Books by O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]

O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Dalkey Archive. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1964] 1993. ISBN 1-56478-172-0.
What a fine book to be reading on Saint Patrick's Day! Flann O'Brien (a nom de plume of Brian O'Nolan, who also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, among others) is considered one of the greatest Irish authors of humor and satire in the twentieth century; James Joyce called him “A real writer, with the true comic spirit.” In addition to his novels, he wrote short stories, plays, and a multitude of newspaper columns in both the Irish and English languages. The Dalkey Archive is a story of mind-bending fantasy and linguistic acrobatics yet so accessible it sucks the reader into its alternative reality almost unsuspecting. A substantial part of the material is recycled from The Third Policeman (January 2004) which, although completed in 1940, the author despaired of ever seeing published (it was eventually published posthumously in 1967). Both novels are works of surreal fantasy, but The Dalkey Archive is more conventionally structured and easier to get into, much as John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit stands in relation to his own earlier and more experimental Stand on Zanzibar.

The mad scientist De Selby, who appears offstage and in extensive and highly eccentric footnotes in The Third Policeman, is a key character here, joined by Saint Augustine and James Joyce. The master of malaprop, Sergeant Fottrell and his curious “mollycule” theory about people and bicycles is here as well, providing a stolid counterpoint to De Selby's relativistic pneumatic theology and diabolical designs. It takes a special kind of genius to pack this much weirdness into only two hundred pages. If you're interested in O'Brien's curious career, this biography is an excellent starting point which contains no spoilers for any of his fiction.

March 2006 Permalink

O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Third Policeman. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1967] 1999. ISBN 1-56478-214-X.
This novel, one of the most frequently recommended books by visitors to this page, was completed in 1940 but not published until 1967, a year after the author's death. Perhaps the world was insufficiently weird before the High Sixties! This is one strange book; in some ways it anticipates surreal new wave science fiction such as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and The Jagged Orbit, but O'Brien is doing something quite different here which I'll refrain from giving away. Don't read the (excellent) Introduction before you read the novel—there is one big, ugly spoiler therein.

January 2004 Permalink