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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 33 / 50





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I had carefully considered giving an outward indication of the son’s semi-humanity by furnishing him with only the half of a body. Here encountered further difficulties. If given the upper half only, it would be necessary to provide a sedan-chair or litter with at least two runners or scullion-boys to operate it. The obtrusion of two further characters would lead to complications, the extent of which could not be foreseen. On the other hand, to provide merely the lower half ... the legs and lumbar region, would be to narrow unduly the validity of the son and confine his activities virtually to walking, running, kneeling and kicking football. For that reason I decided ultimately to make no outward distinction and thus avoided any charge that my work was somewhat far-fetched. (207)

One sees the narrator’s incredibly literal thoughts here, as in other places where literary techniques become literal occurrences. In At Swim-Two-Birds as a whole, the problem of describing Orlick as a half-caste character is solved by O’Brien’s structure. O’Brien does not have to reconcile Orlick’s fictional mother and real father because it is not O’Brien’s mistake. Once again, the narrator’s writing is at fault, not O’Brien’s. At the narrator’s level, all of these characters are fictional and have no real problem cross-breeding. The mistakes that the narrator makes are simply more fuel for the satire of the narrator, who is the central target for satire throughout At Swim-Two-Birds.

Just as O’Brien and the narrator do on the outer levels of At Swim-Two-Birds’ narrative, Trellis attempts to set firm boundaries and barriers that are broken down by various means. Finn has already proved troublesome for even O’Brien, and the narrator has had numerous holes punched in his literary theory; Trellis can never hope to be as successful as the narrator, as he is used by the narrator to prove the narrator’s theory correct. Trellis is automatically one step further from being a good writer because the narrator hopes to make himself look good in comparison to Trellis. O’Brien has already done this with the narrator in the frame narrative, and therefore Trellis is two full steps away from the quality of writing that O’Brien is capable of. Trellis quickly loses control of his characters; even his minor characters are hard to handle. Trellis has created the Pooka and a Good Fairy to battle over Orlick’s soul, to determine his personality. The Pooka is a "member of the devil class," but is a very sensitive and polite person. The Good Fairy cheats at cards and has a highly volatile temper; he is so tiny that he is invisible, but takes offence when people forget to acknowledge his presence. The Good Fairy is always willing to gamble, but never carries money with him; besides the physical impossibility of this due to his minute size, he never needs any because he always cheats and wins. Against the Pooka, however, he loses a hand and must forfeit Orlick in order to save face in front of some of Trellis’ other characters, the vulgar cowboys of the Red Swan’s ground floor. The Pooka is gracious enough to not expose the Good Fairy’s dishonesty, but demands that the Good Fairy relinquish his claim to Orlick. Because of Trellis’ ill-planning when creating the Good Fairy, Orlick is influenced by the Pooka, and learns the vengeful tactics he later employs against Trellis while boarding with the Pooka.

To back away now from the discussion of Trellis and his novel, one must also look to Finn McCool and his narrative. Finn’s narrative is entirely separate from Trellis’, and is told to Trellis’ rough characters while sitting around a fireplace in the Red Swan. Finn is placed in a parodic conversation here; this meeting’s structure reminds the reader of Finn’s introduction, in which he sits around a fire with his Fianna, and they ask for various stories from him. In the Red Swan, the nineteenth century cowboys Trellis has hired from Tracy ask Finn to stop telling


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