Tuesday, 4 March 2008
An insoluble pancake
I received Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman as a Festivus 2007 gift from my sister and was terribly excited to read it; I'd recently read At Swim-Two-Birds, which is perhaps the funniest thing I've ever read, and so I was gleefully anticipating more of the same. I believed I'd found another comic genius to match P. G. Wodehouse, nay to outmatch Wodehouse. (I know, that seems impossible! Turns out it is.)
Alas, The Third Policemen was, for me, not exactly the opposite of hilarious for I did smile and chuckle a few times, but it definitely wasn't the opposite of gruesome and depressing either. I spent a great deal of my reading time with this tome curled up in a ball whimpering (well, mentally anyway) because I felt like my brain was being pulled out through my eyes or something equally pleasant.
Like At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman is a satire and perhaps the biggest problem was that I just couldn't tell what O'Brien was satirizing. I checked the ever-trusty Wikipedia (full of truthiness as it is) and it tells me that "The book's influences (or targets of satire) are thought by critics ... to include such diverse subjects as Einstein's theory of relativity, the mystic-scientific works of J.W. Dunne, the theology of Thomas Aquinas, Cartesian dualism, J.K. Huysmans's decadent novel À Rebours, and John Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World. The poetic influence (which is often missed by readers) of Walter de la Mare can be particularly noted in chapter 11, when the narrator knocks on Mathers' house. The narration continues with him looking up at the window and knocking a second time, whilst his trusty steed (in this case a bicycle) rests quietly behind him. This is a strong reference to The Listeners."
I haven't read any of these people's works and have a grade 4 understanding of the theory of relativity, so you can imagine how much I got out of the satire here. It was a right "insoluble pancake" (to quote one of the policemen in the book) and frankly, I'm glad it's over. I was somewhat relieved in the end to discover (warning, plot spoiler coming!) that the crazy unconnected things that occur to the narrator turn out to be his own version of hell; yes, the narrator is dead, having been blown up by his partner in crime John Divney who joins him in death at the book's conclusion to begin again the cycle of insoluble pancakes that comprised the narrator's experience for almost 200 pages. I don't think I'll need to read the sequel.