The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Assorted gods of literature are hard at work

Posted on: February 9, 2008

I’ve recounted here and there, and no doubt you’ve experienced it too, of instances when one is considering to read a book and all of a sudden one’s readings across magazines, blogs and books are pulling out the relevant references in order to distract from the pile of 4, 5, 6 books one is already reading.

That’s been happening to me a lot, recently. The latest incidence is of Flann O’Brien. Never heard of the gent before until I scooped up Bookforum‘s Summer 2001 issue. In a column in which I thought William Monaham was supposed to be reviewing Martin Amis’ War Against Cliché — the book cover was smack in the middle of the page after all — but was instead to pontificate on “the culture of book reviewing”, per Bookforum‘s more accurate description — he complained about how all the critics he read missed how his and Egger’s novels were, in part, homages to Flann O’Brien’s fiction, and linked this to the pitiful state of literary criticism. (Which of their novels? I forget. For Egger I think it was the Staggering Genius bit.) Actually, for Monaham, literary criticism no longer existed and reviews were limping along.

I squirmed uncomfortably on the sofa. I never saw myself as in league with reviewers of any stripe until all that useless fuss was made last year. But despite my firm stance that I was not trying to be a proper reviewer, I could not help but feel that I was implicitly included in those accusations of damaging ignorance. So what a wonderful surprise it was to hop on to the New Yorker website and see John Updike’s long column on, well, Flann O’Brien and his novels!

Updike starts off by assessing O’Brien’s “best know and most rigorously confusing” novel At Swim-Two-Birds. In trying his best to describe the plot hitherto unknown references made in another novel became clear. Why, there’s frickin Anthony Lamont from Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew! O’Brien’s novel turns out to be a similar metafictional excavation down the rabbit hole in which a writer impregnates a character from one of his stories, produces a child who is then coached to be a writer by three “idlers”, all fictional characters, one of whom is Lamont. Both Sorrentino’s and O’Brien’s also seemed to be similar in that they “beggar our sense of delight”.

Then I learnt something else: The Dalkey Archive is the name of O’Brien’s last novel. Which of course sent me googling to see if perhaps O’Brien was referring back to something else. As it turns out Dalkey is the name of a town in southern Dublin but even better than that was the bounteous Dalkey Archive Press page for Flann O’Brien. There one spies, among other things, a Sorrentino essay on O’Brien and an O’Brien essay on Joyce and, well, those are the sorts of discoveries that makes a bookish girl’s heart beat a little faster.

Bless you Mr. Updike. I’m still not the least bit interested in any of your novels but…err… I hope they sell well and that the New Yorker is paying you scads of money.

7 Responses to "Assorted gods of literature are hard at work"

::high-fives Imani for her assessment of Updike:: Yes, ma’am. Somehow or other, I have to bring myself to reread his novel Brazil for a research thingy I’m doing, but man: what tedious reading it was the first time. The things one must do in service to scholarly endeavors.

Anyway. If you want to read still more about O’Brien, Hugh Kenner has a nice chapter on him in his book A Colder Eye.

BTW: This is John B.; my WordPress account is causing me to appear as someone else.

What a great post! Flann O’Brien is amazing, so lucky you that he’s popping up everywhere. The hard copy New Yorker just landed in our London flat, so I’ve been avoiding Updike’s article online, and your post will add to my enjoyment of it :). At Swim-two-Birds is one of my favourite novels, and I grew up with parents who spoke about his newspaper columns and spoof letters to the Irish Times as the ne plus ultra of satire. Love the new look btw

John B ha! Well, my high five is a little sheepish because I’ve yet to read any of Updike’s novels. I’ve simply never come across a description or review of one that made it sound particularly appealing. I may have read an excerpt or two but nothing ever stuck.

I feel for you on the reread. At least the one that I’m obligated to do — Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall — is entertainingly awful.

Logophile thank you for compliments on the post and new theme! And it’s always nice to get a personal recommendation for any authors I hear about so I’m glad you’ve read his works and enjoyed them.

I’m sure Updike is doing just fine 🙂 I think we have a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds lurking around somewhere around here; I haven’t before been tempted to read it, but maybe I’ll change my mind.

At Swim-two-birds is “rigorously confusing” all right, and if even Updike struggles to make sense of it, that should be warning enough to the rest of us. I admit I’ve tried to read it three times without success. For my money, O’Brien’s best is The Third Policeman (and now it’s featured on Lost, maybe it’s taken over as his best known book anyway): it’s wild and inventive but a whole lot more comprehensible than At Swim-two-birds. But then, what isn’t?

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