Having read The Third Policeman, I was prepared for the sort of lateral thinking inventiveness of the author. I just love the vernacular of mid 20th century Ireland that is captured in the dialogue here and I can taste the breakfasts and tea, the bitterness of the untipped cigarettes and the pints of plain. The narrator is a university student in Dublin, seen by his uncle as a bit of a slacker. To all intents and purposes he is the typical student, drawn into hedonism by his peers and by the freedom of being away from home. We see him amuse his pals in the parlours of Dublin pubs, with excerpts from his own fantastical writings - stories involving old legend status Celtic heroes like Sweeney and Finn McCool, along with cowboys, fairies, pookahs and other, more ordinary souls. These characters are either written about directly by the narrator or by his protagonist, Dermot Trellis, himself a writer and creator of the likes of Orlick, Lamont, Furriskey and Shanahan. The whole thing is like collection of Russian dolls and each of the dolls is the creator of characters at the next level down. You have to keep your wits about you to know which level you're at. Trouble is, at various points, the dolls are all stood next to each other on the mantlepiece so to speak, when the characters from one level invade the reality above. Some of Trellis's creations are not happy with their given roles nor the amorality or sheer evil purpose assigned to them (descriptions of such being tempered by the Victorian morality of Ireland at the time). So we see the characters 'nobbling' Trellis to prevent him writing any more and then creating their own writer to replace him. At one point there is a western style gun slinging match in the streets of Dublin. Despite this featuring characters from an inner story, it is reported next morning in the newspaper of an outer story that this riotous assembly knocked out two Dublin tram windows. Like The Third Policeman, it's hard going; there are sometimes too many asides to identify where you are in the story. The pookah and fairy, while being used for some very comical dialogue, seem too fantastical and their appearance in the story, with their magical powers, an easy mechanism to sort out the mess that has occurred from the author getting carried away with himself. There are weak moments and the author even recognises that - giving one of his creations a critical view by having him comment on how Lamont, Furriskey and Shanahan seem too alike. O'Brien also has the student-author confess that he has more fun writing this material than actually editing and proofing it, admitting that he rarely reads his own work. It seems autobiographical in places. The sudden and unresolved conclusion is supposedly by design - O'Brien wanting to avoid traditional and clichéd endings but it seems like he has lost enthusiasm or run out of time. A definite must-read in any case though for the ahead-of-its-time inventivness. Cervantes loved a story within a story but O'Brien (O'Nolan) takes it to amazing new heights.
Sometimes Irish literature drives me a bit crazy, that is coming from someone 100%Irish by the way. I just cannot understand all of ths making up our own words and disjointed stories and sentences which make little sense. Beckett and Joyce use this style and I have always been suspicious of their motive, the thinking behind it. Irish people may have a way of thinking which is different from English people for example, but it is not this different. I had to stop reading this.