Read The Dalkey Archives again. I read it previously years ago. Tho spots impressed me, it didn’t strike me as hard as At Swim-Two-Bird or The Third Policeman. I’m willing to amend my earlier judgment.
The descriptive first page or so jumped out at me this time. My eyes tend to blur with descriptive passages. Often, the author’s specificity seems unnecessary: the reader can fill in the gaps between adjectives.
Here, O’Brien’s descriptions seem weighted. When they start to rattle into commonplace, he throws in a surprise. First paragraph:
Dalkey is a little town maybe twelve miles south of Dublin, on the shore. It is an unlikely town, huddled, quiet, pretending to be asleep. Its streets are narrow, not quite self-evident as streets and with meetings which seem accidental. Small shops look closed but are open. Dalkey looks like an humble settlement which must, a traveler feels, be next door to some place of the first importance and distinction. And it is—vestibule of a heavenly conspection.
O’Brien goes on for a bit more before he offers characters and stories. The book’s cover shows a facsimile of a draft of the first page. O’Brien initially introduced the character Hugh De Selby directly but cut that out and began with description of place. The passage prepares the reader, at least a little, for O’Brien’s onslaught of jabs, winks, profundities, scholarship, and general comic explosion. O’Brien gives due warning simply by using the word—it is a word, isn’t it?—conspection.
It’s probably too bad that we know the legend of Flann O’Brien, that a reader will likely have expectations. I’m sure he was indeed a boozy fellow, maven of the pub. He’s not some second rate James Joyce, however, who spent too much time making public house grandiloquence. The three novels that I’ve read, and the smattering of newspaper work, show rare, hilarious achievement.
His novels could almost be marketed under the aegis of scifi & fantasy, except they are much too good, much too idiosyncratic for that. He sets up wild and goofy possibilities then makes good on them. I don’t even know how to describe At Swim-Two-Birds. Dalkey at least carries on with a certain novel normalcy. The narrative includes the sort of machinations that proliferate in, say, the Fu Manchu thrillers. A delineated hero meets an outsized threat, and the story swells as he works to save all.
O’Brien makes this all look unfamiliar with the inclusion of farfetched trappings. The ruminations of the characters, most of whom speak the rounded and engaging patois of the Irish countryside, provokes the reader with strange immediacy. Some of the banter is deliciously ludicrous. The expounded theory that the molecules of bicycles, as time and jostling roads go by, will interchange with the rider, causing people to become bicycles, is one for the ages. All characters speak with that expressive roundabout typical, I think, of the (so-called) lower class. A certain Sgt. Fottrell speaks a grandiloquent fustian that just about makes sense:
I recede portentously from the sea, the sergeant beamed, except for a fastidious little wade for the good of my spawgs. For the truth is that I’m destroyed with the corns. Our work is walking work if you understand my portent.
Not only does he multisyllabilize, he gets to use words like spawgs.
And furthermore, we have the dire Dr De Selby, who manages to converse with St Augustine and others of the holy bound, with the help of his inventions and scientific discovery. De Selby plans to destroy the world, like Fu Manchu or James Bonds’ nemeses, for the usual fuzzy reason. This supplies the book with its central plot point.
Sidelines include conversation with James Joyce, who did not indeed die back in the 40s as rumoured. Instead, he disappeared himself. The elderly Joyce dismisses Ulysses as his own work, and mention of Finnegans Wake causes Joyce only to remember it as an old folk song. O’Brien flairs these exotic instances with great ease, even tho we know he’s showing off.
The appearance of Joyce in the story is a thump and a bump, something both canny and inevitable. Joyce makes such a towering figure in literature, certainly in Irish literature, that he needs to be reckoned with. And O’Brien can do so on somewhat equal terms. Joyce, here, when Mick the protagonist finally tracks him down, adverts an interest in joining holy orders. Mick takes it as his mission to help Joyce in that. In a deflating scene, the father to whom they apply thinks merely that Joyce wants a job. When Mick makes Joyce’s intention clear, he leaves. We are left with a dangle, wondering how that plays out.
I don’t know if O’Brien rushed the ending. De Selby’s threat ends quickly, with a complacency that thwarts earlier tension. That seems like a commentary on the narrative impulse to make grand. Still, O’Brien writes with a seeming ease that you could believe that it’s all an ad lib.
O’Brien’s satire blazes, albeit lightheartedly. It feels odd to find philosophical disputations played with so grandly. The characters move from pub to pub in a blithering ordinariness, yet their interests—O’Brien’s, really—run high and low. I guess I need not fuss about the Pantheon. Many, many novels have given me less pleasure, let us say that, than what I’ve read by O’Brien.