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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 45 / 50





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speculation running amongst critics that the voice is anyone from that of the narrator looking back from a future date on his youthful writings to O’Brien himself. There is little evidence, however, to argue these points. The narrator has been shown capable of creating several author characters, each with a unique voice. While the ultimate conclusion is written in a tone unmatched in the rest of the novel, it reads much like Orlick’s revenge plot’s meandering introduction. The narrator’s theory of three beginnings and endings further supports the argument that this is the narrator’s writing, and negates the idea of a shift in time; it is unlikely that this confident narrator would choose to leave his manuscript unfinished for several years, just to add an already planned third conclusion. Just as the disappointing end to Orlick’s writing is, this conclusion is the narrator’s work, not O’Brien’s.

The narrator has concluded his biographical section and his manuscript, and therefore has only to conclude At Swim-Two-Birds, the combination of all of his narrative lines arranged in a reflexive structure. This new voice intrudes on and disrupts the narrative; s/he cryptically tells of the general lessons to be learned in the previous pages, giving a short testament to the strange theories that some people have. Unusual theories abound within this novel, but few readers would consider them central to its understanding and expect them to be the subject matter of the ultimate conclusion. These theories turn out to be simply a starting point for a tale about a

poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye. (316)

At Swim-Two-Birds ends with a disturbing scene only very tenuously connected to the novel through the superstitions of a few characters.

The reader has, by this point, struggled with the complex structure for hundreds of pages to grasp the one solid connection throughout -- the reflexive structure -- only to have O’Brien apparently snip this thread quickly and easily. This final move is as effective as it is simple; the reader is no closer to pulling the entire novel together than when s/he first opened the book. The suicide anecdote only fits into the book’s pagination due to its irreconcilability, belonging because it has no place in At Swim-Two-Birds.

At Swim-Two-Birds’ ultimate conclusion appears random, but its purpose is not; the subject matter could have been anything except a narrative related to the content of the novel. One is reminded of At Swim-Two-Birds’ epigraph; the phrase’s interpretation is not as important as the more general effect its inclusion has on the novel as a whole. Both the epigraph and the suicide anecdote reinforce O’Brien’s unorthodox construction. O’Brien’s visage is seen throughout the narrative levels, but this last narrative voice is not consistent with any other in the novel. Its purpose, however, is quite powerful. We know nothing of this final narrator, but his/her intention of reducing the novel’s last standing element to rubble must connect him/her ideologically with Flann O’Brien. This tenuous connection to O’Brien is important, because if this new narrative voice is even slightly reflexive, the novel’s reflexive structure is reinforced. Reflexivity is the sole narrative structure remaining after At Swim-Two-Birds’ ultimate conclusion.

Moving back outside At Swim-Two-Birds’ text is useful at this point. After following this novel’s structure from its superficial layer to its deepest and acknowledging the ties between them, one can now look at the bulk of scholarship focused on At Swim-Two-Birds in a new light. The insistence by many to use Joyce as measuring stick for O’Brien’s work, at least at this point


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