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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 12 / 50





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playfulness. Real people are supposedly fictitious and coincidentally named within the novel. This confusing of fiction with reality is further demonstrated by the narrator, whom O’Brien has specifically stated in his disclaimer to be fictional. The narrator writes his own reflexive novel which includes mythical characters that exist in O’Brien’s real world, beyond the scope of the narrator’s fictional environment. O’Brien later writes The Dalkey Archive, which includes a character named James Joyce. This Joyce, however, denies any participation in the creation of Ulysses, calling it a "dirty book," and makes a living darning wool underclothes for the local Jesuits. O’Brien plays with the reader’s expectation of characters through this highly effective parodic method. No character, not even those that appear historical and recognizable, can be identified easily.

Besides the disclaimer, O’Brien uses simple devices that give this novel the appearance of an average, straight-forward book. The novel begins with an expected heading: Chapter I. This is the only chapter heading in the novel, however, as the rest is divided into sections by the narrator’s italicized sub-headings. A quotation from Euripides’ Hercules Furens is included as an epigraph, and has been translated in several different forms. Bernard Benstock claims the epigraph reads "For all proper things do stand out distinct from one another" (19), while Anthony Cronin reads it as "For all things go out and give place to one another" (85). The one thing that can be agreed on, although some critics are missing this piece of information, is that the epigraph was never chosen by O’Brien. It was, in fact, selected by John Garvin, Brian O’Nolan’s superior in the Civil Service who fancied himself as somewhat of a scholar (Cronin 85). Placing an emphasis on this epigraph, or believing it to be a clue from O’Brien as to the grand meaning of the novel, is a mistake. The epigraph’s importance is not in its meaning, but in its origin; it was simply added in the hopes of Brian O’Nolan advancing in favour with his boss. Because of this, the epigraph does indeed fulfill its duty and set the tone of this unusual novel, which was also handed over to O’Brien’s friend, Niall Sheridan, for a drastic editing job which cut the manuscript by one-fifth (quoted in Cohen 209). O’Brien’s rather care-free methods of construction will later be emulated by his narrator.

O’Brien has structured the novel so that the narrator is the author of the entire complex narrative. This can be confusing even without contemplating the interior narrative levels. O’Brien is entirely removed from the text of this novel. What the audience is confronted with and has to sift through is actually the work of O’Brien’s fictional narrator: At Swim-Two-Birds’ sole author. The only questionable narrative voice within the novel is the final one, to be discussed in my conclusion. This final voice, which relates a new anecdote unrelated to the rest of At Swim-Two- Birds, cannot be attributed to any character present in the novel, but many critics argue that it could be O’Brien’s narrator reflecting on his youth from the future. If this is true, the entire novel then shifts in time and becomes a fond recollection of the past, but the narrative structure does not change. Regardless of the narrative’s historical date, the narrator is presenting to the reader a novel about his novel-writing experience. To put this more simply, he is presenting two novels: one is a memoir of his life during the composition of a manuscript, and the other is the manuscript itself. With this, one begins to get an idea of the complexity of O’Brien’s work; this multi-layered novel’s frame narrative has separate sub-levels of its own.

O’Brien parodies his narrator more than any other character or idea in the novel. Authorial narration, a common aspect of more orthodox or traditional novels, is a useful device in a reflexive narrative. The presence of an authorial narrator forces the reader to recognize a separation between the reader and the novel’s fictional world. The narrator, who is the mediator between these two worlds, becomes Hutcheon’s "centre of internal reference" (51), the primary target of satire in At Swim-Two-Birds. The narrator, however, is closely related to O’Brien, and


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