Wednesday, 5 August 2009


Following on from yesterday's discussion of Labyrinths, I'd like to sing the praises of a novel which uses books within books to great comic effect, namely At Swim Two Birds, by Flann O'Brien. O'Brien's The Third Policeman is my favourite novel, and while At Swim... has the same qualities of erudite wit and surreal imagination, it is a denser, more difficult novel, steeped in references to Irish mythology, and especially to the mad king Sweeney and Finn Mac Cool.

It is hard to convey the quality and nature of this bizarre and complex work, but it depends to a large extent for its effects on the inter-weaving of different texts and modes of writing. These include a cliche-riddled series of letters from a racing tipster, a 'Conspectus of arts and sciences' and the wonderful, insane ravings of the mad bird-king Sweeney. Moreover, a series of fictions is nested within the book, which accounts for much of its structure and appeal, as the narrator is found to be writing a book in which a character is writing a book, the characrters of which in turn write a book to punish 'their' author for the way in which they're treated in his book. Genres, characters and plots spill into each other and overlap in a bewildering and hilarious literary kaleidoscope.

I'm very conscious of this being a woefully inadequate description. Go read it.


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