Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien

Atomic Theory is at work in a rural parish of Ireland. This, says Sergeant Pluck of the local police station, explains a spate of missing bicycles - and why one particular bicycle is locked up in a cell. The sergeant spells it out for us thus:

"Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figures too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms. Do you follow me intelligently?" (p. 86)

Since the narrator of The Third Policeman follows this, the sergeant proceeds with devastating logic:

"'Consecutively and consequentially, ' he continued, 'you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself and so is your fob pocket and the tail of your shirt and the instrument you use for taking the leavings out of the crook of your hollow tooth. Do you happen to know what takes place when you strike a bar of iron with a good coal hammer or with a blunt instrument?'"

The answer, he says, is that,

"When the wallop falls, the atoms are bashed away down to the bottom of the bar and compressed and crowded there like eggs under a good clucker. After a while in the course of time they swim around and get back at last to where they were. But if you keep hitting the bar long enough and hard enough they do not get a chance to do this and what happens then?" (p. 87)

Pluck explains that atoms from the iron bar duly end up in the hammer, while atoms from the hammer end up in the iron bar. What's more, the same applies in the matter of bicycles.

"The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles." (p. 88)

He proceeds to supply percentages for various named individuals. 

This is one, compelling example of the daftness contained in The Third Policeman, a novel written in 1940 but not published until 1967. I've had this recommended by various people over the years but have only just got to it. The plot, as such, is straightforward. Our narrator tells us in the opening sentence that he was embroiled with someone else in committing a murder; he then recounts what happened but much of the book concerns the rambling, surreal and often quite confused adventures that follow this wicked deed.

Things get very surreal. At one point, the narrator descends to an underground chamber where his every want can be produced from a machine - but not taken out of the chamber. He is sentenced to death by hanging but rescued by a union of one-legged men (more or less). In a sequence that calls back to Pluck's elucidation on Atomic Theory, the narrator develops some kind of relationship with a female bicycle. In all, it's generally funny-peculiar but peppered with funny-ha-ha, and I can see why some readers might find it insufferable. What saves it is that through these comic, quixotic adventures, the reader is haunted by a sense of something more sinister being involved.

Concise but illuminating notes at the end of this edition cite the influence on O'Brien of A Rebours (1884), the French decadent novel that also inspired Oscar Wilde and is seen in the closing moments of Withnail and I - a film with similar rambling, daft adventures in the countryside with something sad and bitter underneath. The notes also say that "de Selby", a philosopher whose daft theories are expounded here, largely in footnotes, returns in person in O'Brien's later novel The Dalkey Archive (1964), and also in work by Robert Anton Wilson (co-author of The Illuminatus Trilogy). The sequence on pp. 103-105 where the narrator is invited to guess the name of man he doesn't know, and we get a long list of odd monickers interspersed with "No", surely influenced the same gag in the Christmas episode of Father Ted. The notes provide evidence of the novel's influence on the TV series Lost. There's even a "De Selby" referenced in an audio play I produced nearly two decades ago, too. Reading this novel has been akin to when my children see the film or TV episode that inspires a well-known meme.

But The Third Policeman - and its final revelations - more than anything reminded me of stuff that can't have influenced it, or been influenced by it in turn. It's difficult to mention these without a risk of spoiling the novel for those who haven't read it, so I'll leave some line breaks.

Yes, I'll leave some line breaks.

Like this.

And this.

And this.

And this.

In particular, I thought of the horror film Dead of Night (1945), the defining structure of which came about by accident during the edit, and also William Golding's novel Pincher Martin (1956) and the brilliant, unsettling short story 'I Used to Live Here Once' by Jean Rhys (also used as the title of her biography). The odd thought is that all these works and their authors (including O'Brien and The Third Policemen) somehow trod the same surreal, sinister paths independently. That implies that this unsettling space is in actual fact common ground.

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