If you're coming to this book after the hype about it appearing on Lost, then the first thing you need to know is that it's one of the strangest books you're ever likely to read - and if it's not, I'll have some of what you're having. The Third Policeman is a remarkable book by any standards, even if (like me, hem hem) you fail to grasp the ending until you read the publisher's footnote afterwards. In fact the second half generally is not as hot as the first, and O'Brien seems to tread water most of the time after positively squirming with creative energy for the first hundred-odd pages. The book was written in 1940 but not published until 1967, after his death. It is narrated by a man who has literally no name, who has murdered someone for money and sets about recovering the stash. In doing so he encounters mad policemen obsessed with bicycles (including the eponymous third one), the atomic physics, and scale and size.
One of the finest long passages in the book, which had me drumming my heels in pure visceral pleasure, is when the policeman MacCruiskeen shows the narrator a little wooden chest he has made, "perfect in its proportions and without fault in its workmanship." It turns out that he has made thirty more, each smaller than the last and contained inside its predecessor, of which series even the thirteenth one was so small it "took me three years to make and it took me another year to believe that I had made it." What I particularly delighted in was the off-kilter and yet just-so dialogue between the policeman and our man:
"There now," said MacCruiskeen.
"It is nearly too nice," I said at last, "to talk about it."
"I spent two years manufacturing it when I was a lad," said MacCruiskeen, "and it still takes me to the fair."
"It is unmentionable," I said.
"Very nearly," said MacCruiskeen.
Also the book has a running background featuring the works of mythical Irish philosopher de Selby (shades of Vonnegut here), who believed among other things that night was merely an accumulation of dark particles in the air caused by pollution, and that sleep was a series of fits brought on by exposure to the particles. Much of the stuff about his notions of the world and indeed his several commentators and biographers is richly inventive and comic.
"His theory as I understand it is as follows.
"If a man stands before a mirror and sees in it his reflection, what he sees is not a true reproduction of himself but a picture of himself when he was a younger man. De Selby's explanation of this phenomenon is quite simple. Light, as he points out truly enough, has an ascertained and finite rate of travel. Hence before the reflection of any object in a mirror can be said to be accomplished, it is necessary that rays of light should first strike the object and subsequently impinge on the glass, to be thrown back again to the object - to the eyes of the man, for instance. There is therefore an appreciable and calculable interval of time between the throwing by a man of a glance at his own face in a mirror and the registration of the reflected image in his eye.
"So far, one may say, so good. Whether this idea is right or wrong, the amount of time involved is so negligible that few reasonable people would argue the point. But de Selby ever loath to leave well enough alone, insists on reflecting the first reflection in a further mirror and professing to detect minute changes in this second image. Ultimately he constructed the familiar arrangement of parallel mirrors, each reflecting diminishing images of an interposed object indefinitely. The interposed object in this case was de Selby's own face and this he claims to have studied backwards through an infinity of reflections by means of "a powerful glass." What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them - too tiny to be visible to the naked eye - being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, "a countenance of singular beauty and nobility." He did not succeed in pursuing the matter back to the cradle "owing to the curvature of the earth and the limitations of the telescope.""
So in some ways The Third Policeman is just a framework for O'Brien to hang lots of silly ideas on, and as novels go it's not distinguished by a strong urge to discover what happens next. But the writing is intricate and beautifully judged throughout, making it the rarity of a comic novel which requires full brow-furrowed attention to read. At times it feels like the best book you have ever read and at times it can be a bit of a drag. Which, as I said earlier, makes it remarkable by any standards. Whether it will help you solve the mysteries of a certain TV serial, I don't know ... as far as that goes, I'm Lost.