During a crucial moment in the broadcast of Lost, ABC’s popular television drama, the camera turned away from the castaways to zoom in on the cover of a book: The Third Policeman, the obscure Irish novel by Flann O’Brien. After one of the show’s writers intimated on an online message board that the book contained clues that would help viewers figure out the show’s numerous plot lines, the book shot up the Amazon rankings. Since its television debut last October, more than 17,000 copies of The Third Policeman have been sold — more than in the previous eight years combined.
For admirers of O’Brien’s work, his newfound notoriety is redolent with irony. For one thing, The Third Policeman wasn’t published in O’Brien’s lifetime. Even though its author was famously hailed by James Joyce as “a real writer with the true comic spirit,” the novel was rejected in both London and New York. O’Brien was so embarrassed by this setback that, when asked how the book was going, he lied to his friends and colleagues and told them that his one and only copy of the manuscript had been .?.?. lost.
Who was Flann O’Brien? Well, not Flann O’Brien, for starters. Born Brian O’Nolan on October 5, 1911, he learned to speak Irish before English and was kept out of school until he was 12. But this does not appear to have set him back. Niall Sheridan, his friend and classmate at University College Dublin (UCD), was of the opinion that O’Brien “burst on the scene fully equipped as a writer.” This was a view shared by many of his classmates, who enjoyed his boisterous wit and the astounding capacity for wordplay that he put on display in the college magazine Comthrom Feinne, where his work often appeared in the Irish spelling of his name: Brian Ua Nualláin.
O’Nolan was also responsible for the publication of Blather, a humorous broadside that was filled with fake news items, extravagant puns and scathing send-ups, most of which he had composed himself and were published under the nom de plume Brother Barnabas. As an expert in an impossible number of subjects, Barnabas regaled the UCD student body with tales of The O’Blather and his idiot son Blazes O’Blather.
When he finished school, O’Nolan began work on what would become his best-known novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. Sheridan recalls the author telling him the plot he intended to apply to the narrative: An author writing a book about a series of characters who were themselves authoring books about the author.
“That’s not a plot,” Sheridan told him. “It’s a conspiracy.”
And so it is. Ostensibly, the narrative comprises three distinct plot lines: one is realistic, the next fantastic and the last absurd. As a result, the book is a dense compendium of competing voices chock-a-block with Irish mythology, pub lore, sales copy, the antics of Dublin oddballs, and copious catalogs and catechisms. Here, the narrator describes one of his characters, a novelist, struggling to get his narrative under control:
He is compelling all his characters to live with him in the Red Swan Hotel so that he can keep an eye on them and see that there is no boozing .?.?. There is a cowboy in Room 13. Mr. MacCool, the hero of old Ireland, is on the floor above. The basement is full of leprechauns.
At Swim-Two-Birds was accepted for publication by Longman’s of London at the enthusiastic recommendation of one its readers, the novelist Graham Greene, who favorably compared the book to Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: “It is a wild, fantastic, magnificently comic notion, but looking back afterwards one realizes that by no other method could the realistic, the legendary, the novelette have been worked in together.”
O’Nolan was compelled to publish the book under a pseudonym so as not to jeopardize his position in the Civil Service. He settled on Flann O’Brien, a name he’d used in a series of letters to the Irish Times involving a dustup with the writers Sean O’Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, because it “contains an unusual name and one that is quite ordinary.” The book was published in 1939 and received favorable reviews on both sides of the Irish Sea. Joyce, who seldom singled out his countrymen’s work for praise, enjoyed At Swim-Two-Birds immensely and tried to get the book reviewed in France. This was no small gesture: Joyce was in poor health and his eyesight was so bad that he had all but given up on reading fiction for pleasure. War, however, was on the march, and the rumor, gossip and faulty intelligence that heralded its approach swallowed up any chance of success the book might have enjoyed. For O’Brien, it was the contemporary equivalent of getting a blurb from J.D. Salinger a week before the Twin Towers fall.