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.
December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment
Here’s my top five for 2010, absolute no-brainer classics that everyone knows they should read excluded:
5. The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet. About the (mostly male) urges to possess, consume, destroy; madnesses and neuroses; memory and Memory (our narrator) and the many ways to tell a story. It’s much like Pynchon if Pynchon were a prose poet and not an onslaught of words and ideas. (That’s a good thing.) I wrote a little about it here.
4. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. If Mitchell had just published a novella entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After,” this would still be on this list. (Maybe even higher.) That brilliant dystopia is the heart of this sextet of nested stories, both structurally and emotionally: it’s the only piece here that really made me feel, but it’s fascinating how this impact was, in large part, due to the story’s connection to those less affecting tales that preceded (and followed) it. The whole thing is ingenious and envy-inducing, if you appreciate narrative structure. See this post.
3. Possession, by A.S. Byatt. As I said in this post, it’s the perfect postmodern romance. Also the second book on this list that examines the Victorians in really productive ways that also make you marvel at how much was lost in the 20th century’s march toward replacing humanity with machinery, bureaucracy, circuitry.
2. The Manyoshu. (Apologies for missing macrons on the o and u.) The great 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry, which I read in a version translated by a committee of Japanese scholars in the 1930s. (Some interesting social/political implications there, of course, as a presentation of Japanese culture to the world.) Profoundly moving, seen as a whole: a window onto a culture committed to the conveying the beauty of the natural world, to creating sense-pictures in words. I especially love the poems of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, a “saint of poetry” in Japan. His poems on separation from his wife and her death are Shakespearean in their grief and anger at the phenomenon of death, but indelibly Japanese in idiom and approach.
1. At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien. I never posted about this, which is stupid on my part, because this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It’s a kind of masterpiece, and part of what makes it so great is that it starts out by just baffling you, so that everything that comes after is this absurd, delightful surprise. It’s become what the kids call a “cult classic” among lit-nerd types, mostly due to bad timing: published in 1939, in direct opposition to the prevailing mood in Europe, most of the edition was destroyed in the Blitz. Joyce loved it; so did Gilbert Sorrentino, who paid homage to and cribbed from it in Mulligan Stew (which I, weirdly, read before At Swim-Two-Birds). Through the power of “aesthoautogamy,” an author in an undergraduate’s story brings his characters to life, and lives with them, and chaos of all sorts ensues. It’s linguistically anarchic and wonderful, it’s full of fantastic Dublin dialogue and parodies of academic language, it’s somehow both silly and deep.