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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 13 / 50





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therefore O’Brien points a satirical finger at himself. O’Brien’s and his narrator’s similar aspirations to authorial success and critical acclaim are a main target. It is O’Brien’s willingness to expose these traits that separates him from his satirical targets. Cohen states that "Self-parody becomes the outer skin of O’Brien’s parody of overt novelistic self-consciousness" (226); O’Brien uses reflexivity in order to satirize himself, implicating his own writing in the parody of his narrator’s amateur attempts at ground-breaking fiction.

Both of these would-be authors, O’Brien and his narrator, attend University College, Dublin. One can call O’Brien a "would-be" because At Swim-Two-Birds was begun while he was an unknown student-author, just like his narrator. Both are far-from-model students, treating exams as more of a necessary nuisance than as a way of proving knowledge and gaining credit with their instructors. O’Brien passed his BA exams in 1932 with second-class honours, a surprise to those who were familiar with his well-established reputation for not doing any work. O’Brien’s narrator passes his "final examination with a creditable margin of honour" (301), proving his not entirely modest skill in scholarship to his overbearing uncle with whom he resides. Besides both authors’ desire for fame, both are interested in traditional Irish poetry. O’Brien’s narrator includes many sections of Irish poetry and mythology in his manuscript, and O’Brien wrote his MA thesis on the uses of nature in Irish poetry. An interest in University College’s Literary and Historical Society is another similarity between the narrator and O’Brien. Anthony Cronin, O’Brien’s friend and biographer, describes how the author terrorized this society with his satiric wit during his university career, and soon found himself a hero of the unruly mob gathered at the door of these meetings while his narrator "affects to regard [the society] as an almost meaningless spectacle of disorder" (44). This difference in character is a subtle form of distancing O’Brien from his narrator, a separation that proves very important in O’Brien’s use of parody in the frame narrative.

Cohen states that "O’Brien’s approach to textual production ... prefigures the strategies of postmodernism" (225). Thomas Shea echoes Cohen: O’Brien "goes out of his way to transgress the boundaries usually thought to delineate the territory of the novel" (53). O’Brien’s use of an epigraph and disclaimer displays the differences between his novel and those that the reader is accustomed to. Hutcheon regards this style of writing as commonplace in reflexive fiction, assigning it the Russian Formalists’ term "defamiliarization." O’Brien draws the reader’s attention to common literary devices that are usually ignored due to their being formalized through extensive use. Demands of attentiveness and active involvement are placed on the reader, who cannot take any of these established elements of literature for granted. By Hutcheon’s reckoning, O’Brien is writing metafiction decades before it is commonplace, and foreshadowing postmodern fiction. Just as his narrator will do, O’Brien uses common novelistic elements for new means to disrupt the comfortable patterns of the reader’s literary consumption.

The frame narrative’s most important part is the narrator’s theory of literature. At Swim- Two-Birds begins with the narrator contemplating his literary theory over a mouthful of bread:

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings. (9)

After retiring to his bed, on or in which he spends most of his time when away from the pubs, the narrator again concludes that "One book, one opening, was a principle with which I did not find it possible to concur" (15).

The narrator and his friend, Brinsley, involve themselves in an in-depth and very snobbish


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