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Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman

On the subject of including only the essentials in a story, John Self recently quoted Anton Chekhov: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” It's a familiar conceit, but one which I hadn't realized went back to Chekhov. (As I commented on Self's blog, the version that I'm most familiar with is that of songwriter Peter Case, who once sang "A gun in the first act always goes off in the third.") I happened to come across the quote while halfway through Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, and I was struck by the ways O'Brien violates Chekhov's wise dictum.

From the very first words of the book - in fact, the title itself - O'Brien is at odds with Chekhov. The "third policeman" of the narrative doesn't make his first appearance in the book until twenty pages from the end, and though his presence is somewhat memorable, it hardly seems consequential enough to warrant naming the book after him. Referencing a character in a book's title and never having that character play a vital role in the narrative goes even further than Chekhov's unfired rifle in terms of introducing extraneous detail, and is the most obvious example of the numerous misplaced or unnecessary story elements which O'Brien can't seem to resist including. Another "unfired rifle" is the narrator's obsession with the fictional physicist/philosopher de Selby. I never really figured out what the philosopher had to do with the rest of the story, other than perhaps serving as the brunt of O'Brien's satirical take on the ridiculousness and borderline lunacy of abstract philosophical thought. (As an aside, I think Swift handled this idea much better, in describing Gulliver's travels amongst the Laputians, as I mentioned here yesterday.)

O'Brien's book is undeniably entertaining, often in a woozy, funhouse-mirror sort of way, but I doubt if it will stay with me for more than a week or two. The biggest problem for me is that I never believed, not even for a minute, that any of these characters were real. Instead I get the feeling that every one of them is a metaphor, some big symbol whose meaning I can only vaguely comprehend. The narrative also has, particularly at the beginning, a picaresque feel to it, a somewhat disjointed series of scenes that perhaps O'Brien couldn't quite figure out how to synthesize. And some of it just doesn't ring true. The narrator's premise in seeking out the police barracks in the first place - that the police would somehow assist him in finding the strongbox of the man he just murdered - is so ludicrous that the premise seems like nothing more than a lame excuse for his subsequent encounter with all the wacky and surreal goings-on at the barracks and all the entertainment value therein. And when key plot elements like that don't ring true, a book faces an almost insurmountable barrier to winning my heart.

I really wanted to love this book, having heard such great things about O'Brien and being such a fan of both satire and Irish fiction. But I just never figured out the point of it all, and that lack of meaning prevented me from ever being fully engaged, which means the book was a failure for me.

April 2, 2008 in Books | Permalink


I do not think you need allude to the fact that you did not understand the meaning of The Third Policeman as anyone who would admit in public that they do not get the de Selby footnotes must be an idiot. Read the book again - with a philosophical mind this time. It is a study of truth and answers. like Beckett and Waiting for Godot. Really you should refrain from commenting on literature until you are qualified to do so.

Posted by: eithne lonergan at Apr 25, 2008 1:20:32 PM

So will you read the book again, or is it that unbearable?

On being called an idiot: I've had that happen (sort of) on one occasion. On a previous litblog (yes, I've been blogging regularly for a few years), I slammed an essay in Salon (I don't remember what the essay was about). The essay was written by a professor, and one of the professor's friends stopped by and said something to the effect of, "Maybe if you knew how to read, your brain wouldn't explode." I thought his comment was funny.

I often wish I could have a few hecklers on my site, if only to liven things up a bit, but I'm resigned to the fact that I'm no Ed Champion. I'm the soft-spoken guy who lurks in the background, who occasionally says something weird, then walks away.

On "Gatsby": You know, I often wonder why this book is seen as the epitome of American letters. And I read it for the first time a few years back, when my lit tastes were a bit more refined and my critical acumen a bit broader than, "This book sucks!" I've actually asked a few people why they like it, and strangely enough, no one can really explain to me what I've been missing. The last person I asked simply said, "I like the characters." Oh. I just didn't care for the writing (too dry), the story (yawn), OR the characters (uninteresting). Then again, I'll be the first to admit that I don't really like American literature. Which leads me to my 123 Meme book: "Anna Karenina." 'Nuff said, as they say.

Posted by: Brandon at Apr 30, 2008 12:15:39 PM

It wasn't unbearable, but I'm definitely not reading it again.

Posted by: Pete at Apr 30, 2008 2:35:57 PM