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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 19 / 50





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Chapter Three

At Swim-Two-Birds’ second narrative plane opens up the novel’s subject matter a great deal further than the frame narrative. While the outer layer’s reflexivity and satire are tightly focused, the lower-order narrative planes generate several different narrative lines. These new storylines are created by a variety of characters existing within the narrator’s imaginative manuscript, some of whom act as oral story-tellers while others are authors, creating new, lower- order planes of fiction. The narrator’s manuscript is a cleverly structured parallel of the material discussed above in chapter one. O’Brien’s narrator creates a novel that acts as an examination of his own literary theory through its application. The narrator’s outer narrative level structures his entire manuscript; it functions as the narrator’s frame narrative, after all, and includes a reflexive author, a physical representation of the manuscript and a highly problematic mythical figure who transgresses the boundaries that the narrator attempts to set within his work.

At Swim-Two-Birds’ second narrative plane is essentially an acting out of the narrator’s theory, both for O’Brien’s comic purposes as well as for the narrator’s desire to prove his theory right. Dermot Trellis, the narrator’s author-character, is the narrator’s invention. One assumes that the author is unfamiliar with any existing character suitable for this role in his novel, based on the narrator’s belief in borrowing characters versus creating them. Trellis is a rather disagreeable character, and the narrator desires him to be particularly ruthless in his position as author. However, while Trellis is an original invention, the narrator displays the ease of creating a new character when following his theory’s use of source material. The narrator proves an even more reflexive character when one realizes that his method of creation is similar to O’Brien’s.

Just as the narrator possesses a biography similar to O’Brien’s, Dermot Trellis shares many interests with his creator. Besides being a popular author, something the narrator aspires to, Trellis lives in his bed and has done so for twenty years. The narrator’s "biographical reminiscences" display his fondness for his bed; the narrator uses its comforts for relaxing smokes with Brinsley, intense creative sessions, and as a place of concealment for drink-induced embarrassments, whether these are hang-overs lasting several days or the vomit-stained suit worn during one such binge. The local publican/literary guru, Michael Byrne, is an influential supporter of the narrator’s admitted love for his bed. Byrne claims that "What is wrong with ... most people ... is that they do not spend sufficient time in bed" (137). Byrne has an idea for humanity that is as revolutionary as the narrator’s theory for literature: Byrne believes that the sleeping body is in a much purer state than the waking body, and that its only use should be "to turn the sleeping soul over, to change the blood-stream and thus make possible a deeper and more refined sleep" (137). The narrator agrees entirely with Byrne’s explanation, and even goes so far as to claim that

We must invert our conception of repose and activity ... We should not sleep to recover the energy expended when awake but rather wake occasionally to defecate the unwanted energy that sleep engenders. This might be done quickly--a five mile race at full tilt around the town and then back to bed and the kingdom of shadows. (138)

This guru’s influence over the narrator is obvious; Trellis rises from bed only to supervise his laundry being washed and his food prepared. The narrator has not only followed Byrne’s example in his own life, but also incorporated Byrne’s wild idea in his manuscript. The narrator tries out Byrne’s theory, just as he tests his own concerning literature.

Trellis is an object of satire, as his creator is in the frame narrative. Trellis has his own


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