, jokes about drunken college students puking and farting, which some people will love and others dislike. I note that only one female character actually appears, and she may be a kangaroo. It's funny in places. There is lot of satire of Irish literature of the time, and of cowboy genre novels of the time. The plot of the frame story is functional. The characterization in the outer plot is realistic and evocative if not psychologically searching. The characterization in the inner narratives is, presumably deliberately, stereotyped.
There is some fine writing, for example the following sentences describing the inner author recovering conciseness after being beaten by his characters:
When his wits returned to Dermot Trellis, they did not come together, but singly and at intervals. They came each with its own agonies, and sat uneasily on the outer border of the mind as if in readiness for going away again.
There is other writing that seems to me intentionally boring. I was reminded of Ulysses from time to time, particularly in the description of Dublin student life and in the trial of the inner author by the characters, which evokes the trial of Bloom in the Night Town section of that novel.