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"One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with"
Flann O'Brien's first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds is a comic, metafictional work containing an intertwining celtic knot of stories wherein characters try to overthrow their author's rule by drugging him, among other things. The stories largely consist of characters taken (or to use O'Brien's words, "stolen") from a vast number of preexisting works. The cast ranges from aspiring authors to ordinary Dubliners to Mad Sweeny.
Synopsis of the plot: The book begins by introducing its unnamed narrator, a student living with his uncle. The book continually switches between first-person "biographical reminiscences" of the student's life, and a number of stories he had been writing in his spare time. After explicitly stating that "A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author...," we are presented with exactly this. One of these stories involves the Pooka MacPhellimey, a species of human Irish devil with magical powers. Another follows John Furriskey, a character born already an adult and with a full memory without any experience to account for it. The third talks of the legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool. Furriskey, we later learn, was created via aestho-autogamy by Dermont Trellis. Trellis is an author who created Furriskey to be a character in his work, an Anvilicious novel demonstrating the power of sin to corrupt even the most pure. Trellis has Furriskey and his other characters stay with him at the Red Swan Hotel where he can keep an eye on them and ensure that they do exactly what he says. Unfortunately, Trellis cannot control his characters while he is asleep, leading several of his other characters to drug him. Finn MacCool, meanwhile, had been recounting the tale of Mad Sweeny, another character from celtic mythology. Later, the Pooka is met by the Good Fairy. After discoursing on the nature of good, evil, even and odd numbers, and kangaroos, they begin a journey to the Red Swan Hotel. Along the way, they are met by a large number of other "stolen" characters, among them Sweeny. It's eventually revealed that the event which brought the Pooka and Good Fairy to the hotel was the birth of Trellis's son by one of his female characters. When Orlick, as he is to be named, is born, his mother dies in childbirth. Due to the loss of his mother and the influence of the Pooka (who won influence over Orlick from the Good Fairy during a card game), Orlick is inspired to write a book about his own father, whereby he may punish him after trapping him in the artificial framework of a story. Conclusion of the foregoing
The book was more or less created as a means for O'Brien to play with metafiction tropes. Extremely impressive, given that the work was published in 1939. Unfortunately, although it received much critical acclaim (even from none other than James Joyce), the book only sold 244 copies before the warehouse in which it was stored was destroyed in World War II.
The book contains examples of
- Blind Idiot Translation: Done intentionally by Flann O'Brien. The tale of Mad Sweeny as recounted by At Swim is filled with O'Brien's . . . creative translations of Middle Irish poetry. For example, a line that is usually translated as "the bell of saints before saints", is translated by O'Brien as "the saint-bell of saints with sainty-saints".
- Bilingual Bonus: The epigraph written in its original greek . . . and then not attributed to a source.
- Celtic Mythology: Nearly a third of the book is based on this.
- Interactive Narrator: Trellis and his characters are able to interact with each other fully, as they basically inhabit the same world.
- Kudzu Plot: Partially subverted. The story branches off in a kudzu-esque manner from the very beginning, then merges into and folds back onto itself.
- Meta Fiction: Played with and explored in nearly every possible manner.
- Nested Story: The entire point of the book is to explore this.
- No Name Given: The protagonist of At Swim, like that of The Third Policeman, is never given a name.
- Post Modernism: While written before the genre is traditionally said to have emerged, it nonetheless managed to subvert, parody, and generally play with a lot of post-modern tropes.
- Purple Prose: The book is not to be read unless you are willing to be continually assaulted with this. Usually done humorously or parodied, but played straight a few times.
- Rage Against the Author: What happens to Trellis.
- Stylistic Suck: At one point in Orlick's story, he wants to portray a number of his characters as being extremely intelligent and educated. He accomplishes this by having them recite arcane and unrelated facts for a few pages.
- Surreal Humor: At one point the Pooka and the Good Fairy have an extensive argument as to whether the Pooka's wife is a kangaroo.
- Title Drop: The title comes up exactly once. When Finn MacCool is telling Sweeny's story, it's briefly mentioned that for a time Sweeny stayed by the church of Snámh-dá-én. In english: Swim-Two-Birds. We never come across the title again.