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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 11 / 50





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Chapter Two

At Swim-Two-Birds’ outer layer, or frame narrative, is deceptively complex. While it is the narrative layer that is most written about, scholars often gloss over the difficulty caused by O’Brien’s relationship with his narrator. This relationship is complex because O’Brien is the narrator’s mirror-image in many ways. O’Brien ingeniously confuses his own personality, creative methods, and biography with his fictional narrator’s, while at the same time distancing himself from this character. The similarities between the two cause many to miss the essential and critical distance that O’Brien imposes through his narrative structure. O’Brien is often chastised by critics for what is actually the work of his narrator, for material presented for parody rather than genuine analysis. Biographical knowledge of O’Brien only serves the text’s reflexivity, and a knowledge of O’Brien’s construction of At Swim-Two-Birds often causes readers to confuse O’Brien’s aims for the novel with his narrator’s literary theory. Questions arise as to what can be attributed to O’Brien and what must be called the narrator’s creation. Therefore, O’Brien’s reflexive technique confuses what is fiction with what is reality. The reader has a difficult time deciding which author, real or fictional, is responsible for the different aspects of the novel.

An often overlooked aspect of At Swim-Two-Birds is the relationship between O’Brien and the novel as a whole. Regardless of the fictional identity and perhaps fictional persona of Flann O’Brien when compared to the historical Brian O’Nolan, it is obvious that a tangible author wrote this novel. I refer to "O’Brien" simply because it is the name on the book’s cover and there can be no proof that O’Brien is a different person than O’Nolan, or any of his other pseudonyms. This is an important question yet to be addressed fully. O’Nolan wrote under more than six pseudonyms, depending on the circumstances; he obviously adored hiding behind fictional personae. It is difficult to not use both the names O’Brien and O’Nolan when writing about both the fiction and the biography of this writer; for the remainder of this study, Brian O’Nolan will only be referred to when mentioning biographical information separate from the world of literature.

Regardless of this question of authority, what is important when discussing the author’s connection to this work is that Flann O’Brien distances himself from At Swim-Two-Birds. He is not the same person as his narrator. The reader is continuously forced to make a distinction between what O’Brien can be held responsible for and what his near-twin has written. The quality of writing in the novel cannot be held as an example of O’Brien’s skill; it is the narrator’s. Hutcheon describes this as common to reflexive fiction: the "parody and self-reflection of [reflexive] narrative work to prevent the reader’s identification with any character and to force a new, more active, thinking relationship upon him" (49). In this novel’s case, the reflexive structure prevents the reader’s easy identification of the character. After examining the frame narrative closely, I agree with David Cohen that O’Brien’s treatment of his narrator is as "detached as the narrator’s own view of the literature he parodies ... the final object of parody is the narrator himself" (224).

O’Brien’s contributions to the novel as a whole can be considered as a subtext of the frame narrative. An opening leaf for the Longman’s, Green and Company edition carries a disclaimer stating that the characters in the book, "including the first person singular," are entirely fictitious. Once aware of this note, the reader pays more attention to the narrator’s mention of "Mr. Joyce" and "Mr. A. Huxley" on page twelve, as well as the later discussion of "the high-class work of another writer, Mr. Pound, an American gentleman" (62). O’Brien’s grand control of the novel is used to confuse things for the sole purpose, seemingly, of


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