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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 16 / 50





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A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. (32-3)

If the narrator traded his snobbish attitude for Barth’s more accepting one he might produce a work as parodic as the novel he is a character in.

The narrator’s long-winded explanation of his plans for composition echoes Alter’s description of reflexive narrative discussed in my preface; O’Brien’s narrator will constantly remind his readers that his manuscript is something made. "By reminding the reader of the book’s identity as artifice, the text parodies his expectations" (Hutcheon 139), forcing a recognition of the reader’s own role in creating the "universe of fiction." O’Brien, through the theory of his ambitious narrator, has pre-figured Boyd’s definitive discussion of this type of novel, also found in my preface; At Swim-Two-Birds sets out the rules for the reflexive genre nearly fifty years before Boyd’s study. Patricia Waugh’s idea that all metafictional narratives "explore a theory of fiction through the practise" (40) of that theory is spelled out by the narrator exactly, regardless of the soundness of the narrator’s theory. It is through the narrator’s attempt at writing and the reader’s subsequent interaction with this text that the reader discovers his theory’s flaws.

O’Brien’s narrator is a bad author; he actually violates the primary point of his theory: "One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with" (9). At Swim-Two- Birds begins with a single opening; the narrator describes himself placing in his mouth "sufficient bread for three minutes chewing ... and retir[ing] into the privacy of [his] mind" (9), allowing him to mull over his ingenious literary technique. He is at once the object of satire. Cohen emphasizes that regardless of the narrator’s bold claims about the novel’s structure, "he does not find himself under any obligation to show how to place [these ideas] in a text, nor does he begin his own text with more than the single opening introducing his thoughts on openings" (224). Besides this fundamental error, it is impossible, due to the linear nature of the written word in English, to have any more than one beginning. The possibility of achieving a simultaneously three-directional narrative structure is best left to twenty-first century hypertext scholars. On paper, in a printed novel, it is impossible. Disregarding the frame narrative’s primary biographical element, whatever beginning that the narrator chooses to display first will be his manuscript’s beginning. One cannot escape this chronological appearance in the novel, and therefore, the narrator’s manuscript will consist of one beginning followed by the two starts to two different narratives. While Furriskey’s story may in fact be the start of a second narrative, it is nonetheless not another "beginning" of the narrator’s novel.

O’Brien’s narrator creates his novel in the same, unorthodox manner that O’Brien formulates At Swim-Two-Birds. This is a little confusing, as one must see O’Brien as the true author of At Swim-Two-Birds, but also the narrator as the author of the same text because of O’Brien’s clever structure. As early as page fourteen, the reader encounters a transcribed letter that the narrator has received from his bookie. This could have been explained with far less disturbance to the narrative than printing the letter in its entirety. The narrator records as closely as he can the experiences of his life: "I lit my cigarette and then took my letter from my pocket, opened it and read it" (14). The letter is then presented for the reader’s examination.

Disjointed narrative appears the style of choice for the narrator. Descriptions are separated from the narrative; the narrator attempts to transcribe an instantaneous thought in a separate, stop- time moment. Confronted numerous times throughout At Swim-Two-Birds by his uncle, the narrator denies his sloth and describes his accuser in less-than-flattering ways. These events are


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