August 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
Finished long ago: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien.
Reading now: Mythologies, by William Butler Yeats.
The Third Policeman is one of those books that casts a kind of glamor as you’re reading it for the first time, making it impossible to recapture the mysterious feeling of experiencing its strange world. As it happens, the book is less directly indebted to Irish mythology and history than O’Brien’s masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds. But I’ve been reading Yeats’s compilation of Irish folklore and musings, and things like glamor are on my mind.
As different as Yeats and O’Brien seem to be, their books may both be read as explorations of the realm of Faery, which can also seem the realm of death, as well as the realm of both good-natured and menacing tricks. As Yeats describes them, the “Good People” of Faery are everywhere just beyond our vision, capable of switching the bodies of those that seem dead to whisk them away to a better realm, or to steal a newborn or newlywed for their own revels, and good and evil are somewhat meaningless terms to them, their love and hate untrammeled by the moral ambiguity that mortals must always experience.
O’Brien’s book can also be read as a visit to a particularly dark and disturbing part of Faery, by a particularly unsavory individual. In it, as in Yeats’s vision of Irish mythology, the twilight realms of death and Faery are always near:
It was some change that came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable. It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye…
Our narrator then finds himself face to face with what appears to be the man he had just helped to murder. As in tales of Irish Faery kidnappings, the individual is uncannily changed from his former self:
But the eyes were horrible. Looking at them I got the feeling that they were not genuine eyes at all but mechanical dummies animated by electricity or the like, with a tiny pinhole in the centre of the ‘pupil’ through which the real eye gazed out secretively and with great coldness.
O’Brien is the best writer I know for channeling the spirit of the Irish Sidhe, for he harnesses chaotic and mysterious plots to beautiful language and moments of joy and laughter. The hilarious subplot in The Third Policeman of the bicycle-people, slowly becoming more and more centaur-like as they absorb more atoms of bicycle due to excessive riding, is a perfect example. This is the kind of cock-and-bull story, and the kind of book, that rings both true and hilariously false, that brings together anarchic joy of making it up as you go along and a kind of commentary on humanity, on the limits of science, on our strange hybrid nature, machine and spirit and body all mixed up together.