I had the good fortune of writing, for a week this past year, at a place called the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. On the trip, I wanted to read something Irish. I wandered around a bookstore in Dublin, paging through the possibilities, trying to predict the perfect book, which I would have with me on buses, at the residency, in pubs. I considered Samuel Beckett, William Trevor, and Colm Tóibín — then saw Flann O’Brien. I chose his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).
To begin describing this book, it seems I have to use the words metafiction and parody, words bound to elicit as much alienation as interest in prospective readers. If those terms don’t appeal to you at all, you probably shouldn’t try it. But if they do, or if you’re not the type to rule books out on the basis of “what you are and are not interested in,” you will have a reading experience almost impossible to define through comparison.
I read the book under a tree in the Irish countryside, laughing out loud at rhyming couplets about the undying friendship of a pint. I read it in a pub in a seaside village, marveling at a climactic 20-page stretch in which fictional characters physically torture their creator (himself a fictional construct) in a tone of slapstick horror that suggests a Buster Keaton movie directed by Eli Roth. And as I sat under that tree and rain fell suddenly from what had just been a sunny sky, or when I’d had one too many beers and the words began to blur, I would realize that the book — more than pyrotechnically crafted and darkly entertaining — was making me sad, too: reminding me (even as it had been making me forget) that the writing life is a cruel and painful one.
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