At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
(post by Emmie)
How would it feel to be a literary character?
I’ll admit, At Swim-Two-Birds wasn’t an easy book to read. The first time I tried it I only got halfway before I gave up. I hardly understood a word of it. Nevertheless, I would like to argue that it is an amazing novel. It took me a very thorough second attempt (differently coloured pencils in hand) to unravel the ways in which this book plays with literary conventions, crosses intertextual boundaries and blurs different layers of reality.
At Swim-Two-Birds is a novel of many levels. It begins with an unnamed student who enjoys inventing stories. He creates the author Dermot Trellis. Trellis then starts writing a story of his own, for which he creates his main villain John Furriskey. Furriskey, however, also has a life outside of the story that Trellis writes. He lives in a cottage with the woman he loves and isn’t a villain at all. Trellis orders all of his characters to live with him in order to keep an eye on them, but they drug him so he falls asleep and they can do whatever they want. The story folds upon itself even further when one of the characters begins to write a story about Trellis…
A separate realm of fiction
Most of the other characters in Trellis’ story are drawn from other (fictional) books. Trellis’ characters describe what it was like to star in a cowboy book, or interact with heroes from Irish folktales. In his story, the student experiments with the idea of an alternate universe where all fictional characters live. All authors take characters from this limbo and only create a new persona when they fail to find a suitable one that already exists. This means that characters are interchangeable between books. As you might have guessed already, the fact that all fictional characters, including Trellis, who is a character in the student’s story, come from the same realm adds to the blurring of boundaries within the novel.
At Swim-Two-Birds is a clear example of metafiction. This term is used to describe comments on the fictionality and/or construtiveness of a story. When a character mentions that he is only a character or when a book shows that it is only a book it becomes metafictional. Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story, Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House are examples of this. They feature a boy who creates a book by reading it, a man who argues with his author about whether or not he should kill himself and a world made of ink. These constant reminders that what we are reading is fictional destroy the aesthetic illusion that most other novels try to establish: they do not try to suck us into their world or make us forget that what we read isn’t really happening. Though this may seem to weaken a story, when used properly it only adds to the strength of the book. Our attention is widened from only paying attention to the storyline to also observing the ways in which the book is constructed.
This allowed me to admire the way in which O’Brien plays with the different levels of the novel. He starts by setting up five separate levels and then slowly lets them bleed through each other or form parallels. I also really enjoyed the way in which he showed the fictional nature of his characters by giving them ‘ordinary lives’ outside the stories they star in. They behaved abnormally by being more ordinary than most characters, and thus raised a lot of questions about the boundaries between fiction and reality. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be part of a novel? I know I have.
Moreover, O’Brien plays with many literary conventions. He parodies newspaper journalism and other forms of style, attacks the position of the author as a god-like power and shows that there are certain ways in which we expect characters (such as the allegedly black villain) to behave. Throughout the novel he continued to surprise and unsettle me.
Ultimately, it would be impossible for me to say everything there is to say about At Swim-Two-Birds without presenting you with a 6000 word essay. And even then, I believe you will find even more interesting ideas and passages in the text than I could tell you about. I can recommend this book to anyone who is up for a rewarding challenge. It will not disappoint.
The above post is contributed by Emmie. She loves reading books, poetry and writing about them in the form of reviews and other posts and expressing her love for fiction. You can read her writing on her blog- Another Night of Reading.