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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 18 / 50





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This displays both an extraordinary method of literary production and the laziness of the narrator; he dislikes the tedium of editing and refuses to bother with it, preferring instead to destroy anything that is truly awful rather than re-work it. Bernard Benstock points out that no reader should have expected that the

anonymous student-author would produce a literary masterpiece. In effect, his ‘novel’ disintegrates before the reader’s eyes: portions are lost, gaps have to be repeatedly summarized, serious flaws emerge and are pinpointed (much to the author’s chagrin) ... it is talking about his novel that proves far more successful than committing it to paper. (21)

Synopses in the manner that O’Brien’s narrator produces, according to W.J. Harvey,

may look simple minded [but are] sophisticated and designed to produce quite complicated effects upon the reader. At first sight they might seem to be conventional devices artificially delimiting the area of the novel. But they have the opposite effect, raising the novel to the magnitude of life itself and giving the fictional world a wonderful openness which is then played off against the formal intricacy of the plot. (34)

While Harvey perhaps takes these synopses too seriously, and they may not produce a living, breathing text, they do help to destroy the linear aspect of conventional narrative structure. The narrator at one point refers the reader back to an old synopsis by page number, rather than even writing a new synopsis for the benefit of new readers: "Note to Reader before proceeding further: Before proceeding further, the Reader is respectfully advised to refer to the Synopsis or Summary of the Argument on Page 85" (145). The narrator, in a sense, has prepared his novel for readers who do not read in a linear manner, but who might pick up a book at any page and begin reading toward the end. Reading consecutive pages is disrupted as the reader is encouraged, or forced in a way, to jump back several pages to review or discover for the first time the preceding events. Even if one remembers the text perfectly up to this point, there is an unconquerable urge to at least check that the page number given is correct.

At Swim-Two-Birds’s frame narrative is likely the novel’s most complicated plane. The relationship between O’Brien and his world is hard to separate from the narrator and the fictionalized Dublin that he exists in. The narrator is an incredibly reflexive character; not only are his life and aspirations virtually identical to O’Brien’s, his method of creation is also very similar. O’Brien manages to parody himself and his contemporaries at the same time, while feeling less of the brunt of his satire. No one can successfully attack O’Brien because he has already revealed all of his flaws through his narrator. The important difference between these two is the narrator’s literary theory, which O’Brien cannot be held responsible for. This theory will be the basis of reflexivity for the interior narrative planes; these layers will all include authors or story-tellers in various forms and all explore the narrator’s theory. While O’Brien is the narrator’s near twin, it is the narrator that is the novel’s focus and its reflexive examination of fiction making.


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