Thursday, April 17, 2008

Reality is just a starting point

O'Nolan's liquid sense of reality, so helpful in his writing, was mirrored to an unfortunate degree in his own life, where he was prone to damaging confusions. Just as de Selby suffers from an inability to distinguish between men and women, O'Nolan suffered from an inability to distinguish between fame and artistic success (he moaned, not entirely facetiously, "Gone With the Wind keeps me awake at night sometimes -- I mean, the quantity of potatoes earned by the talented lady novelist"). The limited impact of At Swim-Two-Birds led O'Nolan to dismiss it as a "bum book," and when The Third Policeman failed to find a home (too "fantastic," in the judgment of his publisher), he concluded that this book, too, was worthless. Rather than be humiliated in the eyes of Dublin, O'Nolan took to claiming that the manuscript had been lost (variously, in a tramcar, a hotel, a train). It hadn't. It was published posthumously in 1967 and gained, in addition to canonical status, a small if peculiarly intense following. Rather bizarrely, the novel recently found a substantial new audience after a paperback copy made a two-second appearance on the cult TV drama Lost.

Brian O'Nolan would have appreciated this kind of success. He referred to The Third Policeman (and to his other fiction) as stuff written to make you laugh. He would have regarded it as terrible pose to place the book somewhere between the pataphysics of Alfred Jarry (the scientist of imaginary solutions) and the metaphysics of Martin Heidegger (the analyst of the hermeneutics of facticity). A Catholic and, in the persona of Myles na Gopaleen, an enemy of pretension and cant, he undermined most claims to importance -- his own most assiduously of all. This creates a Flann O'Brien -- worthy conundrum: How can we credit him with being a literary or philosophical radical if he had no intention of being one?

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