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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 7 / 50





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Critics who have focused on O’Brien usually include several of his works in efforts to glean some hidden cause. Miles Orvell’s "Entirely Fictitious: The Fiction of Flann O’Brien" looks at O’Brien’s work for these trends and concludes by holding O’Brien in as much esteem as Orvell does Joyce; this is appreciated by O’Brien’s fans, but is still an unnecessary comparison to Joyce concerning Orvell’s opinion of quality rather than his subject. Ian Mackenzie’s "Who’s Afraid of James Joyce? Or Flann O’Brien’s Retreat From Modernism" follows O’Brien’s career from the point of view that after "the publication of Finnegan’s Wake O’Brien rejected Joyce’s narrative form ... and abandoned his own experimental methods" (66-7). O’Brien’s career is portrayed here as a reaction to his "ultimate master" (Wain 85). Jose Lanters presents a fine study of reality and the author’s role in "Fiction Within Fiction: The Role of the Author in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman." This study is limited to At Swim-Two- Birds’ outermost layer in order to balance the discussion with The Third Policeman, which has only one author character. Leighton Pratt, in "The Nature of Comedy in the Novels of Flann O’Brien," touches on At Swim-Two-Birds even more cursorily than Lanters, only using it to introduce The Third Policeman. Pratt is more interested in amusing his readers, attempting to transcribe the Dublin insults he believes O’Brien would have hurled in his direction, than studying At Swim-Two-Birds. The desire to look at O’Brien’s work for themes that carry through more than one novel limits any discussion of At Swim-Two-Birds. By examining other novels with At Swim-Two-Birds, one is forced to cut short or avoid a discussion of its narrative structure, as it is so different from any other works by O’Brien or Joyce.

There are some studies devoted to O’Brien’s first novel: David Cohen’s "An Atomy of the Novel: Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds" is an excellent study of the novel’s fictional authors’ artistic influences. Cohen’s mention of Joyce is useful, noting the respect given to Joyce’s first novel while O’Brien’s is usually considered to be commenting on Joyce’s. Constanza Del Rio Alvaro discusses the novel’s place in the fantasy genre. Patricia O’Hara, in "Finn MacCool and the Bard’s Lament in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds," examines O’Brien’s use of Finn, a traditional Irish character. Ruth apRoberts, in "At Swim-Two-Birds and the Novel as Self-evident Sham," gives a thematic survey of the novel, discussing O’Brien’s comments on genre creation and the honesty of fiction. The novel’s structure is touched on, but apRoberts’ study leaves the laying bare of what she terms the narrative "labyrinth" (77) to others, however, as her focus is the fictional authors’ work within it.

In this study I propose to break with the dominant trend in O'Brien criticism by leaving aside Joyce to focus on the technical description of At Swim-Two-Birds. Reflexivity is at the core of this complex narrative structure. This novel’s structure deserves to be the focus of an entire work; it is an imposing piece of the novel as enticing to the reader as any character within the novel, including O’Brien’s protagonist. The narrative is always under O’Brien’s control, but this control is at times handed over to the various author-characters who inhabit the structure itself. O’Brien’s narrative form is as important to the humour and the work’s intended effect as any character is. It is through the use of recognized narrative forms that much of the humour is made. Throughout the novel, O’Brien’s characters present literary theories and systems of logic that are broken down and proved inaccurate. The reflexive structure is the sole remaining structure at the novel’s end, and is reinforced by a conclusion that appears to break even this structure down.

At Swim-Two-Birds is the tale of a young author who considers the world of letters and devises a revolutionary theory concerning composition. His theory is explored through a layered narrative that includes several reflexive planes, all of which include numerous author-characters. Cohen describes At Swim-Two-Birds as a highly complex narrative that weaves parody into its reflexive structure to make "art expose its own artifice. The novel is an anatomy of itself, and


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