Flann O'Brien, born Brian O'Nolan, (Ireland, 1911)
At Swim-two-birds (1939) ++
Published only after the death of the author,
The Third Policeman (1940) + is a
that mixes absurdist theater, ghost story, Kafka,
"Alice in Wonderland",
David Foster Wallace's footnote-dense novel "Infinite Jest"
demented musichall farce.
The narrator remain nameless throughout the book.
He is a struggling scholar who, desperate to publish his life's work,
accepts to murder and rob a man so he'll be able to pay for the publication
(a veiled satirical stab at the cultural establishment).
He finds himself stuck in an alternate dimension, which represents his Dantesque hell,
in which the murderer is forced to endlessly confront both his victim and his soul/conscience (which, unlike him, has a name, Joe),
except that it is a hell where the most ridiculous things happen.
This nameless hero travels to an underworld that is both surreal and grotesque, including a visit to eternity, a labyrinth of underground chambers and corridors littered with wires and pipes that evokes a scientific laboratory and the mechanized plant of a factory.
All the time he is rehearsing his scholarly research and all the time he is dialoguing with his soul/conscience, so that
the novel is two books in parallel: one the elaborate pedantic mock-erudite discussion of the theories of a fictitious philosopher (who appears to be no less mad and absurd than everybody else), and the other a fairy tale of grotesquely implausible adventures.
The story is set in rural world, the kind of world that is normally peaceful and bucolic. Here, instead, it is the antechamber of hell.
The book opens with a line in which the narrator confesses that he killed a man. The first chapter is a flashback that narrates his own life and what led to the murder.
The narrator lost his parents when he was still a child. The parents
managed to have him study in a boarding school, while a foreman called John Divney took care of his father's farm and his mother's pub.
At the age of 16 he fell in love with the writings of De Selby.
When boarding school ended, the narrator lost a leg, which had to be replaced with a wooden one.
He was 20 when he finally returned to the farm and the pub, and met John
Divney in person. Divney claimed that both farm and pub were losing money
but in reality he was stealing it.
The narrator didn't care because he was absorbed in his studies of De Selby's writings.
This went one for years. In fact, Divney even started robbing the customers when they got drunk.
At the age of 30 the narrator became inseparable from Divney but not out of real friendship. Divney convinced the narrator to murder and rob the rich
Phillip Mathers so that the narrator could publish his studies on De Selby.
After the murder Divney hid the box with the money, refusing to tell the narrator where it was with the excuse that they had to wait until things quieted down. That's why they became "inseparable friends": the narrator didn't trust Divney and didn't want to leave him alone for one minute.
Eventually Divney decides that it was time to unearth the money and sent the narrator alone to Mathers' own house.
The narrator finds the box but the box suddenly disappears and old Mathers' ghost appears, drinking tea. The narrator hears an inner voice, that he calls Joe, prompting him to speak with the ghost. The ghost in principle
always answers "no" but the narrator finds ways to get answers.
Eventually the narrator comes to believe that the money is now kept by policemen who have lived in their barracks for hundreds of years.
He asks Mathers to sleep in the house, since it is already evening, and the ghost allows him. The ghost asks him his name and the narrator doesn't remember: he is now nameless. And he has forgotten all about Divney.
In the morning he is excited about recovering the box of money from the police officers. He sets on foot towards the barracks. He is soon walking through an eerie unknown landscape. He is still talking with his inner voice Joe, and frequently quotes De Selby. He takes a nap in a field and, when he wakes up, he finds a curious man,
Martin Finnucane, sitting next to him. Martin introduces himself as a robber and murderer who is about to kill him. Martin though spares his life when
the narrator shows that one of his leg is wooden: it turns out Martin himself is a one-legged man. Martin directs him towards the barracks.
There the narrator meets the big sergeant Pluck, who mistakes him for the son of an acquaintance, and cop MacCruiskeen. The narrator pretends to
be there to report that his gold watch has been stolen. Undeterred, Pluck, who is obsessed with bicycles (he is convinced that people are slowly being turned into bicycles), files a report about a stolen bicycle.
Meanwhile, a man walks into the station: Michael Gilhaney.
The narrator keeps mixing the story with references to De Selby.
For example, De Selby was intrigued by the fact that, due to the finite speed of light, your reflection in the mirror is an image of a younger you,
and so he built a system of mirrors that created an infinity of reflections,
such that the image of one as a child appeared.
MacCruiskeen continues to utter nonsense, a mix of philosophy and dada.
He is suspicious of the narrator because the narrator arrives in town with no bicycle.
MacCruiskeen reveals his hobby: building nested chests. He shows the
narrator his masterpiece, a set of nested chests whose smallest ones are
He has also built an instrument that plays music that cannot be heard because the frequency of the notes is too high for the human ear.
Meanwhile Pluck and Gilhaney are about to begin a search for Gilhaney's stolen bicycle.
the narrator volunteer to help them. Here Pluck mentions Fox, the third cop, who has gone completely mad (and never spoken again) after a mysterious
conversation with MacCruiskeen.
Pluck finds the bicycle and later confesses to the narrator that he was the one who stole it and hid it. Pluck then indulges in an "atomic theory" according to which those who ride bicycles all the time become half bicycle.
After a lengthy digression into De Selby's theories (notably that the Earth is a sausage, not a sphere, and that gravity is a jailer of humanity),
the narration resumes with the entrance of inspector O'Corky, who has just
found the cadaver of Mathers. The sergeant feels that he has to pretend
to be on top of the event and announces that not only does he know about the
murder but he has even arrested the murderer: the narrator (who is in fact
the murderer, but the sergeant picks him simply because he's the only
stranger available). Asked why the narrator/murderer is not in jail, the
sergeant confesses that he keeps his bicycle in the jail.
The sergeant coldly tells the narrator that he will be hanged, although he will be allowed to remain on parole outside the prison.
The narrator protests that he has no name and therefore cannot be hanged.
The sergeant finds a way to justify killing him anyway.
MacCruiskeen walks in and prepares an odd machine that emits a strange light and a horrible sound. He then explains that his machine can stretch the light and turn it into sound, and that everything is ultimately made of omnium, which can be bent into different materials like light and sound.
Sound in turn can be stretched into heat. MacCruiskeen and Pluck collect noises and save them for winter, when the machine can turn them into heating.
Gilhaney walks in to report that the price of timber to build the gallows
is quite high. He trips and accidentally hits MacCruiskeen, who gets furious because he claims that his invisible chest has fallen onto the floor.
MacCruiskeen pulls out a pistol and forces the narrator and Gilhaney to get on their knees and search for the invisible chest. Gilhaney winks at the narrator and pretends to have found the invisible chest. MacCruiskeen believes him and lets him go, but then he tells the narrator that he knows that Gilhaney was only pretending, but also that Gilhaney accidentally
did grab the chest with his hand, by pure chance and luck.
(On one hand the story of the invisible chest sounds ridiculous, but on the other hand the narrator witnesses the odd machine emit light and sound for real).
After a lengthy digression on De Selby's theory of sleep, and another dialogue with his alter Joe in which the narrator dies (but it's only a dream), we are informed that the scaffolding for the gallows is being built and Pluck is satisfied. The narrator only has 24 hours to live.
The narrator asks Pluck what's in MacCruiskeen's black book and that begins another venture into a rabbit hole. The ceiling of MacCruiskeen's room is a detailed map of their village. Following a crack in the ceiling, they enter the road to eternity. In order to enter eternity, one has to weigh himself.
Then they take a lift to eternity, a vast underground chamber. There the narrator can ask anything he likes. He asks for gold and other things and a weapon. But now he weighs more than he weighed when he entered and cannot take the lift down anymore, so he is forced to leave everything behind. Pluck and MacCruiskeen confess that they always sleep in eternity because there time does not flow and they remain younger.
After a lengthy digression on De Selby's theory of (with several lengthy footnotes), and the notice that not a single word of De Selby's manuscript is legible (which of course makes the whole digression pointless), the narration resumes from the morning of the execution.
The third policemen, Fox, informs the others that a group of one-legged men (Martin Finnucane's gang) are marching on the prison to free the narrator.
MacCruiskeen confronts them with a bicycle which drives people mad.
The two policemen cannot carry out the execution because of dangerously high readings in eternity.
The narrator wakes up again.
He discusses De Selby's theory of sleep and in passing he mentions that De Selby was a physician, ballistician, philosopher and psychologist.
The detour becomes the story of De Selby's weird biographers and scholars:
Kraus, Bassett, Du Garbandier, Hatchjaw, etc. Harchjaw, for example, was
arrested for impersonating himself and ended up working for a brothel in Hamburg.
MacCruiskeen has left the door open and the bicycle that Pluck has locked in the jail is also moving towards freedom. The narrator and the bicycle escape together. Suddenly a house appears: it is Mathers' house. The narrator looks forward to meeting Divney again and keep looking for the box full of money.
However inside the house he finds the third policeman, Fox, who turns out to be a giant version of Mathers, running a tiny police station inside the walls of the house. Mathers doesn't recognize him and is only concerned that the narrator is riding a bicycle without a lamp. The narrator claims that the lamp was stolen and Mathers/Fox proceeds to file a report, adding that several pumps were stolen too. The narrator asks Mathers/Fox if he knows anything about a cashbox. Mathers/Fox replies that it was found and already delivered to the narrator's house, and that it contains... omnium! With so much omnium the narrator will be able to do just about anything. In fact, Mathers/Fox confesses that he has used the omnium to create the wildly irrational world of the other two police officers, including the illusion of time warping, and he also used the omnium to save the narrator from the hanging (by generating the high readings that distracted the other two cops). The narrator owes Mathers/Fox his life.
The narrator gets back on his bike and bikes towards his own house. He is surprised to see from the window that Divney lives there with his fiance, who is pregnant, and a boy. Divney and his fiance look a lot older. When the narrator walks in, Divney has a fit and falls to the floor, agonizing. His wife and his boy, however, don't see the narrator at all. Divney screams that the narrator is dead, that instead of the cashbox Divney had placed a mine under the floor, and the narrator died in the explosion, blown to pieces with the whole house. And that happened 16 years earlier.
A new house appears. The narrator walks towards it, realizes that it is a police station. The exact same words describe the barracks as in the earlier chapter.
The narrator sees that Divney (presumably dead) is also heading there.
The police officer, presumably Pluck, asks them if their case is about a bicycle, exactly what he asked the narrator the first time.
And so at the end we realize that the story has been told by a dead man, who is condemned to re-live forever his actions in some kind of grotesque hell.
The Dalkey Archive (1964)