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The Third Policeman, Flann O BrienThe Third Policeman is a novel by Irish writer Brian O Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O Brien It was written between 1939 and 1940, but after it initially failed to find a publisher, the author withdrew the manuscript from circulation and claimed he had lost it The book remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1966 It was published by MacGibbon Kee in 1967 2012 The Third Policeman, Flann O BrienThe Third Policeman is a novel by Irish writer Brian O Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O Brien It was written between 1939 and 1940, but after it initially failed to find a publisher, the author withdrew the manuscript from circulation and claimed he had lost it The book remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1966 It was published by MacGibbon Kee in 1967 2012 1390 256 9786002290144 20 If you ever want to find out what it s like being the only sober person in a room full of professors telling each other jokes in Latin and heffing and hawing and pulling each others beards, here s a good place to start.Otherwise not. The Irish ExistentialistSo, if Alice had fallen down the rabbit hole in Ireland rather than in England, the result could well be The Third Policemen Or,aptly, if Shem and Shaun had set out on the road West instead of East down the River Liffey, it could be the alternative Finnegans Wake But on the third hand, it seemslikely that O Brien is engaged in a massive send up of Everything Irish, from its grammar to its destiny.O Brien s protagonist, who has no name for most of the book, i The Irish ExistentialistSo, if Alice had fallen down the rabbit hole in Ireland rather than in England, the result could well be The Third Policemen Or,aptly, if Shem and Shaun had set out on the road West instead of East down the River Liffey, it could be the alternative Finnegans Wake But on the third hand, it seemslikely that O Brien is engaged in a massive send up of Everything Irish, from its grammar to its destiny.O Brien s protagonist, who has no name for most of the book, is on a quest, not a very honourable quest but one that serves to set up the story Although he is the teller of the tale, it is really Ireland itself that is its subject, its peculiar history, its equally peculiar inhabitants, and especially the land itself which has its own peculiaritiesThe road was narrow, white, old, hard and scarred with shadow It ran away westwards in the mist of the early morning, running cunningly through the little hills and going to some trouble to visit tiny towns which were not, strictly speaking, on its way It was possibly one of the oldest roads in the world I found it hard to think of a time when there was no road there because the trees and the tall hills and the fine views of bogland had been arranged by wise hands for the pleasing picture they made when looked at from the road Without a road to have them looked at from they would have a somewhat aimless if not a futile aspectThe thoughts and actions of Mr No Name are dominated by a crackpot philosopher, de Selby, who bearsthan a passing resemblance to the 18th century immaterialist Irish philosopher, Bishop Berkeley At least both figures treat life asor less hallucinatory This is a judgment O Brien adopts wholeheartedly throughout the story Ireland as a collective delusion Of course, as with his protagonist, this country may not exist at allIf you have no name you possess nothing and you do not exist and even your trousers are not on you although they look as if they were from where I am sitting Entering into this hallucinatory state, Protagonist has found his Soul, that other self with whom he can speak and derive wise counsel The Soul, called Joe, is generallyrational and coherent than the others Protagonist meets on his journey, or indeed than the rube Protagonist himself Nevertheless their conversations do not inhibit the frequent emergence of Walter Mitty like fantasies among the many other questionable experiences This is a clear confirmation of his conceptual presumptionsOf all the many striking statements made by de Selby, I do not think that any of them can rival his assertion that a journey is an hallucination The policeman of the title is one of a team of country constables who have a peculiar talent They are able to see the colour of the wind, an apparently important ability that has much to do with the fate of new born infants Other than their chromatic duties two of the three are concerned mainly with the theft and proper lighting of bicycles One points spears and carves Russian boxes as a hobby the other slurps his porridge from the bowl The third hasuseful interests All are expert on the Atomic Theory which explains the progressive transformation of human beings into bicycles, and vice versa Remarkably, O Brien anticipates inspires Neal Stephenson s sci fi idea of 3D printing of everything from machines to food 60 years in the future bicycles, of course being the prototype As the police sergeant explains, the world and everything in it consists of Omnium, a substance without any definite substance, but with a forceOmnium is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and it is always the same It never changes But it shows itself in a million ways and it always comes in waves Some people call it God and there are other names for something that is identically resembling it and that thing is omnium also into the same bargainOmnium exists in its natural formlacking an essential property of all known objects,namely dimension But it can be used to stimulate any of the human senses In short, Omnium is the equivalent of Bishop Berkeley s immaterial Idea Smoke and mirrors are appropriately two of O Brien s favourite tropes Both obscure both distort He also revels in the negative questioning of those, like the devil, who prefer to give negative answers to every question So,Would you object to giving me a straight answerelicits the responseNo , which is in fact an agreement to speak plainly One must be prepared at all times to obfuscate and to de rail obfuscation This is the Irish way.There is no doubt that, as with Finnegans Wake and Alice in Wonderland, it would be possible to make a career of The Third Policeman by tracking down allusions to people, places, myths, and events in Irish history as well as in modern nuclear physics The book, in a way, provokes such a study of the national character Whether this would be a productive use of one s time or not is another question I d have to say with definite ambiguity No One is tempted to think of the modern discussion of the AI Human interface O Brien certainly must have been one of the first to consider living machines I suspect, for example, that his pal, Divney, with whom he commits a rather horrific crime, is England or perhaps merely the Northern Irish counties The two live together for some time,or less accidentally, but end up not trusting each other, although they sleep in the same bed Absurdity done right. It Might be the Supreme Pancake Flann O Brien finished this novel in 1940, but it wasn t published until 1967, the year after he died of cancer.It must have broken his heart that it was initially rejected for publication It s arguable that it was finally released at a farappreciative time However, this is little comfort if you re dead, and what we readers have missed out on is the type of fiction he would have written had it been accepted.Flann O Brien ranks with great wordsmiths and hu It Might be the Supreme Pancake Flann O Brien finished this novel in 1940, but it wasn t published until 1967, the year after he died of cancer.It must have broken his heart that it was initially rejected for publication It s arguable that it was finally released at a farappreciative time However, this is little comfort if you re dead, and what we readers have missed out on is the type of fiction he would have written had it been accepted.Flann O Brien ranks with great wordsmiths and humourists like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Spike Milligan.The novel loosely details a crime murder and a punishment hanging and the aftermath of both What s uncertain is the timing of the events As with so much in life, what appears at first to be linear could equally be circular or recurrent To say anyor to be any less circumlocutious, would be to enter spoiler territory.The novel is intelligent, challenging, playful and economical It makes a powerful case for minimalism against maximalism.You can enter and re enter this compact, almost infinitesimal, world of infinite jest with infinite pleasure.To paraphrase the first policeman,It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter For it to remain so when you read it, I m not going to say much about it apart from outlining the metaphysical speculation that seems to drive it Is It About a Bicycle It most certainly is But just as a bicycle has two wheels, the weight of the narrative is borne by two wheels that don t always spin in the same direction In fact, they might even counteract each other and defy progress I ll try to describe their dialectical machinations below What Fresh Hell is This See if this makes sense Everything is made of omnium Omnium is everywhere You could think of it as particles You could also think of it as waves Omnium is energy Omnium is also light This is the basis of Atomic Theory Obviously, in reality, particles are in contact with each other Omnium rubs up against other omnium Take me and my bicycle for example If I sit on the seat of my bike for long enough, some of me will rub off on my bike, and some of my bike will rub off on me Let s call the bit of me that rubs off on my bike my soul My soul is transported through my ass via the seat to my bicycle Eventually, it s possible that I might lose all of my soul to my bike What I get in exchange is timber Without my bicycle, I am only wood I am lifeless without my bike As if it s not bad enough that some among us are half man, half bike, the police are finding thatandpeople are losing their bikes Without our bikes, we can t make any progress on our journey If our goal is heaven, we can t get to heaven without our bike, i.e., without our soul The handle bars on our bicycles are our consciences The lamps illuminate our path If we re parted from our bicycles, we might lose our direction in life We might fall into a life of crime We might be destined for hell Indeed, life without a soul might define hell We don t even have to die to get to hell When we get to hell, it might even look very much like life before we died When we get to hell, we might find that the punishment for our crime is to relive our lives Hell might be an eternal repetition of our lives of crime Hell might not be other people It might be us Hell might be an eternal recurrence of ourselves and our past lives A Journey is An Hallucination A different approach to life and death comes from the narrator s favourite philosopher, de Selby 1 He argues thata journey is an hallucinationFor him, human existence isa succession of static experiences each infinitely brief Each experience is a static occurrence No experience is a point on the axis on which you go from A to B It is simply a rest or a pause At no point is the traveller moving They are never actually going anywhere They are never progressing from A to B.The human mind groups together millions of these rests, and mistakenly calls the aggregatemotion.However, de Selby believes that motion is an illusion He argues that there is no progression or serialism in life Time does not pass Time as we know it does not exist Life is a photograph, not a cinematographic film.If we are not moving anywhere, we are not moving or progressing towards death If death is the supreme hallucination, then our belief that we are approaching death must be illusory.The Triangulation of the Bicycular DialecticThese are two very different perspectives on life and death, morality and mortality But I won t say anyIt s important that you negotiate the novel s journey guided primarily by Flann O Brien and influenced by as few external preconceptions as possible You have to think it through for yourself when you read it That s the challenge and the fun part and the ultimate reward, the supreme pancake.However, I ll disclose some questions I asked while reading the novel If God is a Trinity, is the House of God triangular If God s Police enforce God s Law, who is the third policeman I won t answer them either, because Flann O Brien counsels,Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any I hope you get to read and enjoy the novel FOOTNOTES 1 Reprised inThe Dalkey ArchiveSOUNDTRACK Miles Davis Ascenseur pour l Echafaud Miles Moreau Clowns Collapse Board You shake your head you can t believeThe sickening stability of my lifeYou ve got about an hour leftAnd then you re standingOn the collapse board againAnd feel the rope around your neck again Joe had been explaining things in the meantime He said it was again the beginning of the unfinished, the re discovery of the familiar, the re experience of the already suffered, the fresh forgetting of the unremembered Hell goes round and round In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearableO Brien omitted from the published novel Hell is other people s bicycles After finishing Flann O Brien s dark masterpiece of absurdity, I wanted toJoe had been explaining things in the meantime He said it was again the beginning of the unfinished, the re discovery of the familiar, the re experience of the already suffered, the fresh forgetting of the unremembered Hell goes round and round In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearableO Brien omitted from the published novel Hell is other people s bicycles After finishing Flann O Brien s dark masterpiece of absurdity, I wanted to jam a well chewed copy of Joyce in one pocket, a copy of Sterne in the other, push a DFW in my back left pocket, put some dark strawberry jam in my back right pocket, turn left twice, exit into my tight little garage and immediately make sweet sweet love to the nearest bicycle available No Not yet She s not ready, nor is my review I ll pick up this peach seat tomorrow.So, it isn t tomorrow, but time and peaches are relative in purgatory This is one of those books that is nearly impossible to review, but there is a space beyond impossible where letting go of this book exists So, let s press forward shall we The prose is amazing, funky it floats and bursts from the page Like Joyce and other Irish writers, O Brien OWNS the English language it is merely mortgaged to us mortals Reading O Brien is like watching one of those strange kids who can keep a soccer ball from ever hitting the ground Gravity just doesn t matter But let s bounce back to bikes and literature So, Flann O Brien s novel seems to exist in a strange purgatory between Sterne s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and DFW s The Broom of the System It is full of digressions, wooden legs, bicycles, murder, policemen obviously , footnotes , and much muchThis is one of those novels where rules are murdered and post modernism is both born and twisted There are books that are written to be sold and novels written to be worshiped Get on your knees fellow travelers and start praying O Brien was out DFWing DFW before DFW was born &FREE ⇺ The Third Policeman ⇖ The Third Policeman is Flann O Brien s brilliantly dark comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence Told by a narrator who has committed a botched robbery and brutal murder, the novel follows him and his adventures in a two dimensional police station where, through the theories of the scientist philosopher de Selby, he is introduced to Atomic Theory and its relation to bicycles, the existence of eternity which turns out to be just down the road , and de Selby s view that the earth is not round but sausage shaped With the help of his newly found soul named Joe, he grapples with the riddles and contradictions that three eccentric policeman present to himThe last of O Brien s novels to be published, The Third Policeman joins O Brien s other fiction At Swim Two Birds, The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, The Best of Myles, The Dalkey Archive to ensure his place, along with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, as one of Ireland s great comic geniuses The Third Policeman is a fantastic work of imaginative fictional wonder that by the end somehow manages to become a bit exasperating in all its fantastic imaginative wonderfulness Each chapter by itself is a kind of magical and mind bending set piece illustrating baffling physical and metaphysical conundrums, paradoxes, absurdities, and improbabilities, but this is perhaps a situation where the pieces are greater than the whole a standout example is MacCruiskeen s ever diminutive reproductions The Third Policeman is a fantastic work of imaginative fictional wonder that by the end somehow manages to become a bit exasperating in all its fantastic imaginative wonderfulness Each chapter by itself is a kind of magical and mind bending set piece illustrating baffling physical and metaphysical conundrums, paradoxes, absurdities, and improbabilities, but this is perhaps a situation where the pieces are greater than the whole a standout example is MacCruiskeen s ever diminutive reproductions of boxes falling away into the invisibly miniscule, a wonderful metaphor for the metafictive act Though I was growing a bit impatient with its fireworks and blazing word thought comets toward the end, I believe this book still points the way toward Flann O Brien being some kind of mad genius of wordsmithery, and it inhabits a similar kind of position as At Swim Two Birds, being a book both hilarious and deeply unsettling Where it succeeds is in creating a universe parallel to our own where the imagination is unbounded, where physical laws are at the mercy of the whims of the mind, where possibility is not limited by the inconveniently impossible Did someone say the world of fiction itself Well if so, writing is hell Highly recommended, highly enjoyed, but just did not give me the full body readgasm I got from O Brien s first novel Let me reiterate this Irishman is a magician of the highest order and is not to be ignored What Does A Genuinely Avant Garde Novel Look Like Everyone has a theory about this novel There are at least five commonly cited explanations 1 Flann O Brien is the forgotten postmodernist, the one who didn t leave Ireland The Third Policeman is one of the last books Joyce read, and by implication it s is a kind of Doppelgaenger to Finnegans Wake The book s play with language and its reflexivity about the novel form is somehow parallel to Joyce s.2 The book is an indirect but eloquent re What Does A Genuinely Avant Garde Novel Look Like Everyone has a theory about this novel There are at least five commonly cited explanations 1 Flann O Brien is the forgotten postmodernist, the one who didn t leave Ireland The Third Policeman is one of the last books Joyce read, and by implication it s is a kind of Doppelgaenger to Finnegans Wake The book s play with language and its reflexivity about the novel form is somehow parallel to Joyce s.2 The book is an indirect but eloquent record of that generation in Ireland, when the humor could be desperate, when the church was all powerful, when what s now called homosocial life in crowded dingy pubs had to stand in for the wider society that Joyce chose In later life O Brien was also an alcoholic, even though it s always hard to know what exactly that diagnosis explains maybe the exaggerrated lucidity of Myles na gCopaleen Thanks to Don s comment, below 3 O Brien is a member of what Hugh Kenner called Irish nihilism In this view there is no moral sense in the book, which after all begins with someone s head being crushed by a garden spade This also supposedly explains the absence of contrition or religious feeling Denis Donoghue almost assents to this in his strange and covertly Republican Afterword to the Dalkey Archive edition.4 O Brien is a minimalist, and his deepest ties are to Beckett This is one of the lines in Fintan O Toole s 2009 review in the New York Review of Books 5 O Brien s own explanation is that the book is about a dead man, and that the last page shows how the damned suffer their punishments eternally But that s only an explanation if your idea of hell already includes knives so thin they can t be seen, microscopic carved wooden boxes, and sexually mutable bicycles Otherwise it doesn t explain anything The fact that these are forced or otherwise unhelpful may indicate that the book is stranger than its commentators think The fact that people keep coming up with these one line explanations shows how the novel keeps prodding its readers it is just too odd to be accepted as a mid century modernist novel or even an anachronistic postmodern one for many readers a theory, no matter how restrictive, helps soothe the discomfort But what is the avant garde, if it isn t a thing that is not anticipated That cannot be accommodated That wasn t asked for, that solves no problem we ever thought we had The Third Policeman is one of the best examples of a genuinely avant garde modernist work, because it just won t fit into categories, even so many years on.By way of postscript one thing I especially love about the book is the Irish landscape that it conjures, between its many fantasies and concoctions If you take away the hallucinated afterlife that occupies most of the narrative, what remains A poor, simple countryside, with farms and a few police stations and pubs, and miles of bumpy roads, sodden fields, muck, brambles, dripping copses, and gorse There is almost nothing else people ride bicycles everywhere When they think they might become rich, they dream of changes of clothes There is almost no mention of what they eat or drink It is an impoverished landscape implying an impoverished society and when I think of those things, O Brien s perverse and perfervid inventions look evennecessary than his humor, anddesperate and painful