Why Flann O’Brien Is So Funny

The unsung Irish genius who belongs up there with Joyce and Beckett.

Truth is an odd number, even numerals are the province of the devil class, and there is safety in a triad. These are some of the essential wisdoms in the world of Flann O’Brien, the Irish writer who is often said to form, along with Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, “the holy trinity of modern Irish literature.” O’Brien—whose real name was Brian O’Nolan—briefly flickered just as bright as his Irish contemporaries, but he has never received commensurate acclaim or much of a following—though readership did pick up in 2005, when his second novel, The Third Policeman, made a cameo appearance on an episode of Lost, before an audience of 31 million viewers. (One of the show’s producers said, somewhat ominously, that the book was chosen “very specifically for a reason”; in the two days following the episode, the book sold 10,000 copies.) Better late than never, O’Brien’s five novels have at last been collected into a single volume, just published by Everyman’s Library.

O’Brien’s lack of readership is particularly surprising since of the holy Irish trinity, he is by far the funniest. His masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), has the singular distinction of being consistently laugh-out-loud funny, even on a second or third read, even 70 years after its publication. Many readers today regard Ulysses or the Molloy trilogy in a daze of stultification or with mild terror at the novels’ calculated efforts to frustrate narrative convention. Yet it would take a reader of calcified heart to read O’Brien’s best work without laughing his face off.

There may be safety in a triad, but to lump O’Brien with Joyce and Beckett is to miss the playfulness, black humor, and deranged whimsy that characterize his style. As Martin Amis has written, “there is only one event in Ulysses: the meeting between Bloom and Stephen.” One could go further with Beckett’s novels and say that there is rarely any event whatsoever to be found. There is much exhibition of genius, eerily beautiful descriptive passages, and startling inquiries into the workings of the mind and the heart, but there is also a determined de-emphasis on anything like traditional storytelling.

The opposite is true of At Swim-Two-Birds, which features such a profusion of stories that a reader happily loses track of where each one begins and ends. To describe the plot as succinctly as possible: A university student endeavors to write a novel about an author—Dermot Trellis—who is himself trying to write a novel. O’Brien’s novel begins four times, in four different ways, and contains at least as many endings. The rationale for this rampant metastasis of tales lies in a peculiar theory proposed by his nameless narrator, an indolent fellow prone to idle musings, who has just discovered the pleasures of Irish porter:

A satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. … Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet.

O’Brien himself seems to share this theory, which might seem to promise a descent into a daunting realm of disorientation. But to bear with him is to be swept into a peculiar landscape in which a coming-of-age story set in modern Dublin, a fairy tale set in the Middle Ages, and an absurdist allegory about the frustrations of writing complement one another with a persuasive internal logic.

To keep Trellis company, O’Brien reaches deep into the limbo of Irish literature and pulls out such characters as Finn MacCool, a legendary hero of old Ireland whose gargantuan proportions are exalted for pages on end in purple, mock-heroic encomiums (“the chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs”); Pooka MacPhellimey, a devil who engages in heated scholarly debate with an invisible fairy; and the cursed Mad King Sweeny, who sprouts feathers on his back and is forced to hop across Ireland from tree to tree for the remainder of his days, naked. He lives on leaf dew and watercress, and laments his sorrow through the recitation of increasingly batty lyric poetry:

The thorntop that is not gentle
has reduced me, has pierced me,
it has brought me near death
the brown thorn-bush

O’Brien’s author Trellis follows the same dictum, plucking for his own novels characters from other books. What’s more, Trellis makes his characters live with him in an inn, where they serve him as indentured servants: “There is a cowboy in Room 13 and Mr McCool, a hero of old Ireland, is on the floor above. The cellar is full of leprechauns.” In revenge for their poor treatment, the characters turn the tables on Trellis by writing their own story about him. Over the course of their tale, Trellis is granted innumerable boils on his back; a ceiling falls on his head; and he is changed “by a miracle of magic into a great whore of a buck rat with a black pointed snout and a scaly tail and a dirty rat-coloured coat full of ticks and terrible vermin.” What might sound like slapstick is made strange—and hilarious—by an elaboration of detail so excessive that there is no choice but to surrender to its madness.

O’Brien doesn’t just borrow familiar characters from the canon, however. He also quotes paragraphs, and even entire stories, verbatim. Mad Sweeny’s legend and the poems he recites, for instance, are translated nearly word-for-word from the 17th-century Gaelic legend, Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy ofSweeney). But O’Brien’s genius is such that it’s nearly impossible to determine when he is quoting and when he is inventing. The old texts are echoed by, and bleed into, his own fictions—the same way that Dorothy’s Kansas creeps into the fantasy world of The Wizard of Oz and the garden animals resurface in Alice’s dream of Wonderland. The effect is to make every digressive flight of fancy feel necessary and exhilarating, no matter how preposterous its premise.

This intermingling of pub banter and poetic lays—of high and low speechifying—creates a peculiar vision of Ireland, in which the boundaries between myth and reality are collapsed. At the same time, this blending of the epic and the mundane propels O’Brien—celebrator of the Gaelic language and folk traditions though he was—well beyond national boundaries. It is also the main source of the book’s humor: Pub confabulation is treated as lyric poetry, and vice versa. In his technique and execution, O’Brien is indebted less to Joyce and Beckett than Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy followed much the same pattern: stories upon stories, for the simple purposes of humor and delight. He is clever, and deadly cynical, but there is none of the calculated showiness that marks much of what it now considered “postmodern” literature. In fact, many of the novel’s funniest riffs ridicule the pomposity of academic scholarship. One can’t look for a moral at the end of O’Brien’s stories for a simple reason: His stories never end. This is a book that could easily go on forever, hopping from melodious disputation to spirited colloquy, and story to story, like Mad Sweeny leaping among the trees of Erin.

But its fate, and O’Brien’s, was not to loop on uninterrupted. Six months after publication, the London warehouse in which the books were stored was bombed during the Blitz, and all remaining copies were destroyed. The next year the publisher, Longmans Green, turned down O’Brien’s second novel, The Third Policeman. A murder mystery, it is nonetheless as sui generis as its predecessor, set in a foreign land too odd to be reality, yet eerily too familiar for pure fantasy. And though nearly as funny as At Swim Two Birds, the novel is underpinned by a frightening, nihilistic despair. Longmans’ rejection must have cast O’Brien into his own despair, since he never showed the book to another publisher. (The novel was published only after his death, when it was discovered in his house.) The disappointment put O’Brien off writing novels for 20 years, during which he pursued a successful career as a columnist for the Irish Times under the Gaelic pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen.

Although his late books, which include one written in Gaelic, are pale shadows of the first two, his final novel, The Dalkey Archive (1964), provides a fitting coda. Much of the book is cannibalized from The Third Policeman, and numerous conversations recall those held by the narrator and his friends in At Swim-Two-Birds—some even take place in the same pubs. Characters are once again plucked from the limbo of Irish literature. They include James Joyce, who resurfaces as a doddering bartender in the dingy fishing town of Skerries. Joyce once called O’Brien “a real writer, with the true comic spirit,” but like Trellis, he is treated ungently; one of O’Brien’s characters goes so far as to curse Finnegans Wake, “and all that line of incoherent trash.”

It’s not a throwaway line—the notion of coherence speaks to one of the crucial qualities of O’Brien’s work. Where Joyce’s late narratives fracture and any semblance of plot dissolves in Beckett, O’Brien is the drunk at the end of the bar with a long tale for every comer. His juxtapositions and digressions are not capricious. Instead they create a sense of rooted familiarity, a whimsical landscape in which the most absurd things happen—but always, it seems, for a reason.

Taken together, his corpus could be read as a repeating cycle. It is possible to flip to nearly any point of the 787-page collection and feel oddly at home. O’Brien remained true to the maxim in At Swim-Two-Birds: His characters—especially the pub-dwellers—are often interchangeable between one book and another, and the entire body of his work can be regarded as a limbo from which he draws the same figures over and over. This is not a deficiency—far from it. In his novels, O’Brien managed to create a prismatic world that is both a prison and a hall of mirrors, in which his beloved Ireland appears in fetid squalor and misery at one moment, and the next is burnished with the epic grandeur of antiquity. It’s tempting to imagine O’Brien himself still living there among all his characters—reclining in his body-warmed bed, endlessly weaving his “honeyed discourse” into “a story-teller’s book-web,” and laughing all the while.