In which a promising meta-fiction and a once-favored author let me down
Title: At Swin-Two-Birds
Author: Flann O’Brien
What it’s about: I have a secret to tell. I actually read this book in 2010. So technically it should be included in that count. Yeah that’s right, I really read 23 books, not the measly 22 you imagined. But here’s the problem. Every time I sat down to write a review of At Swim-Two-Birds, creativity fled. A feeling of dread came over me and I just couldn’t do it. So here we are, 2011 and there’s this one rogue draft of a blog waiting to be written.
I’ll keep it short. At Swim-Two-Birds disappointed me. I loved Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, which is why I picked up this book in the first place. The Third Policeman was hilarious, clever, and engaging–in short, all the things I want most in a book. At Swim-Two-Birds wasn’t. If I could describe the problem, it would be that the book was too place-specific. The plot in itself sounds deliciously meta: A struggling writer is working on his novel, the story of an innkeeper and writer (Dermont Trellis) whose characters live with him in the inn and are completely controlled by his pen. At Swim-Two-Birds alternates between the perspective of the failed writer (ostensibly a member of our world) and the characters in his novel who are also characters in a character’s novel. Get it? No? Understandable.
It’s made even more troublesome by the Irish problem. No, not that Irish problem, but the problem of language and idiom. O’Brien borrows characters and tropes from Irish folklore that would have significance to those familiar with the old stories. But for a young American reader such as myself, I don’t have the history or background to “catch on” to the puns and references he’s using. It made me feel like an outsider, unable to truly participate in the story because I wasn’t privy to the inside joke.
Would I recommend? As you might guess, no. If you’re Irish, yes (and I mean really Irish, like you live in Cork, not American Irish. I’m American Irish and trust me, it’s not enough). But I won’t discount Flann O’Brien as a writer. I just adored The Third Policeman and I highly recommend that book.