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Slippery titles, shifting personae.




THE REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY Fiction's centenary edition on Flann O'Brien is a capacious and important addition to the field of O'Brien studies. Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper's introduction to this volume takes for granted the slippery titles and shifting personae of O'Brien as surrealist, satirist, and cultural critic. Instead, O'Brien's work is considered here as already existing "within wider philosophical frameworks" than just the postmodern tenets of narrative destabilization and absurdity (14). The fourteen essays in this volume connect such narrative de-formations to frameworks as diverse as Alfred Jarry's theory of pata-physics, Christian Literary Theory, and science fiction. The result is a broadly transnational view of the strangeness of O'Brien's legacy which builds on recent works such as Carol Taafe's Ireland Through the Looking Glass: Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate (2008), and Jennika Baines's collection of essays 'Is It About a Bicycle?': Flann O'Brien in the Twenty-First Century (2011). The original pillars of O'Brien studies provide little structure here; Joyce's spectre receives very little expression, and as does Beckett's hollowed void. Instead, the rich comparative offerings here take up Dante, Vladimir Nabokov, and Italo Calvino. In this global and transhistorical context, O'Brien remains his own impossible enigma, as Aidan Higgins suggests in describing his first encounter with O'Brien: "I had the impression of a shadowy presence, a spirit collapsing inward (with many a sigh); the oblique gray hooded eyes, evasive, guarded, and secret, scarcely saw me" (29). Indeed, the scarce-seen moment is the subject at stake for most of the readings presented here. As we encounter O'Brien at one hundred, these essays share Higgins's sidelong glance at the "shadowiness" of O'Brien's innovative and confounding contributions to that similarly murky space between modernism and postmodernism.

The four opening essays speak across seemingly divergent epistemological poles: philosophical skepticism and belief. Thierry Robin and Robert Lumsden both address the issue of the void in O'Brien, with Lumsden's essay extending Keith Hopper's discussion of the uncanny in The Third Policeman in Flann O'Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Postmodernist (1995). Robin's discussion of Clement Rosset's theory of idiocy situates the absurd in relation to the 'inward collapse' initially suggested by Higgins. Robin takes us skimming along the narrative "surface" in order to show how "all [of O'Brien's] works point in the same direction, building a coherent aesthetics of eventual absence (of absolute meaning, of a rational subject, of psychological depth)" (37). Robert Luresden's "Voidance in The Third Policeman" addresses an older theoretical source in Parmenides's philosophy that "to not exist is necessary" (52). Pairing Parmenides with O'Brien as a reluctant metaphysician, Lumsden conducts a convincing destabilization of infinity through "hyper-material enlightenment madness" (54). Both of these essays engage with the impossibility of a singular representation of reality--the impossibility of unlocking any box within its box--and suggest that O'Brien's void derives its weirdest vitality from this impossibility.

Contributions from Carlos Villar Flor and Jennika Baines consider religious elements in O'Brien's work, with Flor making the convincing claim that O'Brien is "a postmodernist who happens to be a Thomist" (73). Flor's essay extends Anthony Cronin's foundational reading of O'Brien as Thomist, but more in the spirit of deformation than of redemptive possibility. With a consideration of Luke Ferreter's Christian Literary Theory, Flor makes a very timely call to expand our understanding of the "postmodern" so it might exist in a dialogic relationship with theology. Jennika Baines's "'Un-Understandable Mystery': Catholic Faith and Revelation in The Third Policeman" considers O'Brien's Manichaeism as a system in which "faith fits into reason" (80). Her essay is a unique take on the narrator's soul, Joe, which she suggests functions as "just another solipsistic, dislocated line of inquiry no different than de Selby with his theories of waterworks and a sausage-shaped earth" (84). The dislocation of the soul drags the reader into eternity, making faith just as menacing a force as science in the The Third Policeman.

Perhaps one of the strongest elements of this volume is its comparative offerings. Maciej Ruczaj gives us the first of these, which extends readings of O'Brien's eternity to Dante's sojourn to the underworld. Hell is not so much the province of Ruczaj's reading of The Third Policeman as the 'netherworld' is--a murkier "place of damnation" than any Christian schema directly names (93). Although there is no escape for O'Brien's narrator, Noman's hell is structured by a Dantean contrapasso in the sense that "Some of Dante's damned are burnt to ashes, others torn to pieces by demons; in the case of Noman, it is his perception and consciousness that come under attack." (95). Joseph Brooker's essay conducts a comparison between O'Brien and a writer with whom he shares a more directly postmodern platform, Vladimir Nabokov. Pale Fire (1962) is the touchstone of Brooker's comparison, as it "displays an attitude to fiction that arguably chimes most loudly with O'Brien's: the novel as high-wire act, the entire text a brilliant parody of another genre of writing" (122). The paratexts of The Third Policeman's de Selby and the Cantos of Shade in Pale Fire show us the "comedy of metalanguage ballooning to outperform its ostensible subject" (127).

The high-wire's suspended sense of unreal lightness also frames W. Michelle Wang's discussion of Italo Calvino and At Swim-Two-Birds's narrative weightlessness. Wang guides the reader through O'Brien's flattening of narrative hierarchy via Calvino's call for "weightless gravity" and suggests that "the reader need not be anchored, weighed down or committed to the story of any one character or narrative thread--which, anyhow, all tend toward eventual erasure" (141). Such subversive freedom tests generic boundaries as well, as we see in Val Nolan's discussion of Flann O'Brien's sci-fi affinities in The Dalkey Archive. Nolan provides a kinetic reading of de Selby as "theologist and physicist," or "one who embodies a link between the close reading of religious unreality and the scientific study of how the universe, how reality itself is put together" (182). Nolan's essay is also one of the more historically invested pieces in the collection, as he views the "de Valerian Catholic reality" of mid-century Ireland as "the most developed and consistent manifestation of the fantasy tradition in the country" (181). All of these transnational readings of O'Brien open a door for broader conversations on the outward gaze of Irish literature during its most seemingly insular moment in the middle of the twentieth century.

This volume also provides a number of valuable readings on the lesser-studied works of O'Brien. Neil Murphy's "Flann O'Brien's The HardLife & the Gaze of the Medusa" is a compelling reading of a text many critics have considered to be O'Brien's most socially engaged work. Murphy argues that The Hard Life is a failure, but one worth discussing since the novel's satirical and hedgy attempt at social realism "generates a quality of bleakness that O'Brien hadn't previously achieved" (157). Like Wang, Murphy turns to Calvino's idea of lightness to grapple with this bleakness and to show the heavy absence of the narrative weightlessness which structures earlier works like At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. There is perhaps more fruitful social engagement in O'Brien's work through Brian O Conchubhair's comparison of An Beal Bocht with Tomfis O Criomhthain's An tOileanach. O Conchubhair provides us with a compelling archival look at O'Brien's dry and, at times, seemingly callous marginalia in his copy of An tOileanach. The dryness which O'Brien and O Criomhthain share "recognizes the modern nature of the writing.... It is the style of saying or, more precisely, its artistic style of not-saying, which is momentous and which presages postodernist strategies of silence, kings of silence and non-verbal communication" (199).

The art of delayed speech and deferred meaning is also the subject of Flore Coulouma's discussion of Cruiskeen Lawn and the dialogic imagination. In addition to arguing for a stronger understanding of the chronicles' influence on O'Brien's novels, Coulouma's reading of anecdotes and digression in Crusikeen Lawn also calls for a reevaluation of "provincial" Dublin as a space which contains the "fractured nature of language itself" (176). Amy Nejezchleb considers the unfinished Slattery's Sago Saga's (1967) influence on O'Brien's careers as journalist and novelist and extends previous readings by Cronin and Anne Clissman by giving the novel's oil-baron-feminist anti-heroine, Crawford MacPherson, a complex consideration rather than simply dismissing her as a product of O'Brien's misogyny. These two essays on the 'minor' works of O'Brien are indicative of this volume's generosity of perspective; all the readings collected here take a crucial step in securing O'Brien's status as a cornerstone of mid-century fiction rather than an eccentric outlier. Perhaps we can just barely glance at the "shadowy presence' that Higgins sees in O'Brien, but this richly rendered volume shows that the shadow itself is central.

--Washington University in St. Louis
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Title Annotation:The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 31: Flann O'Brien - Centenary Essays
Author:Copan-Kelly, Cailin
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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