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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 9 / 50





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but a common tie is that "they all explore a theory of fiction through the practise of fiction" (2). While this exploring of theories is found throughout At Swim-Two-Birds, O’Brien does not consider the fictionality of the world outside of his novel. While this idea does apply in O’Brien’s later works, he appears to impress the opposite point of view on the reader in this first novel. O’Brien’s narrator considers writing a "recreative activity" (32). The abrupt ending to the fourth narrative plane, to be discussed below, is also evidence of this fact. In At Swim-Two-Birds, by simply destroying a manuscript, all ideas contained within it vanish. Waugh’s use of the term is too encompassing for this study.

Linda Hutcheon’s Narcissistic Narrative offers a definitive explanation of metafiction, which she describes as the "kind of fiction that began to run rampant in the 1960s" (1). Obviously, O’Brien’s 1939 At Swim-Two-Birds predates Hutcheon’s examples, and is another reason I will not apply the term to O’Brien’s novel. However, Hutcheon’s descriptions of metafiction reveal a great similarity to, and an overlapping of the earlier critical terminology and the more recent. Her work provides a chronological account of the genre’s development, with O’Brien as one of its predecessors. Hutcheon’s excellent work has proved a substantial resource for my study of O’Brien. Hutcheon states that "metafiction is largely ... a mimesis of process" (5), and that it "constitutes its own first critical commentary" (6). In any metafiction, "realistic story trappings are finally reduced to an allegory of the functioning of the narration" (12). Hutcheon also explains that metafiction focuses on its own linguistic and narrative structures as well as the reader’s role. The metafictional novel’s critique points in two directions at the same time, toward both the author and the audience. Metafictional narrative "is process made visible" (6): "Overtly narcissistic novels place fictionality, structure, or language at their content’s core. They play with different ways of ordering, and allow (or force) the reader to learn how he makes sense of this literary world" (Hutcheon 29). In a similar vein, the novel "no longer seeks just to provide an order and meaning to be recognized by the reader. It now demands that he be conscious of the work, the actual construction" (Hutcheon 39).

The above critics employ different terms for sometimes very similar ideas. My use of "reflexive" is based on the following considerations. The term mise en abyme is not translated, and difficult to justify when there are English terms with nearly identical definitions. Rather than incorporate a foreign term, my use of "reflexive" is intended to offer the reader clarity. More importantly, Gide’s term is too narrowly focused to apply to At Swim-Two-Birds. While the term can be applied correctly, the number of occurrences throughout the novel become overwhelming and the term falls short of covering the novel’s entire structure. "Metafiction" is a relatively new term with associations of much more recent work than O’Brien’s. Hutcheon herself separates O’Brien from the school of metafiction and more contemporary authors: "In the earlier texts, [Hutcheon points to Gide, Huxley, and O’Brien] the main interest is in the writing process and its product. The focus today [1980] broadens to include a parallel process of equal importance to the ‘concretizing’ of the text--that of reading" (Hutcheon 154). Metafiction is too wide-ranging a label for this novel. Although the reader is forced by O’Brien to consider his/her role through At Swim-Two-Birds, the novel’s focus is on the act of writing. "Self-conscious" connotes a thinking, or aware text. A novel’s self-awareness is added by its author, making the label inaccurate. Physics has also influenced my choice, as the linear relation between a real object and its reflected image suits At Swim-Two-Birds well. Each narrative layer can be viewed as a distorted mirror image of the layer above. For these reasons, "reflexive" will be used in the following study.

This study’s chapters trace the development of O’Brien’s layered narrative structure and his use of reflexive elements within each layer. An examination of the characters within each


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