Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

‘Hell goes round and round’: Flann O’Brien and the search for identity

Anyone who knows anything about Flann O’Brien knows he was a man of many names. Flann O’Brien was the pen name for Brian O’Nolan, who wrote journalism under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen. He used different spellings of his names and most of the discussion and arguments on his Wikipedia page are about how his name should be spelled (and which name should be used). The true breadth of his bibliography has never reliably been established because of his tendency to use pen names. This triumvirate of personalities is in the trio of openings to his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. They arepreceded by the declaration that

All the characters represented in this book,

including the first person singular,

are entirely fictitious and bear no relation

to any person living or dead.

As the novel is semi-autobiographical this exemplifies O’Brien’s tendency to deny modern notions of identity and quests of self-discovery. I’m going to say ‘Spoiler Alert’ right here to get it over with as to come to any conclusion about O’Brien’s quest for identity I’m going to have to discuss the end of two of his novels.

The fact that both narrators remain unnamed significantly contrasts with O’Brien’s many names and personae.

At Swim-Two-Birds is a book about a man who is writing a book about a man who is writing a book whose characters in turn write a book about him. Characters (such as Finn Mac Cool) are borrowed from fiction and even real life. Despite his disclaimer he copied entire conversations with his friend Sheridan into the text. Brinsley becomes Sheridan’s doppelganger highlighting the uncanny feeling O’Brien’s writing has when he undermines the search for identity. The student in At Swim believes the novel can be despotic so his credo is ‘a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham […] Each [character] should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living.’ The student writes about the author Trellis, who gives a very mundane plot to the epic Finn MacCool yet cannot stop him reciting epic poetry. Character as performance is highlighted in At Swim-Two-Birds as the characters in Trellis’ novel are employed from other sources. When Trellis forces Furriskey to play an amoral villain that is completely contrary to his character Furriskey settles down with his “victim” as the student believes that it is ‘undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad.’ This suggests the self presented is rarely true to life.

According to the student, the modern novel should be ‘largely a work of reference’ so his characters often take on each other’s attributes. The Pooka has Finn’s magic thumb and huge pockets, Trellis and Sweeny both suffer from pretentiousness and there is a deliberately confusing passage where we think Sweeny will appear but Jem Casey does instead. This permeability is particularly evident in At Swim-Two-Birds as the seeping of one narrative level into another has the potential to be destructive. The narrator’s ideas are imposed upon the level below but these ideas are not always hard and fast. Characters have the means to infiltrate their way back up the chain as is seen in the trial at the end of the novel where the characters all attempt to destroy their author. The attempt is unsuccessful as the student narrator has ultimate control and has already written an ending in which Trellis survives, however the threat of instability is there. Characters have the desire to control their narrator as well as vice-versa hinting at an ambiguity in O’Brien’s relationship to his work and his personae. This ending implies a potential for autonomous action that the narrative immediately quashes with the ending already penned by the student. Flann and the student are attempting to assert their identity through their writing without necessarily allowing the same freedom to the characters they create. Self-referentiality reveals the workings of narrative and, by extension, identity.

The narrator in The Third Policeman, arguably Flann O’Brien’s most recognised work due to its appearance on the TV show Lost, has similar problems with identity but they are more covert than in At Swim-Two-Birds. He is grappling with an issue familiar to many authors today: a lack of funds. He would like to publish a book on the made-up philosopher De Selby and the book is riddled with footnotes and digressions on De Selby’s bizarre theories. In a move frequently considered by reasonable-minded writers on a daily basis, the narrator decides to murder a rich neighbour and use the money to publish his book. The narrative gradually slips into the territory of the absurd when the reader finds that ‘De Selby’ is an Anglicisation for the German ‘the self’ (der selbe). An epigraph by De Selby is placed alongside one from Shakespeare equating him with real authors suggesting that the flesh and blood people are equal to imagined selves. The narrator’s quest for publication, therefore identity, fails because he dies early on in the novel, unbeknownst even to himself. The machinations behind characters’ actions appear even here when Sergeant Pluck says of Policeman MacCruiskeen that ‘you’d think he was on wires and worked with steam’ exposing the characters’ tendency to act as the author demands rather than what would be natural of their characterisation.

Even the narrator feels himself becoming a puppet when he believes the lifelessness of his wooden leg ‘was slowly extending throughout my whole body, a dry timber poison killing me inch by inch. Soon my brain would be changed to wood completely and I would then be dead.’ It is only through the attainment of omnium (omniscience) that he understands this attempt at self-discovery was always doomed to fail. There are Oedipal undertones as the narrator’s attempts to author himself, thereby becoming his own Father, by stealing Mathers’ (Mother’s) money to publish the De Selby inde,x end in his own death. His inability to re-inscribe himself on the world is foreshadowed at the beginning when his copy of De Selby’s Golden Hours is missing the final pages. Characters not only have little control over their actions but their physical existence is thrown into question with absurdly funny passages where characters quake before the terror of the atomic theory and the possibility that men are turning into bicycles.

The mechanisms of fiction are also exposed on numerous occasions in The Third Policeman when a character’s actions betray the contrived nature of their identity such as when the narrator meets Mathers after killing him ‘Looking at [his eyes] I got the feeling that they were not genuine eyes at all but mechanical dummies animated by electricity and the like’ or when the narrator ‘stopped thinking, closing up my mind with a snap as if it were a box or a book.’

A recent stage adaptation of O’Brien’s unfinished novel, Slattery’s Sago Saga, even goes so far as to acknowledge the literal death of its author while characters flounder for some kind of meaning and direction in his absence. This endless mutability of characters and story highlights all the difficulties of trying to pin down a determined, stable ‘self’. The question of who is ultimately in control of a person’s actions is a contentious one for, as we grapple constantly with outside influences, the characters are often at odds with their author. Descartes said ‘my essence consists solely of the fact that I am a thinking thing’ but these characters’ thoughts and actions are dictated to them. O’Brien shows how language can change the very substance of things by dictating the way we think about it. This is exemplified in At Swim-Two-Birds in a conversation between the Good Fairy and the Pooka. They prove that the Pooka’s wife may be a kangaroo without ever looking at her, merely following linguistic logic to it’s absurd end; that perhaps she shaved her fur, her tail is actually a shirt tail and her pouch must be where the Pooka’s glasses ‘pig-iron coal-scuttle and a horsehair arm-chair and a ball of twine and a parcel of peats’ have gone missing.

The search for identity and meaning, that ultimate human quest, is undertaken in O’Brien’s work. After all this prodding and exploration, the answer he finds, the holy grail at the end, is ultimately nihilistic. The fact that both narrators remain unnamed significantly contrasts with O’Brien’s many names and personae. The manner in which O’Brien constructs himself mirrors the way in which he constructs his characters as all appear to make some effort towards self-definition but are often false, duplicitous or controlled by some other force or motivation. O’Brien didn’t see an end to this questioning on the horizon as he said that“Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable.”